Once one of the world’s strongest climbers, Obe Carrion played a key role in the explosion of bouldering throughout the mid and late-90s. Traveling the world as a pro climber, he pushed the limits of bouldering as we know it, before retiring and returning to his hometown of Allentown, PA. Obe later went on to coach arguably the best female climber ever, Ashima Shiraishi, and he entered the gear industry as a product designer, creating the popular Mad Rock Redline.
In this interview, we discuss the joys and struggles of being a professional climber, how our sport has evolved since he started, and Obe shares his advice for the upcoming generation.
- Hometown: Allentown, PA
- Now living in: Boston, MA
- Age: 39
- Started climbing: 1991
- Favorite destination: Fontainebleau
- Favorite crag food: beef jerky
- Other hobbies: bow hunting and golfing
Could you briefly share what led you to climbing?
I was a bit of a lost teen, and I happened to come across this climbing facility that was really close to my house. My house was butted up against some railroad tracks and an industrial park. I used to go out and walk the railroad tracks and shoot my BB gun and whatnot—just be a kid.
This one area where I came out of the tracks, there were these big warehouses and one of these warehouses was turned into a climbing facility. As I was walking by, I noticed these people climbing inside and I walked in. I thought, Wow, that’s awesome. I could probably do that. I could probably be pretty good at that.
So, it took me a long time to get the permission from my parents and actually the money to go. But, it ended up happening—I went, and I was hooked immediately.
Did you start out with bouldering? Or what was your progression throughout the styles?
In 1991, bouldering wasn’t really that popular—it wasn’t exercised. A little bit of traversing here and there to warm up, but it was mostly trad climbing, sport climbing, and top roping.
Where were you trad climbing?
I would go to the Gunks—a lot of college kids took me there. Or we’d go to Seneca [Rocks]. And also to the New River Gorge, Red River Gorge; at that time, those places were just starting to get happening.
We also had some local climbing areas outside of Allentown: Stoney Ridge, which is this little cliff band. We’d go out there a bunch of times and just mess around.
Could you talk about how bouldering came onto the scene and your involvement there?
Later into the 90s, or mid-90s, there was a group of climbers in the northeast such as Ivan Greene, Josh Lowell, Brett Lowell, and Jason Kehl. We would compete all the time against each other and at one of the climbing competitions, Ivan was mentioning all this bouldering blowing up at the Gunks.
That just intrigued us—you don’t have to take all the gear, it’s pretty mellow, it’s super social. And we went up a couple times and he was developing all this stuff—putting up all these first ascents. So that’s how it sparked for me.
At that time, around ’95 or ’96—it just kind of blew up. Josh created a video called Bouldering in the Gunks, which he put together because he got injured blowing his tendons. And the energy was so high that he continued hanging out with us and borrowed a camera from his dad and created this video.
It was just us going crazy in the Gunks and putting up first ascents; documenting our lifestyle with young attitudes and high energy.
How has the bouldering culture evolved since those early days?
I think there are a few different things. Obviously, a ton more people are doing it. One aspect, from my point of view, is that since so many people are doing it, we might be losing some of that respect of just common courtesy.
Other than that, I think it’s just continuing—it’s catapulting. People are going to new areas and putting up first ascents, pioneering and cleaning and establishing new lines. It’s the same stuff, it’s just that a heck of a lot more people are doing it.
Is there anything that you miss about the early bouldering days?
Yeah, I miss how the sharing worked. I miss the fact that there wasn’t any social media and how you heard about people doing things and the stories that we would tell …
How we would talk about things back then was more personable; a little less diluted. I think the stories were more real, more genuine.
I appreciated that—I appreciated how it wasn’t pretentious. I appreciated how me wanting to do a first ascent before a friend of mine was genuine camaraderie that was motivating and pushed each other. Nowadays, I think that’s kind of lost.
You can ask a lot of people and they say it’s still there, but I think the quality is not the same. Unfortunately, I think the bouldering scene now is a little more pretentious and I think the social media aspect is a huge contributor.
Tell us about the pressures you had as a professional climber. Is it more enjoyable to be a professional climber or just a recreational climber? Are you able to enjoy the sport more without the pressures of being a pro?
I feel like I had to be a professional climber. I didn’t come from a wealthy upbringing—it was kind of hard for me. And making the decision to quit high school to pursue rock climbing put me in that position.
Looking at myself now, if I could tell myself something at 14, I’d probably tell myself to go a different route. Stay in school, get the education.
But, I feel like I would have been good anyway. Even as a recreational climber, at that time, I probably would have been one of the best.
I think in that day in age, when I was getting started, a lot of those things that I was doing were very brand new: taking trips around the world, shooting climbing videos, making videos, hanging out with the best climbers, going to big events, signing autographs, doing video premiers, having big posters, magazine covers—yeah, that stuff is exciting right. But the day-in and day-out work it took to do that … it fully stopped becoming fun. At a certain point it wasn’t work, then boom, it became work.
One of the biggest hits I took was that I was sponsored by Boreal. I had a three-year contract and was getting paid quite well. Then after two years, they went bankrupt and it was really hard for me to get another sponsor. There wasn’t social media or any of those tools to help me get a sponsor.
In this day in age, the social media aspect can definitely help you get a sponsor; but, you just may not be as dope of a climber as you appear to be on social media.
Back then, if you were a dope climber, it was really hard to get companies to get to know about you and what you were doing.
Tying into that, what does it take to be a professional climber today?
All you gotta do is just label yourself as one. [Laughs]
You know, it’s a real big mystery. There are professional climbers out there that we would designate as professional climbers. And we really don’t know how much they make. And we really don’t know how much money they come from.
So if you’re a trust-funder or close to that and you have Adidas or The North Face, it could appear that you’re riding a big wave. And who the heck really knows?
I guess the reality of it is, as a professional climber, what are you actually doing for the climbing community? How are you contributing? Are you taking certain responsibilities to be an ambassador of the sport?
I think it’s a really hard question—what is a professional climber. By definition, it can be anyone getting paid to rock climb. That could be a guide.
After your professional climbing days, you moved onto a variety of roles in the industry. You’ve been a pro climber, a coach, and you’ve worked on the product side. Tell us about your relationship to climbing throughout these roles. Has climbing become work for you, or do you still retain that simple passion for the sport?
It’s funny you ask that because I actually woke up this morning and it was a little difficult. At times, it does feel like work. For the longest time, I lost the love for climbing because it became work as a professional climber.
So, you know, I stepped away from being a pro climber … probably prematurely.
But then I discovered coaching and I’ve come to learn that I’m kind of a natural teacher. I really enjoy teaching and communicating. But then it repeated itself: it turned into work again. I was coaching Ashima regularly for the first four years of her career and I was also coaching a climbing team in New York. And then that became work also. I’ve just gotten spoiled by what it takes in order to be a coach and run a team.
And I’ve always been interested in design. During my professional years, I contributed some designs to prAna and I was sponsored by Fila, where I did some product development with athletes. I was always intrigued by that and I had some good mentors: Boone Speed and Mike Call. So, I always had an interest in doing that and with Mad Rock, I had a really great opportunity to develop my own climbing shoe.
It was the start of figuring out how to get professional athletes to be more involved with the design process. That was super awesome, but once again, that became work and once it came to not wanting to use the colors I created or this and that, it was just not fun anymore.
So, I took a position back out here in Boston and the main reason was to be closer to my family. I really didn’t enjoy my time in LA. I enjoyed the experience—the shoe design stuff—but I didn’t enjoy LA at all.
I came back to the East Coast where the people are a little more like-minded. I’m a director now, so I have a bunch of coaches that I work with and I’m also managing the Dark Horse Climbing Series which is a huge event and big task. It’s an opportunity to influence climbing competition culture and make it better. To keep pushing.
This is all pretty new to me. I’ve been really focusing on trying not to make it feel so much like work and a big reason for that is I tend to be a workaholic … so as long as I can give myself some personal time and keep the passion alive, then I’ll be alright.
We’ve published a number of pieces on our website about white privilege and various community issues. For most of your climbing career, you’ve been a minority within the sport. How has that experience been and what can the climbing community do moving forward to increase diversity?
It’s really awesome right now; the landscape is really cool. You have Kai Lightner, you have Meagan Martin, Ashima. It’s really cool how these climbing gyms are just popping up everywhere and hopefully they’ll get closer to inner cities and that the people running those facilities are going to do some outreach.
I’v worked closely with a non-profit called Urban Peaks where they help urban inner-city kids, minorities mostly, experience rock climbing.
As gyms start popping up more and more—and how it looks, there’s not going to be any slowing down—hopefully, we get tapped into that market.
I really feel that once the minority group attaches themselves to this sport, we’re going to start seeing records broken. We’ll start seeing amazing athletes like you’ve seen in other sports. As soon as you start seeing Hispanic, black, Asian athletes co-mingling, the level starts elevating.
During your pro career, did you find the community to be open—a space you fit in well?
I traveled a bit. So in New York—I lived there for a while—I had no problem.
I didn’t like Boulder. I hated Boulder and I tried it two times. But that’s a prime example of the question you’re asking. Boulder is full of white, privileged, over-privileged people. So, it’s really important that I’m surrounded by people that are like-minded, regardless of race.
I never really pay much attention to the minority thing. I pay attention to being with like-minded people—pople in the hustle. Jason Kehl, for example, didn’t grow up with a silver spoon. He worked his ass off to get where he’s at and he’s probably one of the most talented climbers, artists, and contributors to the industry.
It’s interesting, a lot of people have been asking me about this lately.
It’s a popular topic. I guess maybe it’s the social media aspect and the sharing of content online; sharing different ideas and opinions.
Yeah, who knows. Maybe it would have been different for me if I came from a more privileged upbringing. There were definitely times where I had to go to a competition with the last amount of money for registration. And if I didn’t win, I was completely fucked.
If I didn’t win, I couldn’t pay rent and my car and insurance couldn’t be paid for. I needed to win. I had to place in the top three so I could get paid and go eat.
I don’t know if any climbers nowadays have that feeling, or even know what that feels like.
Many younger climbers know you as the former coach of Ashima Shiraishi. Have you worked with other pro climbers?
I’ve worked a lot with Margo Hayes. I gotta say, I think she’s in the top five female climbers … maybe even in the world right now.
Which have you enjoyed more: being a professional climber or coaching professional climbers?
That’s a hard one. I guess I was rewarded differently.
Being a professional climber was very rewarding because I made something of myself. I made it, and it was legitimate.
Working with professional climbers: that’s an amazing experience as well. Having that trust and having two minds working together that understand such a high level of climbing.
I think, ultimately, coaching has been more rewarding. These kids—these athletes—as they keep progressing and breaking records and stuff, a little bit of me is involved in that whether I’m still working with them or no longer working with them. And that’s a pretty special thing.
We all remember that great teacher we had in high school or middle school that was a really good mentor and motivated us to be the best we can. And, I had that experience with some of the top female climbers in the world.
And even when I was climbing with Chris [Sharma], as a professional climber, or with Jason, there was coaching here and there. The coaching is probably more in me than the professional athlete.
What was the most valuable skill or lesson that you taught Ashima? And what was the most valuable thing she taught you?
I don’t know about the most valuable thing I taught Ashima. [Long pause]
I’m really hoping that as she becomes more and more famous, she stays of the mindset from my generation of being a pro climber. Where you don’t get too wrapped up in the scene. You stay humble, approachable. Now, in this day in age, you have to hype yourself up and that’s just the nature of it. But, I hope she stays humble—that she continues to just be Ashima.
Something that she taught me? Patience … a lot of patience.
A big reason I left New York was that I didn’t want to invest all my time in just one kid as a coach. I felt I’d be selling myself short. So she taught me to stay true to myself, as well. And to do things for the right reasons; to trust my gut.
I think we kind of taught each other some of the same lessons.
If there’s one piece of advice, or message that you’d like to communicate to the upcoming generation of climbers, what would that be?
I guess, keep it real. I would say trust your gut and make sure you whole-heartedly believe in the decisions that you make. Because as long as you’re true to yourself, you won’t have any regrets.
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