This article originally appeared on Climbing
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Heinz Mariacher sits at the kitchen table in his home on Karerpass in the South Tyrol province of Italy. The drizzly snow of an early-fall storm blankets the Dolomites, preventing the 65-year-old from climbing at a secluded crag in a nearby alpine valley. The climbing area is home to some of Italy's original top sport routes, yet has stayed off climbing media--just how Mariacher prefers it. "Climbing has always been about having fun and personal challenges," he says, "not fame or a high profile." In this quiet valley, Mariacher also owns land where he's restored a farmer's hut to relax, climb, test shoes, and develop routes--away, ironically, from the masses drawn to the sport he's helped elevate.
Out the window, the clouds transform the sea of red Dolomite peaks into a dreary grey that spreads east toward the Marmolada and Sass dla Crusc--mountains where Mariacher helped shape free climbing, starting in the 1970s. An hour's drive in the other direction lies Arco, where his fire for free-flowing movement helped ignite sport climbing in the 1980s.
As we chat over espresso, Mariacher disappears upstairs, returning with a black gymnast's shoe. "This slipper is from 1970," he says. "I discovered it in a shop in Innsbruck and immediately fell in love with it!" When Mariacher began designing rock shoes for the Italian shoemaker La Sportiva in 1982, he couldn't wait to design a climbing slipper--though his first task was to design a stiff, high-topped boot. After the Mariacher (the high-topped shoe) came out in 1982, Mariacher continued on to create some of the sport's most iconic rock shoes, including many for Scarpa, where he now works.
The jovial animation with which Mariacher explains his love for this slipper--and the sport--balances the meticulousness of his orderly mind. He has a generally reserved personality that is often seen as obstinate, especially on social media or his website, where he is unrestrained in his opinions about how modern-day climbers have become too obsessed with image and media presence. As Mariacher's co-worker Nathan Hoette of Scarpa R&D puts it, "To Heinz, climbing is about being outdoors to focus on the moves, not being surrounded at a crag by a bunch of noise, people, and hype."
A few days later, after the weather clears, I visit Mariacher's secret crag with him and his wife, Luisa Iovane, so he can shoe test. Here, at this limestone cliff high in the Dolomites, deer roam and wildflowers line the rock. That afternoon, Mariacher erects a stone barrier to protect some late-blooming edelweiss. The climbing here is thin and stout, the routes requiring precision footwork up water-streaked walls. It's classic Mariacher terrain.
Given his resistance to change, it might be easy to paint Mariacher as an old hippie, one of those wizened locals with a bottomless well of crusty opinions. But he's a much more complex, quirky character, one who also embraces technology, modern luxury, and new ideas--in fact, Mariacher is always eager to listen, laugh, and share a story with others who hold a similar view of the sport.
Matt Lavender, an old friend of Mariacher's from the USA, recalls a visit to Italy 20 years ago when he gave Mariacher a call, hoping to be dragged up something on the Marmolada, a mountain whose free-climbing history is inextricably linked with Mariacher's own. "There was no 'How's life?' or 'It's been ages!'" recalls Lavender. "Instead, he immediately replied, 'I have a new girlfriend.'"
Lavender was confused--Mariacher has been partnered with Iovane (also a top climber of her time) since the late 1970s. Then Mariacher said, "Her name is nine-one-one. She's a Porsche." He'd been enjoying railing the uber-tight turns of the Dolomites' winding roads at tops speeds, in his new precision machine. Mariacher then offered to partner up with Lavender on a 1,000-foot 5.13 with a crux midway up protected by a nest of bad pins.
"Heinz, who, unlike me, climbs calmly with his mind instead of his body, would certainly find joy in a route like this," says Lavender, who skipped out in favor of something "a little less committing."
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