Ode to the Old-Ass Gym

Climbers stretching and talking on the floor next to a climbing wall in an old climbing gym in Ohio.
A scrappy Midwest climbing crew in an old-ass gym.

Back in my Urban Climber days, I wrote a feature called “The Rise of the Super Gyms.” It was about new climbing gyms that were sprouting up around the country and taking the indoor scene to a “higher level” (get it?!). The trend, in its early phases then, is now well underway and huge, custom-built, professionally operated climbing and fitness facilities are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Today, 20,000, 30,000, even 40,000-square-foot facilities are appearing across the country, sometimes in areas far from rock and far from the pre-existing climbing communities that once served as a gym’s customer base.

When I lived in Boulder and Salt Lake City, I was lucky enough to frequent such “super gyms,” with their fancy workout decks (this treadmill has a fan?), yoga rooms, and highfalutin air-conditioners that worked, even on hot days. They were plush and almost always busy. Their holds were new and clean (can you say jug rash). Their tall, steep walls created inhumanly strong youngsters and demoralized n00bs and out-of-shape old timers. Such gyms are clearly the future, but at the same time, they’re missing something that the old-ass gyms we used to climb at had in spades. I guess you’d call it guts.

“It’s got everything you need: free weights, punching bags, a steam room, fat guy with a mop,” thus spake Staten Islander Danny Castellano, describing his boxing gym on an episode of The Mindy Project I watched last week. It reminded me of the way I grew up thinking of working out. Basically, the more rustic the set-up, the tougher you could get. Think: Rocky doing heavy bag work on a side of beef in a meat locker, Alexander Karelin running through waist deep snow in Siberia, Marky Mark bench pressing cinderblocks in an abandoned factory. Thus, a frilly, high-tech climbing gym was at best frivolous, at worst a place where a Russian super villain might climb / get injections of an experimental gene drug for cheaters that rendered him unstoppable on crimper dynos.

There’s just something about the old-ass gym that invites you to get strong. It challenges you, makes you uncomfortable, forces you to adapt. The holds are often sharp or tweaky, the setting uneven and full of random, shoulder-wrenching moves, even on easier climbs. The lighting is poor—brightly spotlit in some areas and shadowy in others, making it hard to discern the color of the chalk-faded tape (whatever tape, that is, hasn’t already peeled off and attached itself to your shoe).

And the feet—oh the feet! They are slick as hoarfrosted cobblestones on a riverbank, their once-candylike colors layered over with a mirrored black shellack of sticky rubber. These are part of the training though. Master the use of footholds like these, the likes of which exist only on the most trafficked outdoor routes, and you’ll become a subtle god of friction.

The old-ass gym also has a soundtrack. Maybe you remember it? Usually a mixture of grunge (Nirvana, Soundgarden, STP) and classic rock (Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Hendrix), with a handful of rap hits (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Outkast). In the original old-ass gyms, they just turned on the local FM rock station and let it ride, or had a 6-CD changer set to random. (Later, people plugged in their clickwheel iPods.)

There are weights in the back—an eclectic mix of dumbbells and barbells and floating plates picked up at yard sales. Next to them, some sort of cardio machine, but it doesn’t have a fan or a TV screen. Maybe it has a heart rate monitor that doesn’t work and a squeaky belt deep inside that sounds like a frantic gerbil trying to escape. Any workout implements not used frequently are coated in a quarter-inch of dust. There is a poster on the wall taken from an old issue of Climbing, back when it was 180 pages per issue and had Rolex ads in it. There is a sign that says “Must be 18 or older to enter the workout room.”

Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter at the old-ass gym. This is where people like Todd Skinner and Jim Karn and Tony Yaniro trained. And if you’re too young to know these names, trust me when I say they were more hardcore than you. The regulars at the old-ass gym are there because they love climbing deep down, even when no one else in the world is watching or cares. They say adversity builds bonds between people, and the old-ass gym supports this theory; scrappy climbing crews formed in old-ass gyms seem to have a stickiness that is lacking in fancier establishments.

I recently moved to a small, coastal California town where you’re about 20 times more likely to meet a surfer than a climber. There’s one gym in the area and it feels like an old-ass gym. When I first checked it out, I was a little panicked. I had grown accustomed to the niceties of places like Momentum, in Salt Lake City, or Movement, in Boulder. I wanted setting that was comfortable to the joints and grades that were easy on the ego. I expected a hot face towel to start things off, and lavender scented lotion in the locker room. In short, I’d grown soft.

Luckily, this old-ass gym has everything I need: a few thousand square feet of climbing terrain, some hang boards, an old treadmill and Exercycle, some open floor space to do push-ups and sit-ups and squats, and a loading-bay door in back that opens to let the air in. When the breeze blows and you close your eyes, it’s almost like you’re outside…

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

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