Life on Hold: The Ian Powell StoryLegendary hold shaper Ian Powell comes to grips with addiction, destruction and his own creative form.
Ian Powell hit bottom three years ago on Thanksgiving in a dumpster near Denver. Huddled under a layer of trash, he was freezing, dope-sick and hadn’t eaten for days. He had no friends who weren’t junkies or criminals. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d climbed, but it had been two or three years.
Most important, he wasn’t producing art. He needed to make art. Sifting through the dumpster, he found some paper and pens and drew until his hands were numb.
Powell, 42, has been shaping climbing holds for nearly 23 years, practically since the advent of gyms in America. It’s difficult to measure his influence on the sport. Go to just about any one of the 1,500 or so commercial climbing gyms around the country and you will likely see a gallery of his work—a multitude of ergonomic, functional and aesthetic hand- and footholds.
Powell himself is not well-known despite the fact that he is among a group of shapers whose holds have arguably done more for climbing than any piece of gear since sticky-rubber shoes. With virtually every top climber from Chris Sharma to Alex Honnold coming out of a gym, plastic holds have had a profound effect on both raising standards and introducing people to the sport.
Shapers like Powell have made indoor climbing not only possible, but fun.
“What Ian did with hold shaping is on par with what Paul Turner did with suspension in mountain biking,” says Matt O’Connor, who managed the Boulder Rock Club from 1997 to 2003, and has worked for Franklin Holds, Eldo Walls, EntrePrises and Patagonia. “Ian came up with designs that changed the sport for everyone.”
Yet behind the brightly colored holds is a dark story of obsession and addiction.
Which is how Powell found himself scribbling on notepads in a dumpster on Thanksgiving. He spent three days there before crawling into a nearby building and passing out. It was two years before anyone heard from him again.
Powell isn’t just a hold-shaper; he’s a shape-shifter. Every time I see him, he somehow looks different. Today he sports a buzz cut, black-rimmed glasses, jeans and a dirty white T-shirt.
Powell has no phone or car, and currently lives in a halfway house in Longmont. Most of our communication has been handwritten. I’m not positive he even knows about our interview today.
Around 9 p.m., after bouldering, doing abs and campusing, I find Powell in his studio, a dusty nook hidden behind one of the walls at The Spot. He is haphazardly tossing around unfinished designs. He just quit chewing tobacco and is in a pretty dark mood. At 6 feet tall and 220 pounds, Powell fills his studio space like a bull in a flimsy pen.
“It’s shape or die,” he says, explaining that he has been busy making hundreds of holds for a new company, Kilter, which he’s starting with The Spot owner Dan Howley. Inside the studio sits a yellow-green wingchair he dug out of a dumpster, and a table of tools. A portrait of Kurt Albert, torn from a climbing magazine, is tacked to the wall. Everything is covered in foam, chalk and dust.
Powell isn’t just a hold-shaper; he’s a shape-shifter. Every time I see him, he somehow looks different. Today he sports a buzz cut, black-rimmed glasses, jeans and a dirty white T-shirt. A year ago, when he first got out of jail, he looked like some burly Apache warrior, with a long ponytail and a neck thicker than a mastiff’s. His golden eyes are wide and clear, the clearest I’ve seen since I first met Powell, about 10 years ago.
In the past year since he’s been out of jail, Powell’s neck has shrunk to normal size, but his biceps are still huge. He cradles a piece of foam like a fireman holding a rescued kitten, reaches for a small metal tool, and starts shaping. The room is quiet but for the rhythmic sloughing of foam.
I point to the clipping of Kurt Albert. “Did you know him?” I ask.
Powell looks up, smiles and the mood lightens. “I want to put a whole wall up—Todd, Kurt, Wolfgang,” he says, referring of course to Skinner, Albert and Güllich. “These people took the time to talk to me a long time ago. Having them in my creative space is something to live up to.” He turns back to his work, which barely slowed during our conversation.
“Todd was an incredibly positive person. When I was 19, climbing at City Rock [a gym in Oakland, California], he was super encouraging. He was just the ultimate friendly guy at the crag, a total hero. It’s not like we were friends. He might have known my name. Wolfgang or Kurt, who I met only a couple of times, helped me not want to kill myself. They’re all father figures of some sort.”
I scan the makeshift cardboard shelves lining the walls. Foam shapes pack every inch of space. Each hold is different. Some are mini sculptures of alien spaceships and others are small crimps with flaring edges and art-deco incuts that produce myriad hand positions. Some chunks resemble desert sandstone, and others are embossed with tribal designs. Some look almost Japanese, spare and perfect.
Since he’s been out of jail, Powell’s neck has shrunk to normal size, but his biceps are still huge. He cradles a piece of foam like a fireman holding a rescued kitten, reaches for a small metal tool, and starts shaping. The room is quiet but for the rhythmic sloughing of foam.
Powell takes a hacksaw to a block of three-pound foam. Amid a flurry of exfoliation, a limestone rail that looks like a runnel of frozen water forms in his hand. He offers it to me. I reach out, pinching and feeling the curved foam. It’s delicate; you could easily crush it if you weren’t careful. In less than a minute, Powell has turned a block of foam into an awesome hold, ergonomic and beautiful.
Powell looks me dead in the eye and launches into the oral history of shaping, stuff you can’t find in a book or even on the internet. I feel as if I’ve been transported to a campfire.
“Jim Karn and Tony Yaniro are probably the best examples of super-talented climbers who shaped absolutely brilliant, industry-changing stuff. They married shaping to climbing seamlessly, through training holds. Jim did it through simplifying movement. His ideas were more competition-related. And his holds became the test for seeing who the best climber was.”
Powell’s eyes dart around the studio, as if he’s observing a world that’s invisible to me.
“Really, climbing holds are the vocabulary of route-setting, or the letters of the alphabet. I love setting, but it always pushes me back into the studio because I want new letters to spell with,” Powell says.
As much as Powell loves sharing stories about shaping and setting, it’s like pulling teeth to get him to talk about his own climbing accomplishments. He’s not shy, but he does not brag.
“I put up a lot of obscure things in the middle of nowhere that I could never find again, and none of them were hard,” is all that Powell gives.
Powell says his climbing heroes—Todd Skinner, Nancy Feagin, Duane Raleigh, Jeff Jackson and Jack Mileski—sparked his passion for training.
“I remember Jack Mileski once said, ‘All I need to climb 5.14 is a pull-up bar, a mirror and a whip.’”
Early on in his climbing career, Powell became obsessed with punishing workouts to achieve new physical goals, like one-arm muscle-ups. He did weighted pull-ups and heavy finger curls. In prison, he did a pull-up with 415 pounds of total weight, which might just be a world record. [Editor’s Note: In fact, the official world record is 402 pounds.] These regimens helped Powell achieve the dynamic movement he has always seen as the future of climbing.
“Dynos are still considered this one-move thing, but obviously, it’s about linking those dynamic moves together,” Powell says. “It’s not like tick-tacking up small holds is ever going to go away. But there’s a whole different way to move with constant momentum that only Johnny Dawes seems to really understand.”
Powell was one of the first developers in Joe’s Valley and has made numerous first ascents in Hueco. He competed in the open round at four World Cups. In 1991 he was competing at a fighting weight of 160 pounds.
Yet Powell says he never reached some of his goals as a climber.
“I’m still broken-hearted I don’t climb as hard as I want. Of course I wanted to climb 5.14, V14, but it just ultimately wasn’t my connection.
“I could do pull-ups with 200 pounds on, but I didn’t know how to rock climb very well,” he says, laughing.
Again, his eyes flicker around the room before settling on the shape in his hand. As frenetic and mercurial as Powell sometimes seems, he instantly becomes quiet and concentrated when he shapes. When we talk, his gaze is direct and unwavering. I get the feeling he is listening to every word.
Powell spent a lot of time climbing urban landscapes, or “buildering.” In many ways, buildering has been a signature of his climbing career.
“I’ve done three hard moves in 27 years,” he likes to say. One of those moves was on the Courthouse Traverse in Boulder, which Powell calls his greatest contribution to buildering. One was with Ty Foose and Todd Skinner at City Rock—a dyno off underclings. The third was in a gym in Houston in the late 1990s—another dyno off an undercling.
For Powell, there seems to be little distinction between art and climbing. The medium—rock, plastic, buildings—is less important than the line. And at the heart of Powell’s sense of aesthetics in climbing lies a process of discovery.
“When you walk around the corner and you’re lucky enough to stumble across that great line, something so beautiful, that’s so beyond you, it’s all-consuming and humbling,” he says, ruminating. “I think all climbers feel that. Everyone freaks out about a great line. We are in the presence of greatness when we find one. It’s pretty close to hearing stories around the campfire at night. It’s a very adolescent male thing, but I just wanna live up to these Viking war-story standards.”
Now, instead of searching for great new lines outside, Powell re-creates that feeling for people indoors, in the forms and shapes of tiny pieces of plastic. “That’s what all of us as shapers are trying to do, which is pretty lofty.”
Shaping is my world,” Powell says. “It’s my voice in the climbing community. I really want to be the best shaper that ever lived.”
According to most people, he already is. His long-time friend Ty Foose calls Powell “the most innovative, talented, inspired, possessed shaper, ever, period. No one else is even close.”
Chris Danielson, chairman of the USA Climbing Routesetting Committee, and head setter of both domestic and international competitions, says Powell’s work defined the intersection of art and function in climbing holds. “Ian didn’t just make holds to climb on, he made artistic pieces,” Danielson says.
Powell’s origins as a hold shaper go back to 1991. In the summer of that year, Chas Fisher was shaping at his year-old company Straight Up, located in a small warehouse just north of Boulder city limits. He heard a knock on the door.
Ian Powell stood in the doorway. At 19, he had a muscular climber’s build, dark hair pulled back into a long, disheveled ponytail, and had just moved to Colorado from Waco, Texas, with Foose.
Despite the fact that Powell had no real shaping experience, he was determined to get a job shaping holds.
“Ian was just a kid when he showed up,” Fisher says. “I was polite but dismissive. I told him I did all the hold shaping myself. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
According to Fisher, Powell slept in his car in the parking lot for weeks, bugging him for work. Finally, Fisher set him up in a corner with some foam, “just to shut him up, really.”
When Fisher founded Straight Up in 1990, it was one of the first hold companies in the U.S. “We were the ‘it’ hold company at the time. But it was still a very small industry. There were maybe only a few dozen gyms in the country,” says Fisher.
With an endless variety of holds available today, it’s easy to take their existence for granted. But in the “dark ages” of indoor climbing, pre-1985, holds were limited to actual rocks, pieces of wood, and mixtures of epoxy and sand.
Powell says his proudest contribution during that period was the 99-cent foot jib. Back then there were no foot jibs.
The first holds were rudimentary and sharp, and there wasn’t much variety. Most hold companies only made 70 to 150 shapes. Foose estimates that there were only about 1,000 holds total on the U.S. market around 1991.
For comparison, today Movement Climbing + Fitness in Boulder has a cache of over 10,000 different holds.
Although Powell had never shaped before, he quickly showed promise at Straight Up. “Pretty soon he was surpassing me in hold shaping in terms of creativity, and I hired him,” says Fisher. “He produced some of the best shapes we made.”
Powell says his proudest contribution during that period was the 99-cent foot jib. Back then there were no foot jibs. Straight Up sold them like crazy.
Footholds might seem small or insignificant, but they can make the experience of climbing indoors more real and challenging. Swap the footholds on a V5 and you can easily get a V10.
Fisher attributed Powell’s early success to his willingness to explore ideas and err. “Ian learns from his mistakes,” Fisher says. “It’s a fantastic attribute. I was a sore learner and would get pissed off at myself. Ian actually helped me be a better mistake maker, a better learner.”
Powell shaped, poured, filled orders, swept the floor, answered the phone and was involved in every aspect of the business, even marketing. Powell’s business card read: “Vice President of Innovation.”
According to Chris Wall, fitness director at the Boulder Rock Club and Powell’s roommate for several years, Powell was the first to make ergonomic shapes that looked like a specific type of real rock found outside.
“Whether people choose to acknowledge it or not, every hold that’s shaped in a natural way came after the work he did,” Wall says. “He could make a crimp that was actually comfortable, and used all the aspects of the hand in the way that we were trying to train, but then make it look like a piece of sandstone from Joe’s Valley. I don’t think people appreciated what he was doing.”
“He’s a hold whisperer,” says Fisher. “He figured out how to get people to fall in love with holds in a way that nobody understood up until then.”
Ian Powell was born in 1971 in Atlanta, and was raised by his parents, Fran and Travis, in an artsy part of town. Travis was a builder and Fran managed a gallery in Atlanta that no longer exists. She collected art and was an artist herself. She had a formal background in painting and drawing, and was a talented photographer, but never pursued art professionally. Ian learned to draw at an early age, mostly on discarded matte board at the gallery.
“Fran encouraged me to be skilled, to be conservative artistically,” he says. “I grew up understanding that Picasso could draw photorealism before he converted and that standard was something to strive for. I love being wacky and super creative but if my lines aren’t tight, it’s junk. If I’m not tight with my grinder on a piece of stone, if it’s slightly off, the piece is ruined. It’s technique and work, technique and work.”
Fran says that Ian “has terrific powers of concentration.”
“When he starts working on something, he works on it nonstop, sometimes for days. I mean, he won’t sleep.”
When Ian was 9 years old, he spent an entire summer accurately painting the uniforms on the armies of small green plastic soldiers that came 50 to a bag.
“We got him books of all the soldiers’ uniforms and he painted this entire army with incredible detail,” Fran says. “Their belts would be the proper color and their uniforms would be camouflaged. It was fantastic. And then he went back to school and gave them all away.”
Ian began climbing at a young age. “When he was 3 or 4 years old, he was always climbing on different sculptures around Atlanta,” Fran says. The Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, who would become a major inspiration to Ian, had made the sculptures for many playgrounds and parks in Atlanta. Ian climbed on every Noguchi sculpture he could find.
Fran’s side of the family, it seems, is known for altruism. Ian’s cousin Richard singlehandedly ran an orphanage in Sri Lanka for the survivors of a massacre during the Tamil Tigers’ reign. His aunt and uncle started an AIDS clinic in Africa, and personally ran it for two years. Fran herself drove an ambulance full of medical supplies into the heart of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.
“When he starts working on something, he works on it nonstop, sometimes for days. I mean, he won’t sleep.”
The Powell household was hippie-ish and sweet in nature, except for the regular and unpredictable explosions of violence from Travis. “When he wasn’t drinking, his father was the most loving, kind, gentle person in the world,” says Fran.
Ian calls his father’s instability the hallmark of his upbringing. “Growing up was really wacky at times, super violent and crazy, a pretty unstable environment. You just needed to keep your head down.”
Art was Ian’s escape. It gave him structure and comfort. Still, he sees a little of Travis in himself.
“There is still a hyper-violent side to me,” Ian says. “It’s really inappropriate.”
Chris Wall recalls a time when Ian lost a video game and was about to snap the controller in half when Wall stopped him. Ian punched his fist through a wall.
Ty Foose says he has never seen Ian unleash on another person, but he has seen him decimate things. “If you’re an inanimate object around Ian, look out. I’ve seen him turn chairs into sawdust and destroy car doors in seconds.”
Ian has cleared crowded caves in Rifle with temper tantrums. Once, being late for work, he demolished someone’s car with his foot upon discovering the person had blocked him into a parking spot.
“I poured gasoline on someone’s car and pulled out a lighter at a gas station once,” Ian says, adding that the person had cut him off in traffic.
In 1981, Ian’s father shot himself with a 38 special. Ian was 10. “It’s really weird because Travis was only 36, so now I’m starting to think of him as a baby,” he reflects.
“It’s a bummer. Psychotherapy was just becoming available to the middle class. I think if he’d held on for a few more years—but he was going pretty fast.”
Ian and Fran both say Travis was probably bi-polar. Ian thinks he was probably on drugs as well. He’d heard from one of his father’s friends that Travis had taken a couple of hits of acid, or maybe speed or heroin, the night of his death.
A couple of years later, Fran and Ian moved to Waco, Texas. Ian had always been a loner, and he was no different in his new high school. During his junior year, Ian met Ty Foose when Ian tried to date Ty’s sister.
Ian and Ty weren’t close friends right away, but they both loved climbing and started up a school climbing club. “There was no developed climbing anywhere close, so we would climb on the courthouse, the elementary school, and the buildings around town,” says Ty.
After graduation, they lost touch. A year and a half later, they ran into each other at a local climbing area east of Dallas.
“We were both climbing seriously and had progressed totally independently at exactly the same rate,” says Foose. “We were shocked.” That was the beginning of a close, creative, climbing-based bond that would last for years and ultimately become their business partnership.
“A couple months later we jumped in Ian’s VW bus and left Texas forever.”
Here’s how you make a hold.
Start with a block of foam, which comes in a variety of weights or densities. High-density foam can be as hard as a rock. Two-pound foam is soft enough to shape with your hands. For three-pound foam, Powell’s favorite, you need a tool. Four-pound foam is closer to plaster.
The density also translates to the hold’s final texture. “In geologic terms, three-pound is like a dense sandstone. Two-pound is more like the texture of Horsetooth or Flagstaff. Four-pound is more like the slick, creamy texture of Rumney,” Powell says. “Foam gives you a perfectly uniform and predictable climbing texture.”
After you’re done shaping the foam, often with a tool—diamond files and Dremel bits are preferred—silicone is applied or painted on. It dries and hardens to become a mold. You then pour liquid polyurethane into the mold and cook it at 250 degrees for two hours. Pop it out of the mold and you have a fresh new hold.
At least since 2006, Aragon Elastomers, in Louisville, Colorado, has manufactured holds for nine different climbing-hold companies in the U.S., according to Marci Seidel, director of operations.
Today’s standard materials for making holds—two- and three-pound foam for shaping and polyurethane for pouring—weren’t always used. Holds used to be made of polyester fiberglass resin, which is toxic. And although there are early accounts of shapers such as John Yablonski employing Styrofoam, floral foam, and even surfboard foam to make molds, it wasn’t until Chas Fisher hired an intern, Josh Doolittle, an art student from the Rhode Island School of Design, in 1992, that the climbing world was introduced to two- and three-pound foam.
“Everybody who got their hands on this foam just fell in love with the stuff,” Powell says. Perfectly suited for shaping and casting, the new foam made it easy to mass-produce holds. The industry exploded as brands such as Pusher, Voodoo and Teknik emerged overnight.
By 1996, however, Fisher was facing insurmountable debt at Straight Up. He sold his company to Kevin Furnary, of JRAT.
That year, the 25-year-old Powell, with Keith Fletcher, started their own company: e-Grips. The two set up shop in a tiny warehouse next to a strip club on the outskirts of north Boulder, not far from where Straight Up used to be.
“Ty and I ate a burrito from 7-11 three Christmases in a row,” Powell says. “We spent all our money on barrels of resin to make holds. Everything. That’s why I’m so obsessed with small holds. It was a thrifty thing for me.
Powell and Foose would borrow a truck, drive to Denver and pick up a 55-gallon drum of the explosive liquid-petroleum syrup. “If a spark got into that thing, it would have destroyed that whole complex and half the strip club,” says Foose. The resin reeked for blocks.
One day the fire marshal showed up.
“He was in total disbelief at how unsafe everything was,” Foose says. “He could tell we were totally poor and trying to scrape together a living, and said: ‘I’m gonna come back in a couple of days and that big drum of explosives had better be gone.’”
That night Foose and Powell rolled the drum into Powell’s broken-down Volkswagen van in the parking lot. After that, they’d sneak outside, fill up a couple of buckets and make some holds before anyone came around. They worked 24-hour shifts, using up the resin as fast as possible until they had complete sets of holds, which they quickly sold for enough cash to fill their empty bellies and buy another barrel of resin for $500.
It was the first of what Foose calls the “Soviet winters.”
“Ty and I ate a burrito from 7-11 three Christmases in a row,” Powell says. “We spent all our money on barrels of resin to make holds. Everything. That’s why I’m so obsessed with small holds. It was a thrifty thing for me, being freaking poor. If I had 50 bucks to spend, I’d want 10 meaty holds over five slopers.”
At the time, most holds on the market sucked, being brittle and heavy. Matt O’Connor recalls that during his tenure managing the Boulder Rock Club from 1997 to 2003, the most stressful part of the job was broken holds.
“If you set a 5.10 on the Tsunami wall in the mid-’90s, you probably used Ladder Rungs,” O’Connor says. “When those things broke, it was terrifying. They were sharp, weighed six or seven pounds and broke a lot. You’d hope the gym wasn’t crowded when they did.”
Powell dreamed of finding a way to make an unbreakable hold. In 1998, after experimenting with a variety of mixes, Powell discovered a unique blend of polyurethane that was more expensive than the old polyester resin, but produced a nearly unbreakable hold. It was also relatively non-toxic.
According to Powell, Rob Mulligan of Voodoo, out of Salt Lake City, independently came up with his own polyurethane mix at the same time.
Naturally collaborative and enthusiastic, Powell began telling other shapers in town about his great discovery.
“Ian would share his ideas even when it wasn’t probably a smart move, just because he was excited and thought the whole world should embrace it,” says Foose. “A smart business play would be to keep it a secret until you have a patent, corner the market and get royalties for the rest of your life for every hand hold ever made.” Powell and Foose made a half-assed attempt to look into obtaining a patent but never followed through. Besides, other companies were already starting to use polyurethane.
“I don’t inherently like patents,” Powell says. “It’s like, ‘I wanna change the world in this cool new way, but only if everyone pays me?’”
Today polyurethane holds are standard. “Literally you went from needing a hazmat suit [to shape holds] to having an inert material you could work with all day long,” says O’Connor. “Powell just wanted the industry to move forward.”
The word artist, Powell says, has always been a loaded term. “And I’ve always been that loaded term.”
Says Chris Wall, “It was almost like Ian was living through the classic destructive-artist’s lifestyle. Like a Basquiat or Jackson Pollock. How close can you get to the bottom, just so you can see it? He thought that was really important for his artistic perspective.
“I brought it up to him on a few occasions. I was like, ‘Don’t you think that’s kinda cliché?’”
But Powell whole-heartedly believed in his role. “There’s a certain commitment to darkness,” Powell says. “Artists are sort of paid to go out and explore this territory and report back on what we find. That seems to be the expectation.”
By 2000, Powell was still living hand to mouth. Pusher had bought e-Grips then returned it to Foose and Powell for free, according to Mike Call, Pusher’s owner and general manager. But by then, Powell had decided to look beyond the climbing industry.
“At some point I realized I needed to do fine art,” Powell says. “It was sculpt or starve.”
Powell’s biggest sale was a $330,000 sculpted concrete climbing wall he and Foose made for Copper Mountain. They split the money. It was 2004.
Suddenly, Powell wasn’t exactly the starving artist anymore. He had money. He didn’t have to work. And he began to do cocaine.
Powell says he would show up at galleries drunk, act outlandish, and people loved it. Galleries and art buyers were practically knocking down his door.
“The word ‘genius’ fucked me up,” Powell says. “It crashed headlong into my broken self esteem.”
“At some point I realized I needed to do fine art,” Powell says. “It was sculpt or starve.”
On the verge of losing himself to drugs, Powell struggled to maintain a relationship and a semblance of normality.
“I was trying to live a square life with Sarah and then I’d disappear and smoke crack for four days, and come home and she would have broken a sculpture in the middle of the living room. I was heartbroken I had made her that angry.”
At some point, as Chris Wall recalls, it became dangerous to be involved with Powell. “I really wanted to help but I’d been enabling him for a long time, along with a lot of other friends. He’s amazingly charming and very persuasive and very entertaining to be around. I owed him a lot in terms of what he had done for me, especially with my career; things I wouldn’t have done without his influence.”
In 2007, Powell was a full-on drug addict. “The first time I saw meth and a needle, someone said, ‘Do you wanna shoot that?’ I was like, ‘Fuck yeah! How do you do it?’”
In May of that year, Ty Foose had just made the long 12-hour drive back to Boulder from Hueco when he walked up the path to his apartment to find the front door open. His living room was covered in broken household things. Powell was in the kitchen, leaning over the sink, blood spilling from his arms.
“Where are your guns, I need your guns,” Powell said, becoming belligerent. Eventually Foose called the cops and they placed Powell in a psych ward. Powell’s friends were relieved; he was safe for the moment. But Foose describes those hours as the hardest in his life.
When Powell got out a few months later, he vanished.
Powell landed in Denver with nothing but the clothes on his back.
“Once I shot meth, it was a wrap. It was powerful enough to erase my memory. I didn’t know what state I was in, where I was from,” he says.
Adam Ondra on what it takes to send “Project Hard,” the first 9c (5.15d) in the world.read more