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…


Adidas Partners with Climbing Gyms and Generally Continues to Cozy Up With Climbers

adida Outdoor magazine for the iPad
adidas Outdoor digital mag for the iPad

New to the climbing scene, adidas Outdoor has recently made an interesting move to outfit climbing gym employees with adidas clothing and shoes. The first press release to this effect announced a partnership with the Brooklyn Boulders, the second a partnership with the new So iLL gym in St. Louis. The positioning in gyms indicates an interest in reaching a broad climbing audience and most likely the youth market, which seems to be the golden goose in the eyes of most companies. (Have you heard of any similar partnerships between gyms and adidas Outdoor or other outdoor-focused brands? I have not…)

If you’ve been following the trail of press releases you’ll know this is but one part in a larger adidas strategy to access a market dominated by brands like The North Face, Arc’Teryx, Patagonia, Columbia, etc. This is no doubt related to the fact that as the recession drags on, outdoor brands, with a focus on performance and durability rather than pure fashion, seem to be faring better than their “indoor” counterparts. Other marketing and outreach efforts from adidas include an iPad app: “With this app users can experience the fascinating stories of alpinists, climbers, kayakers, paraglider pilots and base-jumpers going ‘all in’ in digital form with plenty of exciting extras.” Adidas has also picked up a handful of climbing athletes for its team, including Sasha DiGiulian and Thomas Huber. But perhaps the clearest sign of their dedication to the outdoor, and particularly climbing, markets is their acquisition of Five Ten.

Certainly, Adidas has the war chest and the brand recognition to carve out a spot for itself in the outdoor niche. The question is, how will the core climbing and other “adventure sport” communities respond? I remember ten-odd years ago when Fila attempted to enter the core climbing market with a line of rock shoes. They sponsored climbers like Boone Speed and, if I recall correctly, even approached gyms to form footwear and apparel partnerships. In the end, the sales were not enough to warrant continued interest, though last year Fila did pick up boulderer Alex Puccio as an athlete to rock their Skele-Toes toe shoes (not climbing shoes, per se).

On a related note, hard goods manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment has announced an interest in entering the apparel market, and La Sportiva has introduced a new line of performance skiwear. It would seem that the siren song of apparel’s big margins is too attractive to pass up.

I’d love to hear what you think on this direction in the climbing and outdoor industries. Do you welcome new brands to the climbing marketplace, even big ones like adidas? Do you plan to buy adidas jackets, pants, and approach shoes? Do you fear Adidas will water down Five Ten’s technical shoe offering, or will their deep pockets allow for more exciting new technologies? How do all of the developments in the climbing and outdoor industries mentioned above sit with you? Do you see the future as bright, grim, or pretty much the same?