On Saturday, July 14, Charles Cole III—an innovator, expert rock climber, and the founder of climbing shoe company Five Ten—died at his home in Redlands, California. The cause of death is currently unknown. Cole was 63.
After earning two degrees—one in mechanical engineering from the University of Southern California, and another in business from the University of Michigan—Cole began climbing in Yosemite. He was soon a cutting-edge big wall climber—known for his bold run outs, radically technical aid wizardry, and first ascents throughout California.
The most notable routes he pioneered in Yosemite are the aid routes Jolly Roger on El Capitan that he climbed with Steve Grossman in 1979, Queen of Spades on Half Dome’s northwest face in 1984, and the free climb Autobahn that he put up with Rusty Reno and John Middendorf in 1985. “As I look back on more than 30 years of climbing,” Reno wrote on Mountain Project, “I count those days [on Autobahn] as among the best. We pushed a line I never imagined could possibly go.”
In 1985, after finishing another difficult new route on El Cap’s southeast face he called Space, Cole returned to Camp 4 and saw a message on the bulletin board saying he needed to contact his family. He called home from a nearby phone booth to learn his father suffered from a heart attack but was alive.
“All of a sudden my family had no money and no means of support,” Cole told Adventure Sports Journal. “I was 30 years old, so I knew I had to do something for my family.”
He thought back to a list of new ideas that he put together while in business school and remembered the line: make a new rubber for climbing shoes. He was confident he could invent a superior compound than what was available at the time. He needed something sticky enough to stay put on the slick micro edges found in Yosemite but that would also be durable enough to last for hundreds of routes.
Hitting the books, he learned everything he could at the nearby California Institute of Technology library. He began working with a chemist and putting together formulas. His invention was Stealth Rubber, which became the basis of his new shoe company, Five Ten, which he founded with his parents in 1985.
His first design was to add his new rubber to a pair of $10 sneakers from Poland called Scats, which he and his crew had worn when free soloing in Joshua Tree. The soles of Scats were sticky but wore out quickly—his product changed that.
Cole observed that climbing in sneakers was part of climbing culture. Like surfers wearing board shorts to class, he hoped that climbers would wear his sticky hybrid shoes even when nowhere near the rock. His footwear would become a cultural identifier.
“He didn’t drink or do drugs, but deep down he was an anarchist and revolutionary like the rest of us,” recalls Dean Fidelman, Cole’s decades-long friend and fellow Southern California Stonemaster from the 1970s.
To put his shoes to the test, he teamed up with his friend Jimmie Dunn in October 1985 and the two visited the Yosemite crag Arch Rock to climb a route called New Dimensions.
Dunn led the route and Cole followed in his new sneakers. “These are pretty good,” Dunn recalls Cole saying, “better than I thought.”
After hitting the market, Stealth Rubber became known as the stickiest in the world and would end up being used by NASA and the U.S. military. Cole eventually held ten patents; he would go on to create the first climbing shoes with Velcro straps, the first pull-on-tab shoes, and the first downturned climbing shoe.
“Charles was definitely a rebel when it came to business,” says Nancy Bouchard, Five Ten's communications and media strategist. “He wanted to walk to the beat of his own drum, and pretty much always did.”
Cole is survived by his wife and three children.