INTERVIEW: Will Watkins, Unleashed Climbing
Will Watkins started Unleashed Climbing in 2016 after seeing a gap in the Australian market. Since then, Will has been striving to offer Aussie indoor climbers and gyms alike the chance to buy Australian products. While this does not happen overnight, Will has been cleverly working with big names like Kilter and Urban Plastix to continue the journey of Unleashed.
After bugging him ever since his return from the US, Will agreed to an interview.
Okay Will, so where and when did climbing start for you? What's a Brit doing in Oz?
Climbing started for me at a very early age back in England. My mum was forever catching me hanging off somewhere I shouldn’t have been like door frames and trees.
I came to OZ in 2000 after 2 years of climbing around South Africa and New Zealand.
I had got fed up with the conditions in England and had married an Aussie girl so we decided to move here.
When did you first start climbing? How has climbing altered your life?
One thing led to another and it wasn’t till I was 14 that I really got bitten by the climbing bug. As a result I wasted pretty much most of the last 4 years of school dreaming of climbing up in the Peak District and North Wales. This was during the late 80s when Ben Moon, Jerry Moffat and Andy Pollitt were kicking it big on the Peak and North Wales Limestone.
Climbing has given me a life filled with adventure and definitely no regrets. At points in my life I've dropped off the radar and got caught up with other directions in life like starting a family, getting divorced and work. But climbing has always refocused me and drawn me back to fuel my passion.
Now it's driving my life in a completely different direction. With the creation of Unleashed I am doing things that I thought were out of my league. I am so focused and driven to not only make Unleashed hugely successful but trying to develop the Australian hold and indoor climbing industry along the way.
How and why did you start shaping?
I started shaping with some mates at our local climbing gym in Birmingham England back in 1997. Initially, it was just to try and get more holds on the wall as cheap as possible. There wasn’t much science in it back then for us and only 3 or 4 decent hold companies in Europe. We shaped some ugly looking things out of floral foam and even concrete blocks which we then molded. We cast them with polyester resin and sand mix back then.
I spent weeks breathing in fumes and dust from pouring and sanding that shit. It couldn’t have been healthy at all. But we were young and dumb. Some of the shapes are still floating around on home woodies and at Red Point climbing gym in Birmingham. Just goes to show we made them solid back then.
Why choose shaping over climbing?
I am not too sure. Something has clicked in me that is super powerful and is just driving me to do this. Climbing does that to people. It drives people to do strange but wonderful things. What sparked my desire to create holds again was climbing on some of the old holds at Hangdog one day. I was becoming very frustrated climbing on them and the shapes of them were uninspiring to me. Then having looked at what was available on the world market it seemed like a great idea. That’s when I decided to start getting back in the game and try and shake things up a bit.
Once I started, things just escalated. I got drawn into the creativity and design of holds. Functionality, aesthetics, and value all started to interact with what I was trying to achieve. It is now more of an obsession to shape the best I can and learn more about creativity and the production side of things.
When did you decide to take the bigger step to Unleashed? Was it one big ‘aha’ moment or did it develop slowly over time?
The end of June 2016 was when I formed Unleashed Climbing. It had been smouldering in me for a while and I had been playing with a few different materials and talking to a few well-respected shapers in the industry about it. The response and support I had from them really spurred me on and gave me the confidence to commit to it.
I’ve had a few sessions on some of your sets at Nomad Bouldering, Dynomite Bouldering Gym & 9 Degrees. Unlike most indoor holds, I’m not shredding skin but they are grip so well. Was this intentional?
Totally intentional. I will be honest with you the first 8 months I shaped some horrible things that were nothing like I imagined. It was a learning process and has helped me realise and develop my skills so I can design what I have in mind.
That makes me happy that you’re not losing skin. The last thing you want to do is blow through your skin in the first hour of climbing indoors and then hate the rest of the session. I feel there are a lot of really poorly designed holds out there. They look super cool online and in fact are really well shaped, but, and this is the thing: They are not climbing friendly. To me, a hold should have one catching surface and the rest should be tapered and unusable for the hand. The catch area should be clear of any sharp detailing and features. The rest of the hold can accommodate that. There should be no danger of snagging your skin or wearing it out from where you grab the hold. That’s how I have developed and tried to shape my holds and it's obviously working OK.
So what do you hope to achieve by making American & Euro style of climbing holds in Australia? How does this help young athletes starting off in the sport?
All the American and Euro holds are available here if you are prepared to wait for months to get them. I don’t think this is right so what I want everybody to realise is that they have an option. Aussie gyms like big brand holds. I know that and totally understand it. Who wouldn’t want some of the amazing Kilter, Squadra and Kingdom holds in their gym. Hell, I would. I just want to offer an alternative to that where they can get well-designed holds reasonably quickly from an Aussie hold company. Young Aussies will get the chance to develop on any modern day holds. We just have to get rid of all the really old bad holds first.
You recently came back from the US and spent some time with Kilter Grips. Can you tell me more about that experience? Who did you meet?
What did you get up to? Feel free to name drop.
Yes, I did. There is no doubt in my mind that the 3 weeks I had in Boulder Colorado with the crew from Kilter and Urban Plastix was a big game changer for me. I have to thank Ian, Jackie, Peter M Juhl, Keith and the whole behind the scenes team at Kilter. They are all amazing people. Ian Powell is one of the owners of Kilter and the most creative and artistic shaper in the game. He is one of the guys that I have spoken with on numerous occasions over the last 12 months and asked so many questions. He has always had time to give me answers and solutions. He had left me an open-ended invite to meet up if I ever made it to Boulder and throw some foam about so I decided to take him up on it.
So 3 weeks of working for Ian in the Kilter workshop was a dream come true. Just being a part of that unit gave me such a boost. The amount of shapes that get produced there is insane and the workshop is basically wall to wall racks with thousands of shapes just waiting to be molded. It gave me a chance to work with new foams and techniques, new tools and above all learn from one of the best. I shared meals with these guys and Alex Puccio too. Top tier athletes are so humble and welcoming. Seeing some of the future developments that will be coming out over the next 12 months from Kilter was really exciting. Certainly, some of the ideas are game-changing for setters and shapers.
It also gave me the chance to meet and learn from Peter M Juhl from Urban Plastix and Keith Dickey who is also one of the main Haptic shapers at Kilter. Peter at Urban Plastix has a really unique style of shaping and has probably shaped one of the coolest sets of holds called Tremors. I can't wait to see some of those in OZ gyms. Keith has developed a unique range of holds with his Stella and Moses sandstone ranges which are super funky to climb on. Since I have come home though, unfortunately Keith has lost his battle with cancer and passed away. He will be greatly missed.
The highlight would have to be developing a range of holds while I was there that Ian liked so much that he offered to put them on their Haptic line and sell them under their label. That's an opportunity very few people get the chance to take so I was happy to say yes. Now there is a set of 50 holds of mine that is available now through Kilter Grips.
What is your favourite set you've shaped and why?
My favourite set hasn’t been shaped yet. It's always the next one.