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…

 

Climbing Gyms and the Power of Plastic

Brock bouldering at Vertical Adventures in Columbus, OH
Brock climbing with a mind of play. Vertical Adventures, Columbus, Ohio.

This weekend I brought my nephew, Brock, to Vertical Adventures, a climbing gym in Columbus, Ohio. Brock is seven, and Vertical Adventures — Vert, as some regulars know it — is one of the first places I ever climbed. It’s also one of the first places I worked, where I met many good friends I keep in touch with to this day, where I learned how to set a route, smack talk, belay, use proper footwork, train… . It’s also where I first developed that love of the vertical that binds a motley subset of humans into a strangely vibrant community.

Brock is still new to climbing, but he clearly has the bug. At Vert, He climbed with a mind of play, not much interested in following the specific routes or problems. He grabbed whatever holds looked good, cutting his feet dramatically every couple of moves and then dropping to the pads and rolling around. He watched the other climbers, tried out some new moves, and even brushed chalk off the holds for his aunt Kristin. When I asked if I could get a dip of the white stuff, he offered generously, “You can use my chalk; I don’t mind!” Kristin and I left after a few hours, but Brock and his dad stayed on to climb until dinner.

Alexis and Carrie Roccos opened Vertical Adventures in January 1994. At that time, gyms were just starting to sprout up around the country and were especially novel in the heartland. (Vertical World, widely regarded as America’s first commercial gym, opened in Seattle in 1987.) Together with a friend, Alexis constructed the gym’s walls out of plywood and two-by-fours, paint and elbow grease. It was a leap of faith for the couple, who moved to Columbus from the East Coast.

I started climbing at Vert as soon as it opened. I was so excited to have a real climbing gym in town, I shadowed Alexis for my freshman year career day. I helped him pound T-nuts in the sawdusty warehouse space near the Anheuser Busch brewery. Later, in the summers when I returned from college, Carrie and Alexis kindly hired me on as a temp worker, which helped pay for gas, food, and CDs.

Vert and the people I met there over the years played an important role in my development as a human being. Not long before the gym opened, I’d gotten in some trouble hanging out with what you’d call bad seeds — kids who used drugs, huffed paint, stole, fought, basically did whatever they could to numb or lash out against the pain of their broken, abusive households or emotionally absent parents. In great contrast, my parents, loving and supportive, helped me through my own poor decisions in those angst-filled years. Meanwhile, the community that gathered on the walls of a small Midwestern climbing gym offered examples of what healthy friendships were like, what it meant to live a life centered on something you love rather than reacting to things you fear, hate, or resent.

Community is the best word I can conjure for the group of regulars that developed at Vert during the years I climbed there. We not only climbed, but socialized together, watched the Super Bowl together, attended each other’s weddings. When one of our own, a strong young climber named Jeremy, was injured in a car accident one night on the way home from the gym, a group of his friends organized a fundraiser at Vert to help offset some of his heavy medical costs. When Jeremy needed a wheelchair ramp, the crew from Vert, among others, came together and built one.

“I think that people will meet in a variety of settings. Church, on a bike, at a climbing wall, in a pub, at work, etc.,” Alexis wrote to me in an email, but added, “The gym does make that process easier. (Kind of like lube.)” Personally, I felt Vert was more than just lube: it was a hub, a catalyst. But perhaps that was due in part to its location far from natural crags. Still, there are many, many towns similarly situated, and for them, gyms really can create a community of climbers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

A lot of climbers talk trash about gyms. For some reason, they like to remind others and themselves that climbing outside is real climbing, and climbing in gyms is practice, for gumbies or for kids. Now, I’d be hard pressed to trade time on the rocks for time on plastic, but the truth is, gyms are the biggest thing to happen to climbing in decades. Gyms are the wide end of a funnel through which people of all backgrounds and walks of life can access the climbing life, not just those lucky enough to grow up close to Yosemite, the Gunks, Southeast’s bouldering goldmine.

I started climbing in a gym, but I’m not alone. So did Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden, Sasha DiGiulian and Chris Sharma, and many other climbing heroes today held up as exemplary in the media. Plenty of kids escape the frustrations and pressures of adolescence at their local rock gym. A lot of folks make lifelong friends in the gym, not to mention partners who one day will accompany them up big walls or high peaks. Plenty of busy working parents find the time to keep climbing thanks to the convenience of gyms. Without gyms as training centers, few of today’s hardest climbs would have seen their first ascents. Gyms and the competitions held in them may well be the key to climbing’s future inclusion in the Olympics. The list goes on…

Brock is young yet; there’s no way to tell if he’ll be a lifer or if he’ll move on to other pursuits and forget about climbing. Either way, he has already found a rich new activity through which he can bond with his dad and other kids his age. Lately, he’s been learning to tie knots with a strand of cordelette he bought at Vert, and has plans to come visit Kristin and me in Utah, where I hope to take him out onto the beautiful sandstone in the south of the state — an experience he probably wouldn’t have been so excited about if it hadn’t been for the humble climbing gym.