The Big Bro

Posted on: March 1, 2008

In 1984 options for protecting offwidths were limited: T-shaped Forrest Titons and Chouinard tube chocks fit constrictions to six inches, but proved useless in parallel cracks. Big Tri-Cams routinely dislodged and slid down the rope. A smattering of homemade big cams, drilled full of holes, were available on the underground market, but they were built from unknown alloys and untested. Nothing existed for squeeze chimneys or for the widest cracks; the bravest climbers just ran them out. Most just ran away—until Colorado State student Craig Luebben developed a new protection device for his senior honors thesis.

[Photo] David Swift

Mired in mechanical engineering coursework but dreaming of climbing, Luebben drew up ten different ideas for protecting wide cracks. The eleventh occurred the weekend before he had to submit the designs to his supervising committee. While Luebben was climbing The Saber in Rocky Mountain National Park, another team— Kent Wheeler and Chuck Grossman—arrived at his belay ledge. "I'm not sure if we're on the right route," said Wheeler. "In fact, I'm not even sure if we're on the Petit Grepon." "You're not," Luebben informed them. "You're on The Saber." On the descent, Grossman, a formidable crack climber, uttered the fateful words "expandable tube" to Luebben. The idea of the Big Bro— named after the line "Big Brother is Watching You" in George Orwell's novel 1984—was born.

Luebben built seven prototypes of the Big Bro in CSU's engineering machine shop (the Big Bro at left is the first of these). The original prototypes had inner tubes that could rotate 180 degrees to fit both constricting and parallel cracks. The parallel mode almost always seemed more stable, and in 1986 Luebben refined the design for production. Four sizes of Big Bros, protecting cracks from 3.2 to 12 inches, hit the market in 1987.

The invention did not result in immediate wealth for its creator. On an extended road trip after graduation, Luebben found himself climbing with quarter-sized holes on the big toes of his EBs. (He'd switch them onto the wrong feet for crux pitches.) In a desperate attempt to raise funds for new shoes and beer, Luebben posted a note on Yosemite's Camp 4 bulletin board: "Big Bro expandable tube chock prototypes for sale, $100 each." Scrawled a Valley climber, "You're way dreamin', dude."

In 1987 Luebben and his then-girlfriend Sari Schmetterer, funded in part by Warren Harding, started a company called Mountain Hardwear to sell Big Bros and climbing apparel. On their first sales trip, the buyer at Chouinard Equipment in Ventura ridiculed them: "No one is ever going to buy those things." Luebben later sold the name "Mountain Hardwear" for $1,500. Schmetterer went on to found Stonewear Designs.

Luebben still believed in his product, and the Big Bro enticed him and a group of accomplices into the first ascents of numerous wide climbs, sometimes using up to fourteen Big Bros in a single pitch. As the number of first ascents increased, Luebben says he soon realized that you didn't have to be that good at climbing offwidths to be one of the best.

Rock & Ice wanted to review the Big Bro, but the editors didn't actually want to lead any offwidths. They recruited Luebben to climb with them—which led to one of his current livelihoods, as a professional writer.

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