The decades-old practice of resoling climbing shoes is not only a way to save cash, but also a way to save the planet.
Molly McCahan's toe peeked through a miniature crater of a hole in her right climbing shoe as rubber met rock in Washington’s Icicle Creek last fall. But her second-ever pair will see far more feats after a mend at Boulder, Colorado’s Rock and Resole. The 30-year-old shop is one out of a rare handful—most naturally settled near the country’s most coveted climbing meccas. Each repair outfit is operated by craftsmen who make their living by taking apart climbing shoes and putting them back together in their workshops.
“I believe in making materials last as long as they can,” says McCahan. “That’s a basic law of frugality and trying to live in a sustainable way.”
“Every pair that I resole is one less pair that’s going into the dirt.”
The explosion of indoor and outdoor climbing has ramped up demand in recent years for the business centered on reducing, reusing, and recycling. As one of the most intensely eco-aware communities, comprised of self-proclaimed dirtbags enthusiastic about a bargain, it’s only natural for climbers to be inclined to prolong the life of their gear.
More than 750 miles west of Boulder, owner of Las Vegas’ Black Rainbow Resoles, Chad Umbel, says he tends to around 150 pairs each month by himself, doing what he can to save a sole and in turn, save his clients money. His half-resole job runs $38 and split soles (shoes with separate forefoots and heels, such as La Sportiva Solutions or Scarpa Drago) cost $50—significantly less than $90 to $190 for a new pair. The process involves cutting away old rubber, stitching loose seams, and forming various types of rubber back into the original shape, with a return time of up to several weeks.
“Every pair that I resole is one less pair that’s going into the dirt,” says Umbel, adding that across the industry, that means keeping thousands of shoes out of landfills. He also recycles the rubber trimmings and sandings that build up throughout the resoling process.
Rubber, leather, and textiles make up 9 percent of 254 million tons of municipal solid waste.
Waste from shoes is a real problem in the U.S. From hiking boots to dress shoes, at least 300 million are thrown out each year. And rubber, leather, and textiles make up 9 percent of 254 million tons of municipal solid waste.
But Umbel says there are limitations to what can be fixed. “You try to be eco-conscious. You try to save as many pairs as you can,” he says. “But there comes a time when you definitely have to throw them away.”
That's why a large part of resoling is focused on educating clients about how to preserve their footwear. Some pairs wear holes and pop seams after a few months, making them unusable. Others can be revived at least a few times, and sometimes even around a dozen times, if they’re properly cared for. That means airing them out between routes and bringing them to the shop at the first sign of fatal wear.
What to do with the throwaways, though, is a challenge, and why McCahan has kept hers even after they were thrashed. Sally Gilman, co-owner of Rock and Resole with Colby Rickard, says it’s rare to find somewhere that will recycle climbing shoes, which are typically caked with rock, dirt, sweat, and unnatural glues. “One thing I tell people is you can take your beginner shoe, like your Tarantulaces,” Gilman says, “and they can become your all day comfortable trad shoe. You get them resoled with a firmer rubber, and then you’ll have shoes that are broken in.”
Like any new shoe right out of its box, there’s a break-in period. And by the time climbing shoes are formed comfortably to an individual’s foot, the pair is likely ready for a new layer of rubber—not necessarily to be replaced.
When McCahan connects with shoes, she wants to keep sending in them.
While Rock and Resole prioritizes starving landfills, Gilman says customers seem to show up the most for two reasons: to save money and to hang on to their shoes as keepsakes. One customer was prepared to pay more than $100 for a shoe rebuild because the pair belonged to the man’s deceased son.
In McCahan’s reparable pair—Scarpa Techno Xs—she sent a splitter that she says she wouldn’t have been able to wedge into wearing her holey pair. When she connects with shoes, she wants to keep sending in them, which is why leaving them in Gilman’s and Rickard’s hands was worth it. “You form a relationship with these things,” Gilman says.
Both recreational and professional climbers frequent more than 900 indoor climbing locations in the U.S. and Canada. The year-round accessibility amounts to year-round business for climbing shoe cobblers. Tony Puppo, a pioneer of the industry and owner of The Rubber Room in Bishop, California, says there’s no such thing as an offseason anymore, even in the historically slower months of January and February.
“It’s a lot more constant inflow of shoes instead of waiting around in the wintertime for some shoes to dribble in,” he says. He and his wife, Nan, son, and son-in-law resoled 3,700 shoes last year.
A high percentage of business for most resolers comes from mail delivery, which sometimes means peeling a ripe pair out of a warm plastic bag in the middle of summer, shipped from anywhere as far as overseas to as close as the next state over.
The steady stream of shoes for Rock and Resole has enabled them to expand the workshop into another building, where shoes are renewed, and use the lettuce-green warehouse as the drop-off and more recently, a gear shop. Similarly, Umbel says business is fivefold what it was when he started his service.
A bad review spreads as fast as word of a good route.
But for these cobblers, it's about more than business and profits. They’re in it to service climbers—and for the lifestyle. Lured to California’s climbing and skiing scene as a 23-year-old in 1976, Puppo fell into the trade when he started cobbling downtown at Wheeler Boot Repair, today’s Eastside Sports. He rose from restitching ladies’ heels to hiking boots to rock shoes.
Today, he happily handles crusty kicks with a view of the Sierras through two picture windows of the business he’s owned with Nan since 1999. He strives for perfection because in his business, a bad review spreads as fast as word of a good route. Puppo says climbers expect more from their gear today, whereas 30 years ago, they were happy if rubber was still stuck to their shoes. “It seems like good job for a climber, but it’s a fairly difficult craft to learn and you end up having to practice on the public. The climbing grapevine is like wildfire,” he says. “So if you get a bad reputation, that spreads literally across the country.”
He's adapted and experimented with new mending techniques as shoes change—such as edgeless soles and downturned toes—but the basic process abides by how Italians have been making shoes for hundreds of years.
A Frenchman living out of his van in the Appalachian Mountains’ Seneca Rocks taught Umbel’s late mentor and climbing buddy, Brian Lee McCray, the fundamentals of stitching and stripping shoes. The prolific big-wall climber went on to operate Fly’n Brian’s Resoles until he passed away in 2014 and Umbel bought a shoe press and forms from his estate, dedicating his one-man business to his friend.
Mentorship and apprenticeship remain the main path for a cobbler since there is no formal schooling, which is why Rickard sees his trade more and more as a potentially dying art than a lucrative craft. “I thought everyone had a sewing machine,” Rickard, who's co-owned Rock and Resole for three years, says. “Come to find out that’s not the case.”
Deep in La Sportiva’s FAQ webpage, there is a list of a mere 10 brand-authorized cobblers in the U.S. and Canada. And Moja Gear maps 22 resoling sites. But otherwise, it’s hard to put a number on how many resolers exist.
Yet Umbel has seen more competition enter the market in the last few years as gyms are churning out climbers, some who are crafty and figure they can repair their shoes themselves with duct tape, Five Ten’s resole kits, or other inventive methods.
He’ll get to explain to them that if they had stopped climbing two days sooner, they wouldn’t be paying so much for a new toe cap.
With the proper equipment and supplies, though, it’s not a cheap startup. For Ian King, a 29-year-old climber from North Carolina who earned a degree in environmental studies, it’s worth the near $30,000 venture to achieve a climb-work equilibrium by resoling out of a Sprinter van and a 6-by-10-foot pull-along trailer.
“Sometimes I stay up at night thinking, ‘Wow, what if this is too good of an idea and what if I never get to climb again?’” he says. “Or what if this idea flops and I make no money? Ideally, you want something in between, to find the balance.”
He dreams of setting up his mobile shop for weeks at a time outside climbing gyms and near national parks, starting in the Southeast and traversing to Yosemite, following the climbing circuit.
Ordering $150 sheets of rubber, a handful of commonly worn shoe lasts, or forms, and building out his van are some of the final to-dos on his list before he advertises himself as the owner of Onsight Resoling in the fall. “I enjoy working with my hands, but it’s thoughtful with the climbing shoes because as a climber, you know what people need out of these babies,” he says.
The former Rock and Resole employee prides himself on soon being able to see all customers face to face, as opposed to slapping a number on their footwear and putting them into a queue. He’ll get to explain to them that if they had stopped climbing two days sooner, they wouldn’t be paying so much for a new toe cap.
Whether they’re working out of a van or in a brick-and-mortar shop, resolers all have the same intention of being honorable stewards to their environment and fellow climbing community, from new climbers to the pros. “They could be Adam Ondra’s shoes or Tommy Caldwell’s shoes,” Umbel says. “I’m going to go ahead and treat them just the way I would if a 5.7 climber comes in. I treat them all as my own.”
Cobblers' Tips to Make Your Shoes Last Longer
- Air shoes out between burns if conditions allow. Excessive sweat can lead to rot.
- Preserve the soles and arches by not walking around in dirt—or even in the gym while belaying.
- Keep them out of the trunk and other hot places that can deteriorate the glues.
- Quit climbing in them as soon as you start to see the original line or adhesion point is worn into, almost like lips. So instead of climbing on 4 millimeters of sole rubber, you're climbing on the rand.
- Mark a date on your new shoe and around three months later, check in with your local resoler.
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