The Climber Interview: Stefan Glowacz
By Ian Smith
Stefan Glowacz originally made his name as a successful sport and competition climber but has now become one of the world's leading adventure climbers with a significant number of expeditions to his name worldwide. He also went on to become a businessman, creating one of the strongest rock shoe brands, Red Chili. I met Stefan at the International Mountain Summit in the South Tyrol and took the opportunity to talk to him about his climbing and his business.
I began by asking him about his background history. Where was he born? And how did he start climbing? And how old was he when he started? "I was born in Germany, in Bavaria, and then when I was five years old my parents moved close to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. My parents loved the mountains and were keen hikers so, my sister and I, even before we could walk properly they took us to the mountains on hikes. Every single weekend, we were in the mountains and I think this was the time when I got the 'spirit' and sharpened my instincts for mountaineering. So now, looking back, I am very thankful for that time. When I was aged 12 or 13, hiking was not enough and I learned to climb on a climbing course with the German Alpine Club. First I did an ice course but I really did not like ice-climbing so a year later they sent me on a rock-climbing course. It was raining cats and dogs at the time, but we did some bouldering around the hut, because at the time I was climbing in the mountains. But from the first second on, I knew, this is my sport, this is my activity. I think, thank God, I am very gifted with a talent for movement and stuff like that, so immediately I stopped all my other sporting activities, like judo or soccer, and focused on rock-climbing. I was just fascinated and then climbing became a big passion. But even before I started rock-climbing, I was fascinated by the great adventurers like Scott, Nansen and Shackleton, and I got more inspired by them and, still, exploring is a big part in the point of view of how I see climbing."
The first time that British climbers became really aware of Stefan was through the publication of the wonderful book Rocks Around the World, which he made with Uli Wiesmeier. I wondered how had that book come about? How was it created? "At that time I was travelling a lot with Uli Wiesmeier around the world. It was a time when one great climber would climb a route, maybe in Australia, and the rest of the best climbers in the world would go to try and repeat it. It is not like these days where hard routes are popping up nearly every day. As examples there was a route done by Wolfgang Gullich in Australia, Punks in the Gym, and this was state-of-the-art for the next two years and so the best climbers in the world went there and tried that route. Or Tony Yaniro climbed Grand Illusion in the States and all the good climbers went to the States to try that route. So we were travelling around the world, searching for the hardest routes, and then Uli Wiesmeier — he is an artist, I have to say, he is still one of the best outdoor photographers on earth — he said, ‘Hey, we have so many good pictures. We have so many good stories to tell. Let's make a book out of it’."
This throws up the question of how did Stefan fund his travels at that time? How did he pay for travelling around the world? "It was around the time when I had won the first Rock Master competition, Bardoneccia in 1985, just a year later we started the rock trips and at that time I was still doing my job as a tool-maker. So I worked every day in a company and tried to make money to get on a trip, so it was not continuous, we did not travel full-time around the world. I would go back and work when we had no money." So how was the book completed? "It took us at least, I think, two or three years and then in the third year we had a publisher on board and he had paid us part of the money and with all this set-up, the financial set-up, we were able to travel, I quit my job and started to travel full-time. We had a German publisher called Rosenheimer Verlagshaus. It was a very small publisher and the book came out as it did because of Uli Wiesmeier’s input. He was working a lot, even on the layout, and was standing by the side of the machines when they printed the book and made the colour corrections by himself. So he was more or less the artist behind the book. You have to put in this effort when you really create something very special."
"People still ask me about the book. I met Dean Potter two years ago and he told me: ‘You know, what inspired me to start climbing? It was your book, Rocks Around the World’ and many climbers tell me that. They get so inspired by the book because it presented a lifestyle every climber wanted to live: to be free, to travel, to make climbing a passion. When you see the book, it is still state-of-the-art with the photography." So is it something he is very proud of? "I would say ‘proud’ is not the right word, but it makes me happy that we have been able to inspire other people to start climbing and to present them, maybe, with an example of a way of living. This makes me happy. I am happy if I can inspire other people to, maybe, not to do the same as what I do but to think about their life and think about their passion. Not just to dream but maybe to push people to realise their dreams."
I believe that even now with the internet, books are still very important to climbers and I asked Stefan if he agreed? "That's right, two years ago I created a book with my wife — she is an artist who studied fashion design and painting. She is not a climber at all, but we created another book, called Expedition, and this is one of the best-selling coffee table books of recent years and is about my expeditions." I hadn't seen a copy of this and wondered if it is available in the UK? "No, it is not, there is just the German version, which has sold more than 10,000 copies. It would be a really good book for the British market with all the mountaineers and explorers in Britain because it is a book with expeditions from all over the world."
Stefan was perceived for a long time, by the British, as a rock-climber, but it seemed to me watching his career that he suddenly switched to big mountains and big walls. I asked him if he went through a process where he said, ‘I need to now change from just being a rock climber to moving to the greater mountains’? "No, not at all because, as I said before, the adventure aspect, exploring and trying to connect the sporting aspect and the exploring aspect in one expedition, that is what I had dreamed of for many years in my competition career. I was climbing in competitions from 85 to 93, eight years, and at the end of 93, we'd begun working on the multi-pitch sport climbing in the Wilder Kaiser and completed The Emperor’s New Clothes, which was the hardest sport climb, Alpine sport climb, on earth at that time. It's F8b+ so it was state-of-the-art for many years. I had been focused 100 per cent on my competitions and then a friend of mine, Wolfgang Willer, who always belayed me on my training for competitions said, ‘Okay, you have to promise that you will join me on a first ascent in the Wilder Kaiser’. He'd already made, at that time, many hard multi-pitch first ascents in Wilder Kaiser, and so when we went there and when we tried The Emperor’s New Clothes, the first pitch, that was exactly the moment I had been waiting for. To find a reason to say, hey, this is exactly what I want to do. Then I knew what I wanted to do in the future and I did not want to climb in the competitions anymore. I was so fascinated to create a route from the ground up, to climb on an ocean of rock, with the knowledge that no climber before had ever touched one of those holds."
"Two years later, we tried for the first time to combine the adventure part and the climbing part in one expedition to the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada. We made an overland approach with inflatable canoes, carrying all our equipment and our food in these boats. We had to carry and portage all the loads from one point to the other, three times we had to do this. We travelled 1,00km to make a first ascent on a 700m-high wall and this was so fascinating that we said, okay, this is exactly the expedition style we want to continue to do and we called it ‘By Fair Means’. This was inspired by high altitude climbers when they climb without artificial oxygen on the 8,000m peaks, and they say that is ‘by fair means’. We said this is our ‘by fair means’ because we do not use a helicopter, we do not use a plane to get from the last point of civilisation to the wall and back. So using this idea we went from Ushuaia in Tiera del Fuego in a 40m sailing boat to the Antarctic to climb the 900m Renard Tower. I am still searching for ideas to make expeditions like that."
Presumably this means that Stefan is still climbing regularly, and what sort of standard does he climb to nowadays? "Yes, I climb every day. I try to push my limits still, at the moment it is F8c. I am really focused and I am really fascinated by the young climbers. Fifteen or 20 years ago I was fascinated by Kurt Albert, Wolfgang Gullich and Patrick Edlinger but now it is Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra and I am so excited to learn from these guys; how do they train, why they are so strong and I try to adapt a little bit. I am still very focused and I am still very keen, but I can accept that my strength is not based in sport climbing. It is more based on adventure climbing."
I wanted to finish off our conversation by asking Stefan about his business activities. He founded the rock shoe company Red Chili, so I asked him to explain how the company came to be and how his day-to-day involvement with the company is now? "So Red Chili, we started it almost 15 years ago and one major aspect of the founding of Red Chili was that I never wanted to get under pressure from sponsors. I never wanted to have the feeling that I have to go climbing to make a living. I can live through my sponsorships, I can live my passion, but when I feel that something has changed and I don't want to live from climbing anymore, then I need an exit strategy. Therefore, I said, okay, it is wise to create my own business and one of my oldest friends, Uwe Hofstädter, was distributing Wild Country gear at that time in Germany and I was working for La Sportiva, I was designing the climbing shoes. So we thought that would be a perfect combination, to have a professional rock-climber with the knowledge of making and designing climbing shoes and on the other hand Uwe’s experience and knowledge of the selling side."
"It took time because we had been having difficulties distributing rock shoes in Germany and we were sitting one night in Uwe’s office and we said: this isn't working, what should we do? Then we drank a lot of red wine and said, let's found our own climbing shoe company because we know how to do it, we know how to create climbing shoes, we know how to sell climbing shoes, we have a professional climber, very well-known, to use for the image. So we drank even more red wine and the next day, we just found a piece of paper covered with red wine, and written on it was two words: Red Chilli. We realised it was still a good idea, even when we had clear heads! So we founded Red Chilli and it was very naïve how we did that." So did this mean that you had to go out and find a shoemaker to work with? "We founded the shoemaker in Germany and built the first prototypes. With these prototypes we went down to Montebelluna, the shoemaker area of Italy, with the best shoemakers on earth. We just drove around Montebelluna, asking people who is making shoes? And we knocked on one door and said, hey, could you make us these climbing shoes? We found a company and we produced our first climbing shoes with them."
And what year was that? "It was 1998, we started with three models and we had huge success. Then we became so successful that we could not finance the growth and that was the reason why we sold shares to Wild Country and so this was then the combination. We founded Red Chilli Ltd and we gave the rights for manufacture and selling climbing shoes worldwide to the international company owned by Uwe, myself and Wild Country and they are still distributing our climbing shoes. I am still designing and devising the products, now even more so as we have started to produce climbing clothes. We have been very successful and from the first show — we showed at the Outdoor trade show in Friedrichshafen — where we got a lot of good customers and we do see a lot of potential in there in the future because, I think, climbing will grow because of the bouldering walls. Climbing is becoming a fitness sport in Germany already and because of this bouldering aspect you just need climbing shoes and clothes."
Thanks, Stefan, for speaking to us.
The interview first appeared in Climber magazine