Climbing Gyms: The Saga Continues

A woman climbing on a steep wall in a gym in Colorado.
Robin M. climbing at one of the first American Mega Gyms, Movement Climbing + Fitness, in Boulder, Colorado.

When I started climbing a quarter century ago, there was really only one kind of indoor climbing experience. It involved simple plywood walls, mostly vertical, that were rarely more than 30 feet tall. These would be sparsely populated with a mix of homemade and “professionally made” handholds.

These first-generation gyms could be found in non-descript business centers, shoehorned into whatever space could be had on the cheap. As such, they were often dark, dusty, and/or drafty, full of exposed cinderblock, rubber chip, and stained old carpet.

Most gym owners in this era were themselves ex-dirtbag climbers who wanted a cool place to train in the off season and couldn’t stomach the idea of working for the man. Few of them could have foreseen the brave new world of plastic pulling that lay just ahead.

Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the boom of climbers who had taken to the walls thanks to those early gyms drove new economic opportunities, leading to more gyms, substantially bigger and nicer than before. Health clubs added walls to their banks of fitness machinery and universities constructed them in their rec centers.

Today the artificial climbing wall landscape is more varied and more professional than ever. It’s growing steadily, too, as evinced by the existence of outlets like the Climbing Business Journal (“news and advice for the indoor climbing industry”) and the non-profit Climbing Wall Association.

If you’re a climber in America looking to get inside, you’ll encounter a landscape packed with many great (and some not so great) places to climb. Among them, I’ve noticed the following major classes. Feel free to add others I’ve missed in the comments.

A climber on a wall at an old school gym
Climbing at an OG Gym.
  • OG Gyms – Basic, aesthetically uninteresting, and often found in windowless and poorly ventilated warehouses, these gyms were the trailblazers of their day. Now OG Gyms are phasing out—either closing down or modernizing in the face of increased competition and a more demanding clientele. Still, many persist. A good crew and a sense of humor are key to surviving if you’re stuck with an OG Gym.
  • Woodies – Home walls designed for the ultimate in easy-access training. Most people build woodies—so called due to their all-wood construction—in their garages, basements, or backyards. Unfortunately, the only way to access a woody is to have one at your place… or be buds with someone who does.
  • Co-ops – Co-ops are collectively supported gyms that operate for the good of the membership (read: sans profit). Typically a group of climbers will go in on a rental space and supplies to build a wall, and then others who want to join kick in a membership that grants them access and covers rent, setting, and maintenance costs. An advanced example of a co-op is Slo Op Climbing, in San Louis Obispo, California.
  • Bouldering Gyms – It wasn’t long ago that bouldering was considered practice for longer climbs, but these days it’s booming as a pursuit of its own, and the gyms are following suit.
  • Health Club Hangs – Health clubs can be pretty boring. In order to keep people excited about consistently going inside a space that feels like an office stocked with futuristic torture devices, management needs to constantly up the ante. New classes, new machines, and, when the budget’s there, a craggily new climbing wall. Quality in these places varies immensely based on the club’s level of dedication to climbing. One spot I used to frequent, the Manhattan Plaza Health Club, had a pretty solid climbing scene going.
  • Educlimbables – I was an early employee at my university’s wall in NYC. Built in the diminutive space of a converted racquetball court, it offered minimal diversity, but it was an early example of what would become a hot trend. Today, colleges and universities, high schools, and even elementary schools have taken up the climbing craze. As a part of their effort to get climbing into the Olympics, USA Climbing established the Collegiate Climbing Series. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie even took it on himself to criticize the so-called rock wall “epidemic” sweeping higher ed and wasting unsuspecting parents’ dollars.
  • Mega Gyms – In addition to huge amounts of climbing surface and professional-grade setters, mega gyms offer extensive fitness and wellness facilities. Pilates, yoga, full weights and cardio equipment, even day care—the mega gym is designed to operate as much like a high-end health club as a training center, albeit with the focus still squarely set on vertical activities. Mega Gyms are well lit, clean, and modern where it counts. Some have full service pro shops and a few even have cafés with wifi. The Climbing Business Journal put together a list of the biggest gyms in the country as of 2013. Most of these would fall into the Mega Gym category.
  • Urban Crags – This category has one standout player in it, but I think it’s significant enough to warrant mention. Brooklyn Boulders has four locations in major urban zones around the country and appears to be adding more. The Sommersville, Massachusetts, location was described in a Bloomberg news piece as “a rock-climbing gym designed to double as a co-working haven for entrepreneurs.” These gyms are catering to a different crowd than your typical spot in the midwest or mountain west. More diverse, more affluent, and more career oriented, BKB and other urban gyms are specifically targeting groups not traditionally associated with climbing, and they’re doing really well in the process. What will the climbing demographic look like in 20 years? Brooklyn Boulders may offer a preview…

 

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Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

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