The Next Generation of Climbers Wants to Stay Indoors

We went to an indoor climbing conference to see how gyms are changing the sport. Hint: more plastic, less rock, and lots of people talking about millennials.

May 27 2016, 7:20pm

Photo by Flickr user Joshua Kruger

The hour-long drive from Denver to Loveland is a straight shot up Interstate 25 along the Front Range of Colorado, past green farmland and oil pumps bobbing up and down like birds pecking for worms. To the west, beyond the outdoor mecca of Boulder, the mountains sit under a drapery of late-May snow.

It's the kind of place that, a decade or two ago, would be a destination for so-called "dirtbag climbers," those itinerant adventurers living out of cars and tents as they searched for new faces to conquer. But last week in Loveland, about 600 people headed not for the freedom of the hills but for a conference dedicated to indoor rock climbing, hosted in a nondescript nest of hotels and chain restaurants just off the highway.

The tenth annual Climbing Wall Summit was a sign of how mainstream rock climbing has become. Gym owners, athletes, and industry leaders from around the world browsed various booths hawking plastic handholds, climbing harnesses, and other gear. Although the attire was decidedly casual—jeans, t-shirts, sandals, dreadlocks, at least one man bun, and not a tie in sight—the scheduled presentations included such fairly square topics as the U.S. economic outlook, customer acquisition, insurance, and private equity investment.

READ MORE: The Collision Of Cartels, Rock Climbing, and Mining In Northern Mexico

At some point between the first ascent of El Capitan in the late 1950s and today, climbing, or at least a sizable portion of it, underwent a shift from countercultural wilderness activity to an indoor sport whose participants might otherwise go bowling. Nothing typifies this more than the evolution of climbing gyms, which once functioned as places to train for the outdoors but have since become destinations themselves. The small facilities built by climbers for climbers in decades past have given way to big, bright warehouse-sized behemoths offering showers, snacks, coffee, beer, Wi-Fi, yoga and fitness classes, and pro-shops to sell climbing gear. Business is booming.

Exempt from the geographical requirements of outdoor climbing, gyms have popped up around the country, most notably in cities of so-called climbing deserts such as Florida, Kansas, Ohio, Louisiana, and Texas. As gyms make the sport accessible to more people, they've created a new class of climbers that may not even be interested in roping up on real rock. Pro climber Alex Johnson, 27, who grew up in Wisconsin without convenient transportation to nearby crags, has been among them.

"Growing up, I never had intentions of climbing outside," she said. Johnson started climbing indoors as a child and rose to the top of the gym climbing competition circuit. She eventually transitioned to climbing outdoors as well as in gyms, but she sees the two as different sports.

"Climbing outside feels really hard," she said, noting that it's more technical, there's no tape to guide you through a route, there aren't the soft pads that cover a gym floor, and "there's bugs and snakes."

Many competition climbers, she says, only climb indoors. The gyms offer climbing that more closely resembles what they'll find in competition. The moves required on the indoor walls and at the competitions are often more difficult and dynamic than those practiced outside.

The popularity of indoor climbing has spawned a sub-industry of companies that design or manufacture the polyurethane protrusions that are bolted to walls as foot- and handholds. The companies are no longer simply trying to mimic the shape and feel of natural rocks. They're now catering to a new breed of climber who's focused on the gym and particular about his or her climbing experience.

People prefer different types of holds like they prefer different types of music, said Mike Nicholson co-owner of Kingdom Climbing, a company that makes holds. "You cannot find some of these shapes outdoors," he said, and for many new climbers, that's the appeal.

Photo by Flickr user Charlie Brewer

"Indoor climbing gyms have become a little bit of the center of the climbing universe," Chris Warner, owner of Earth Treks Climbing Centers, told the crowd at the Climbing Wall Summit. This sentiment was echoed several times throughout the conference.

Daniel Jeanette, member services manager at the Climbing Wall Association, which organized the conference, reckons that the number of indoor climbers is poised to eclipse their outdoor counterparts, if it hasn't already. The Climbing Business Journal says there are 398 commercial climbing gyms in the U.S., and predicts as many as 435 by the end of the year. Rock Gym Pro, which provides management software to 80 to 90 percent of gyms in the country, estimates the combined membership of its domestic clients was roughly 200,000 people in 2015. There is also a significant number of people who use the gyms to climb but aren't members.

There hasn't been one specific tipping point in climbing's tilt toward the mainstream. Over the past decade, climbing has grown alongside other non-traditional sports and forms of functional fitness like CrossFit and obstacle course competitions like Tough Mudder and American Ninja Warrior. Industry participants point to indoor climbing's appeal as a communal activity in an age of technological dislocation caused by smartphones and social media.

Gyms are also sprouting up because of millennials moving into urban centers, noted Peter Metcalf, who recently retired as head of climbing gear bellwether Black Diamond Equipment. They need a social gathering place and would rather spend money on experiences than furnishing their apartments, he says.

"Where do you find millennials? You go to the climbing gym," said Anneliese Steel, development associate with the Access Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving climbing destinations in North America. "It's the hub. It's the new CrossFit."

As more people take up climbing, though, there is the possibility of the pendulum swinging back, at least in part, from plastic holds to real rocks. Steel estimates that 20 percent of gym climbers aspire to get on a rock face outside at some point—something that gyms might not fully prepare them to do. Access Fund is being more proactive in educating indoor climbers about taking care of wilderness areas and protecting crags from erosion and pollution—for example, by setting up a booth at the Climbing Wall Summit.

"While not all of your clientele will take that next step to climb outdoors, many of them will," the flyer advertising one of the fund's gym programs says. "And when they do, we want them to take an ethic of personal responsibility and minimum impact with them."

It's an ethic that might sound familiar to the sport's original dirtbag climbers, but for those who might be used to climbing within range of WiFi and a coffee shop, everything old is new again.