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Love It or Hate It, Bouldering Gyms Are Changing Climbing

Climbing Business Journal's annual industry report forecast a future of continued growth for climbing gyms, with a bias toward bouldering. GearJunkie editors present differing perspectives on whether that trajectory is good for the sport.

bouldering in climbing gymAre climbing gyms good for rock climbing? (photo/Shutterstock)
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If a climbing gym with Topo Chico is wrong — I don’t want to be right.

That’s what I thought back in January 2016 when the Austin Bouldering Project (ABP) first opened its doors. I was there on the second day. The enormous bouldering space was packed with a larger diversity of climbers than I’d ever seen. I loved the clean, monochromatic route-setting and the abundance of walls. And I had no problem with the speedy Wi-Fi, snack options, and wealth of amenities.

Have I lived in a stinky van for months at a time to travel and climb? Yes, I have.

Do I love using a sauna and hot shower after climbing for a few hours at my local gym? Also yes.

Unfortunately, that dichotomy has led to a small identity crisis among rock gyms and the climbers who frequent them. Because the truth, according to a new report from Climbing Business Journal, is that gyms like ABP are growing faster than ever — with no end in sight. Over the past 10 years, climbing gyms have increasingly focused on shiny, uber-modern facilities, and more than half of new gyms only offer bouldering.

For some, the ascent of chic climbing diminishes the adventurous history of the sport, transforming gyms from quaint training spaces into hip scenery for kombucha-swilling posers. For others, it’s just an entry point for newcomers, many of whom look different from the mostly white male traditionalists who miss being gatekeepers.

But the buildings, walls, climbing holds, and Topo Chicos likely don’t have an opinion on that conundrum. It’s the people that make the culture. And at this pivotal moment, there’s a chance for something grand.

Climbing gyms have the opportunity to not only elevate the sport, but also to become engines for change, improving diversity, respect for nature, and work conditions across the outdoor industry.

The question is: Will they do it?

The Past

Climbing Editor Seiji Ishii in the Roof at Pseudo-Rock, circa 1995; (photo/David Hawkins)

To understand just how much the culture of climbing gyms has changed within the last 30 years, it’s helpful to take a trip back to a different time. Seiji Ishii, GearJunkie’s climbing editor and an avid outdoor climber with everything from long trad routes to first ascent ice climbs under his belt, chimes in here.

“I started climbing in the early ’90s, just as bolts came on the scene. The first climbing gyms would sprout a few years later.

“I graduated college in 1995 after milking a bachelor of science degree for a decade. My life was devoted to climbing and cycling. My first job was managing Austin’s first climbing gym. It was called Pseudo-Rock and was dirty, dingy, and hot. In other words, it was perfect for rock climbers, which was all there was back then. “Gym climber” wasn’t a term.

“Plastic holds were new, but they were archaic in design. They weren’t comfortable on the skin, just like real rock. We landed in chalk-saturated pea gravel, which coated us in dust. Just like climbing on our local cliffs. The routes were ‘tick-tack,’ and grades were humbling; there was no American Ninja Warrior movement, and V5 meant V5. Just like outside.

“The metal building would reach 100+ degrees in the summer, and the humidity was off the chart. The same conditions we would experience if we climbed outdoors in the summer, which we did. No, there wasn’t a coffee bar or any yoga. But what we lacked in amenities, we more than made up for it in the community.

“This was pre-cellphone, pre-social media. The gym became the Facebook of the local climbing scene. You brought your face and guidebooks.

“Mentorships for climbing outdoors were generously granted, often for a lift to the crag. You just broke up with your significant other? Moral and emotional support was aplenty. Climbers would often show up to talk to other climbers about deeply personal issues over cheap beer. There was no such thing as a $6 IPA.

“We watched out for each other at the cliffs and otherwise. It was a family, and the climbing gym was our common ground. Yes, we got physically strong there, but the community was the most valuable aspect.”

Climbing Gyms Expand and Diversify

Perhaps it was inevitable, but many rock gyms have grown into something very different. While some gyms might still foster a sense of community, they’re no longer glorified hangouts for a weird, misunderstood sport.

In short, climbing has grown mainstream.

Gyms have exploded in popularity with no signs of slowing down, according to the latest report from Climbing Business Journal, which began tracking the industry in 2013. While 2022 experienced a drop in new gym openings compared to 2021 (36 instead of 56), other indicators suggest that’s merely a fluke in a growth trend that will continue upward, the publication’s “Gyms and Trends” report said.

With a wide-angle view of the last 10 years, anecdotal trends long discussed by gym rats have become statistical facts. Yes, bouldering-focused gyms now account for half of the new gyms opening each year. Yes, climbing gyms rebounded faster from the pandemic than the rest of the fitness industry. And yes, the movement toward gyms with ever-expanding facilities is real and ongoing.

“I believe we are only scratching the surface,” said Lucas Kovalcik, founder and CEO of The Gravity Vault, which oversees 12 facilities and has a half dozen more on the way.

The growth and evolution of these gyms have spurred a revolution in diversity and technical ability. Their rise coincided with climbing’s addition to the Olympics in 2020 and the arrival of a new generation, many of them women and people of color, whose accomplishments have only improved a sport long dominated by white men.

It’s a pivotal moment for climbing gyms and a chance to do something that positively impacts the entire outdoor industry. As bouldering and competition climbing emerge as the biggest gateways to the sport, gyms have the opportunity to channel some of that enthusiasm back to the outdoors.

A graph from the Gyms and Trends report; (image/Climbing Business Journal)

Bouldering Climbs Higher

Bouldering-focused climbing gyms now represent half of all new facilities being built — a testament to the enduring popularity of the formula. (Indeed, many online dating profiles in Austin now include photos at one of the local bouldering gyms — more numerous, even, than the selfies at Machu Picchu or the group of smiling villagers from a missionary trip.)

There’s no doubt that the entry point for bouldering remains very low, with no technical skill needed to start climbing and the basic equipment (shoes and a chalk bag) available for rent. It’s likely a big driver for the prevalence of gyms focused primarily or solely on this ropeless segment of the sport.

“Bouldering still seems to be the fastest-growing segment in the industry,” Rich Johnston, founder of Elevate Climbing Walls and the Vertical World gyms, said in the report. “The overall trend is moving the sport further away from the historical and legacy foundation of the sport.”

However, that also means half of the gym industry retained a focus on the roped climbing disciplines. Half of the 36 new gyms that opened in the U.S. in 2022 included areas for climbing on ropes, including Movement Design District in Dallas and projectROCK Easley in South Carolina. 

The popularity of bouldering can also be seen as a reflection of the increased diversity found at different climbing gyms, which ultimately helps the industry as a whole, Kovalcik said in the report. 

“I think as the industry grows, so too does specific brand identities,” Gravity Vault’s Kovalcik said. “Climbing gyms are beginning to take on the differentiation we see in traditional gyms. While the core offering is climbing, how it is curated can be very different, which I think is great and how it should be.”

A graph from the Gyms and Trends report; (image/Climbing Business Journal)

Lack of Mentorship

It Does Exist … in Colombia

Here in Medellin, Colombia, the city offers three climbing gyms: two of them for bouldering and one with actual ropes.

The latter option, called Altitud, is the city’s first gym and one of the oldest in Colombia. It’s one small room of roped climbing that aims at education as much as training. It’s where you learn to use ropes before venturing into one of the several stellar climbing areas located outside the city or elsewhere in the country.

The gym is decorated with prayer flags and tattered photos of far-flung alpine ascents. You can buy a local craft brew or arepas (a popular Colombian snack) for about 2 bucks. The relaxed attitude reminded me of American climbing gyms 15-20 years ago.

During my first visit, the young climber managing the space, Andrés, told me how much he enjoyed Colorado during a trip last year. He said he wanted to explore more of the state’s wealth of climbing areas.

“Es increíble allí,” he said.

It’s the kind of place that our climbing editor Seiji Ishii would probably enjoy, with a casual friendliness to the space and locals talking about outdoor crags. Most importantly, when I inquired about climbing on real rock, they told me everything I needed to know and gave me some contacts to make it happen.

Our Climbing Editor’s Take on Mentorship

“Unfortunately, I don’t see the gym-to-crag pipeline happening in the United States’ fast-expanding gym industry.

“I still work at a climbing gym, but it looks and behaves much differently than the gyms of my youth. It’s a multi-million-dollar gym full of colorful, comfortable holds. There is nary a crimper in sight. The place is immaculately clean. Chalk dust is filtered out of the air before landing on the spongy mats. Coffee, kombucha, co-working space, and yoga are all there for the taking. But it totally lacks the sense of community that I miss dearly.

“There are few mentorships to transition outdoors. That’s partially because, for the bouldering-only crowd, there is much less need for technical knowledge. The old-timers who have climbed on ropes outdoors for decades are aging out of it, but the hordes of gym-only climbers aren’t producing replacements. And the cliquey groups don’t share information. The rise in accidents at the cliffs from the gym-to-crag transitions shows the effect of this shortage.

“I do train a group of higher-end climbers and we have become family. But we are an anomaly. I am more than 2 decades older than anyone in the group. And as just one passionate climber, I alone am not enough to ensure mentorship for all those who may need or want it.

“Inflated grades on routes that do not resemble real rock and indoors-only belay and lead certifications can’t be helping, either. I cannot tell you how often I hear at the cliff, ‘But I climb V5 at the gym, and I am lead-belay-certified at my gym.’ Climbing outdoors is an entirely different game full of risks not at all present indoors.

“There are no taped or color-coded holds, the footholds aren’t obvious, and you cannot assume that it’s safe because a route-setter made it so. Holds don’t snap off at the gym, potentially hitting the belayer, and everyone can assume that indoor anchors are solid. There are no ledges to hit during a leader fall, and you won’t land on a guillotine boulder if you hit the ground because you botched the second clip.

“I’m sure to a younger gym climber, the proliferation of the ‘super gyms’ is incredible for entertainment and social value. But for those who do want to venture outdoors, the current status of gym-to-crag is worrisome to me.

“Hardly anyone I know can afford a guide. I don’t see this as the gym’s fault. I see it as a result of the rapid rise in climbers overall, spurred on by climbing gym proliferation.”

Climbing Gyms: The Future

The Mesa Rim climbing gym in Austin opened in March 2023.
The newest climbing gym in the U.S. at the time of writing: Mesa Rim in Austin, Texas; (photo/Aaron Dial)

Unlike Seiji, I don’t have quite the emotional connection to old-school gyms.

When the South Austin Rock Gym finally closed its doors in 2016 (where Ishii also worked), I attended the farewell party with a strong dose of nostalgia — and resignation.

With two fancy new gyms opening up, the South Austin Rock Gym’s old-school approach just didn’t work anymore. It was a place of respite during my high-school years, but as an adult, I found it stinky, uncomfortable, and even dangerous.

Many friends who spent a decade at that gym were only too happy to bail when the Austin Bouldering Project and Crux Climbing Center moved to town. Like me, they were tired of the filthy bathrooms and broken showers. They were tired of worn, uneven flooring that sometimes resulted in twisted ankles, even in a controlled fall.

As we drank beer and relived memories, no one spent much time lamenting the gym’s downfall. Probably because we already had better options like ABP and Crux. Those gyms might not be as culturally rich as the ones Ishii remembers, but the bar is lower for me. There are routes to climb, and the showers work.

Many outdoor climbing purists bemoan the sport’s increased focus on gyms and indoor competitions. And that’s certainly a potential problem. But I think the novelty and popularity of climbing gyms give them a chance to create a culture of respect — not just for the rock, but for all our outdoor spaces, most of them threatened by overuse and climate change.

There’s a similar potential for the actual employees of these gyms, most of them climbers looking for a means of supporting their rocky addiction. Suppose climbing gyms embrace the unionization that began last year, improving wages and working conditions. That could help a generation of climbers while signaling that it’s possible to balance a growing business with improved quality of life for the people who make it possible.

Perhaps the naysayers are right, and climbing gyms have the potential to upend decades of tradition and hard-nosed adventure. Or perhaps they’ll elevate all of it: the old and the new. There’s no doubt that gyms’ popularity will continue to diversify the sport, opening the door for novel ideas of what it means to climb.

With a little more mentorship and a little more community, climbing could become one of the outdoor industry’s most progressive segments, building a culture of environmental consciousness, equitable working conditions, and strength through diversity.

Gyms might now be the beginning for millions of new climbers — but there’s reason to hope they’re not the end.

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