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…

 

On the Evolution of Plastic

Alex Puccio bouldering on plastic at Momentum Climbing, Lehi. Photo: Randyl Nielson.
Alex Puccio climbing on holds you probably wouldn’t find in nature. Photo: Randyl Nielson (www.nielsonphoto.com)

In the old days, it seemed like the epitome of a good indoor climb was one that evoked an outdoor climb. Many of the most classic shapes ever carved from foam came out of this mindset.

I used to pour holds at a place called Pusher, and I remember filling latex molds to produce plastic approximations of Fontainebleau’s sandstone slopers, Little Cottonwood Canyon’s granite flakes and edges, Hueco’s eponymous dog dishes, and limestone pockets and tufas like you might find in France and Spain. I’ve even seen sets designed to replicate the holds of specific routes, like Chris Sharma’s Biographie (back then is was still called Realization). But over time, as any art form does, plastic climbing evolved.

In design speak, skeuomorphism is a style that copies structures that were once necessary elements of the medium or manufacturing process, but no longer. For example Apple used skeuomorphic design in its old Calendar app that looked like a physical paper calendar, complete with leather stitching and the torn remnants of past months’ pages. The design-saavy tech giant eventually did away with such elements and adopted a “flat” design more in keeping with the digital times.

Similarly with hold design, shapers came to see that plastic could do more than imitate rock, and setters realized that the gym’s canvas allowed for more than the simulation of outdoor climbs. Holds shaped like cubes and spheres, or like household objects (lightbulbs and telephones) began to appear.

The only limitations, folks realized, were in the materials and the imagination. There are still plenty of hold sets designed to look and feel stone, but plenty more that aren’t, and the shapes just seem to get funkier all the time.

New production techniques now allow for the creation of big holds, enormous “volumes” to which holds can be affixed, and even modular wall systems, all of which means more possibilities in the setting realm. When I was pouring plastic, the size of the molds, the cost and weight of the plastic resin, and other limitations of our rudimentary production system kept our holds to a certain size and complexity.

These days I’m routinely entertained by the abstract shapes I find waiting on the wall in the local gym. They look cool and often require creative thinking to navigate. I’ve even noticed a trend towards routes that enter the realm of visual design. Beyond just creating cool moves, routesetters are using holds to create arresting patterns of shape and color. Maybe it’s gym climbing’s version of the aesthetic draw found in classic outdoor lines?

At first glance, you might ask, How well do the otherworldly forms of the modern climbing wall prepare people for outdoor climbs?

But I’d suggest that they don’t have to. Indoor climbing is no longer just preparation for outdoor climbing; it is its own pursuit. (We’ve seen such cleaving off of climbing sub-disciplines time and again: bouldering outdoors was once practice for technical sections of longer ascents, but has grown to be very much a stand-alone activity.) Therefore, indoor climbing is free to go as far as routesetters, hold shapers, gym owners and of course climbers are willing to take it.

I’d also suggest that today’s funky indoor antics will allow climbers to bring new skills and strengths and, most importantly, new eyes to the rocks. An example of this fresh vision for climbing outdoors might be Chris Sharma’s Three Degrees of Separation. First climbed in 2007, no one has completed the route in the years since. The route’s name comes from the three massive dynos required to climb it. It’s hard to separate out Chris’ unique vision as an individual and the lessons he learned coming up in the age of plastic, but undoubtedly the two are interconnected. If my guess is correct, the next generation of climbers will continue to make quick work of former dynamic testpieces and add their own where previous climbers saw no possibilities.

Today, gym climbing is taking influences from outside climbing, too. The popularity of dynamic activities like parkour, CrossFit, and American Ninja Warrior has pushed increasingly gymnastic styles of movement into the world of indoor climbing. Some of this is controversial in setting circles, as purists insist that such “circus” climbing—routes that involve running and jumping, monkey-barring, holds suspended on the ends of ropes or chains, or other trickery rarely or never found outdoors—is no longer climbing at all, but something else entirely. Of course there are others who disagree and welcome the change.

What will people be doing in climbing gyms in 10 years? The future is unwritten. What’s cool is that the folks putting their creative energies into this arena today will be the ones shaping the future. I’m pretty sure it’ll be cool to see.