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Charles Cole, Founder of Five Ten and Stealth Rubber Inventor, Dies at Age 63

Charles David Cole III, founder of Five Ten and the inventor of Stealth Rubber, passed away on Saturday, July 14, at the age of 63.

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Charles Cole on El Capitan, circa 1980. Photo: Courtesy of adidas/Five Ten.

Charles David Cole III, founder of Five Ten and the inventor of Stealth Rubber, passed away on Saturday, July 14, at the age of 63. Born in 1955 in New York, Cole moved with his family to California at age 13.

Cole, an avid athlete who loved running, tennis, baseball and swimming, started climbing while earning his BS in Mechanical Engineering from USC. In 1975, after watching the movie The Eiger Sanction, he taught himself how to use hemp rope, soft-iron pitons and steel carabiners at California’s popular Mount Wilson and Tahquitz climbing areas. He soon focused on first ascents in Joshua Tree National Monument, and later Yosemite Valley, where he bivied at the Camp Four SAR site. His list of noted first ascents includes Run For Your Life (5.10b, Joshua Tree), Jolly Roger (VI 5.10 A5) and the solo ascent of Queen of Spades (VI 5.9 A4+) in Yosemite. But arguably his best route was his ascent of Space (VI 5.10 A4+), a necky 28-pitch solo climb near Mescalito on El Cap.

In 1985, Cole, a newly-minted MBA graduate of the University of Michigan started Five Ten with his mother and father, Mary and Charles Cole Jr. Cole chose the name Five Ten after the eponymous grade in the Yosemite Decimal System. A life-long inventor, Cole developed Stealth rubber in 1986, the popularity of which earned him the moniker “The Rubber King.” Five Ten’s debut shoe, the Five Tennie, was a sticky-rubber soled hybrid climbing and tennis shoe designed to make descents off big routes safer. By the end of the first year, Cole saw an unexpected boom to the fledgling business. The Five Tennies were popular (although the first production run wasn’t up to specs and the toes wore out almost immediately). But his rubber formula was so popular that climbers requested sheets of it for resoling. By the end of the year, Stealth rubber for resoling was Five Ten’s most important asset and Cole decided to explore designing and manufacturing his own line of climbing shoes. In 1987, he introduced the Verticál. Cole was Five Ten’s chief shoe designer, spokesman and marketer, and developed a series of rubber compounds for other sports including mountain biking.

Cole’s whimsical sense of humor was essential to the brand’s marketing success. When most climbing shoe companies were focusing on photos of ripped athletes, he challenged the status quo. His advertising campaign with the “Quit Your Job” tagline caused a flurry of letters from concerned parents. Perhaps the most iconic Five Ten ad is El Cap Roads, a Yosemite-based recreation of the Beatles’ Abbey Roads album cover, shot by Dean Fidelman, with Dean Potter, Ivo Ninov, Matt Wilder, and Amon McNeely strolling across a faux-sidewalk that had to be assembled and removed before park rangers noticed. Cole’s Paper Bag ad, which simply said, “Two paper bags, resoled with Stealth Rubber, outperform any climbing shoe on the market,” stirred the pot in the climbing shoe wars of the 1990s.

Five Ten in the early years. Left to right: Charles Cole Jr., Mary Cole, Beth Leebolt, Karen t’Kint, and Charles Cole III. Photo: Courtesy of adidas/Five Ten.

Cole was known for approaching life with an extraordinary focus. He toted a sketch pad wherever he went, furiously jotting down new ideas for ads. He frequently broke out in song, his rich baritone raising above the ubiquitous barking dogs in Five Ten’s chaotic headquarters. But shoe design was his passion. During his tenure with Five Ten, he developed the UFO with its downturned toe and was ahead of the curve with a women’s-specific climbing shoe. Besides climbing, Cole embraced other action sports including B.A.S.E. jumping, parkour, downhill mountain-bike racing, and wingsuit flying with his Brand of the Brave campaign, which endeared him to the youth market at a time when the outdoor industry was struggling with an aging demographic. Cole focused on sports as fun and rebellious, but never forgot the that the main focus of his designs had to be technical advantage and safety.

Cole sold Five Ten to adidas in 2011, and left the brand a few years later, and pursued raising grass-fed cattle, chess and a lifelong interest in physics and mathematics. Most of all he enjoyed being with his family and being in the outdoors.

Cole is survived by his wife, Paola, their children Margherita, Alessandra, and Wyatt, and his mother, Mary Cole (née Studer). Cole’s nephew, Dave Kassel, carries on the family mantle as the climbing category manager for Five Ten.

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