“Thrift Shop” thrums through speakers as in­dus­trial fans os­cil­late on the ceil­ing. Vel­cro rips, laces are tied, and Sharma-in­spired “Zz­zats!” echo in what was once a ware­house. Chalk-dusted polyurethane holds reach to­ward the ceil­ing, as clim­bers of all ages and back­grounds com­plete fig­ure-eight fol­low-throughs and give thumbs-ups: “On Be­lay!”

As easy as it is to poke fun at gyms, with their crowds and waivers, they’ve rev­o­lu­tion­ized how we ap­proach the sport. “It used to be that gyms… were a place for out­door clim­bers to train,” says Lu­cas Ko­val­cik, co-founder of Grav­ity Vault Climb­ing Gyms. Now they’re gath­er­ing spots where bankers and en­gi­neers, and 4-year-olds and 70-year-olds alike, learn to climb. “They find their place, their home, and their com­mu­nity,” Ko­val­cik ex­plains of his clien­tele.

North Amer­ica’s ar­ti­fi­cial climb­ing roots trace twice back to Seat­tle: The con­ti­nent’s first ar­ti­fi­cial wall, Schur­man Rock, popped up in West Seat­tle in 1939, when Clark Schur­man wanted to teach moun­taineer­ing. Then, in 1987, Rich John­ston and Dan Cau­thorn in­vested in Ver­ti­cal World, Amer­ica’s first in­door gym, com­plete with pea-gravel land­ings, pocket-stud­ded ply­wood, and epox­ied-on rocks. Some 517 gyms have since bro­ken ground in Amer­ica (in­clud­ing 62 that have closed), and there are now cor­po­rate chains. Af­ter ac­quir­ing Planet Gran­ite in 2017, Earth Treks Planet Gran­ite now op­er­ates as the US’s largest gym chain, with over 257,000 square feet of climb­ing spread across 11 fa­cil­i­ties. When it opens later this year, their 53,000-square-foot gym in En­gle­wood, Colorado, will be Amer­ica’s largest gym—larger than your lo­cal su­per­mar­ket.

One key facet of the mod­ern gym is its mul­ti­di­men­sion­al­ity—to­day’s gyms might best be con­sid­ered fit­ness cen­ters with a climb­ing fo­cus, where you might also take yoga or CrossFit, con­nect with friends, use the co-work­ing space, or buy gear (like at the REI Co-op store at Texas’s Mo­men­tum Katy). You might find a climb­ing part­ner at an event like Sin­gles and Swingers at Planet Gran­ite Port­land or take your part­ner blues danc­ing up­stairs at Climb Cleve­land. For clim­bers from the 1980s and ‘90s, when gyms were dark, scruffy af­fairs, to­day’s ex­pe­ri­ence can feel for­eign. “I don’t even re­mem­ber pad­ding on the floor,” Vince Schrek, an in­struc­tional de­signer at Port­land State Univer­sity, told me. Schrek started climb­ing in 1988 at Inside Moves in Grand Rapids, Michi­gan. “We had swami belts with leg loops at­tached by cara­bin­ers!” he re­calls.

Ac­cord­ing to the Out­door In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica’s 2017 Out­door Par­tic­i­pa­tion sur­vey, nearly 8 mil­lion Amer­i­cans climbed at least once that year. What may be more no­table, though, is that gym growth has ex­pe­ri­enced yearly

gains of at least 6 per­cent since 2010, ac­cord­ing to the

Climb­ing Busi­ness Jour­nal ( CBJ). This num­ber has drawn ma­jor in­vestors—like the health-and-well­ness pri­vate-eq­uity firm North Cas­tle Part­ners, who penned a deal in 2016 for $48 mil­lion to open and ex­pand Brook­lyn Boul­ders in and be­yond New York City. This in­fu­sion of cash has given gyms re­sources. As Robert Co­hen, CEO of Earth Treks Planet Gran­ite, puts it: “More in­spi­ra­tion, more re­sources ded­i­cated to en­hanc­ing gear, more ac­cess, and bet­ter yet, more amaz­ing climb­ing part­ners.”

Ver­ti­cal World’s John­ston of­fers an al­ter­na­tive view: “Now we’re at the point where I don’t re­ally un­der­stand the in­dus­try. Are in­door gyms an amuse­ment park? A day­care cen­ter?” He could eas­ily be re­fer­ring to the 50 new (as of 2018) gyms on the CBJ Gym Map, all of which will open this year out­fit­ted with day­cares, fit­ness classes, birth­day-party pack­ages, speed walls, saunas, and more. “I miss the vibe of the early gym,” says Rob Holz­man, founder of Next As­cent Guide­books. “[Though] I def­i­nitely want a gym with a sauna!”

This rise in gyms has cul­ti­vated clien­tele who pre­fer, or only have ac­cess to, in­door climb­ing. It has also in­tro­duced gyms in “climb­ing deserts”—places with no rock. At Mo­men­tum’s new lo­ca­tion in Hous­ton, clim­bers are in Amer­ica’s flat­test city, hours from stone. This ad­vent has led to a bumper crop of strong young clim­bers who may rarely, if ever, touch rock. Take Sinichiro No­mura. The 21-year-old boul­derer from Ja­pan spent 12 years in­doors be­fore tran­si­tion­ing out­side in De­cem­ber 2017, and has since ticked five V15s on rock. Be­yond the skill be­ing cul­ti­vated in gyms, how­ever, is also the vol­ume of clim­bers.

“We need to pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity for clim­bers to tran­si­tion from gym to crag re­spon­si­bly, safely, and in the spirit of men­tor­ship,” says Jeff Ped­er­sen, CEO and co-founder of Mo­men­tum. Other gym own­ers feel sim­i­larly, tak­ing proac­tive steps like invit­ing the Ac­cess Fund to events, host­ing crag cleanups with lo­cal coali­tions, and de­vel­op­ing pro­grams that pro­mote stew­ard­ship and re­spon­si­ble out­door climb­ing. Mailee Hung, di­rec­tor of out­reach for Touch­stone Climb­ing, cites a group of their em­ploy­ees trav­el­ing to the But­ter­milks in March to ed­u­cate clim­bers on stew­ard­ship along with BLM of­fi­cer Ron Napoles. And later this year, Touch­stone will col­lab­o­rate with the Payahu­u­nadü Al­liance at the But­ter­milks to pro­mote re­spon­si­ble recre­ation and land preser­va­tion

Land ac­cess re­mains on the fore­front of the climb­ing agenda, but it’s worth ex­pand­ing the con­ver­sa­tion to in­clude ac­cess to in­door climb­ing as well. Car­bon­dale, Colorado, a place known for its con­cen­tra­tion of clim­bers, many of whom moved there for nearby Ri­fle, lacked a pub­lic train­ing fa­cil­ity. Re­cently, Fabrizio and Alix Zan­grilli broke ground on Mon­key House, a 2,500-square­foot boul­der­ing fa­cil­ity. “Over 200 peo­ple showed up to our open house, and no­body knew any­body!” Fabrizio says. For years, Roar­ing Fork Val­ley lo­cals might see each other at Ri­fle and other area crags, but they had no cen­tral­ized place to meet, ef­fec­tively stunt­ing the growth of a co­he­sive com­mu­nity. Says Fabrizio, “I’m hop­ing that Mon­key House will be a com­mu­nity cen­ter for clim­bers in the val­ley.” With the Tokyo Olympics on the hori­zon and the Dawn

Wall mak­ing main­stream news, our com­mu­nity is amidst a growth spurt—and the grow­ing pains are real. While we might be frus­trated by that new­bie climb­ing on top of us at the gym at 5:30 p.m. on a Tues­day, climb­ing will con­tinue to grow for the same rea­sons we all came to it in the first place: to get stronger, to learn more about our­selves, and to con­nect to a com­mu­nity. As the new gath­er­ing spots, gyms are hav­ing a last­ing im­pact, one whose ef­fects we’re only slowly be­gin­ning to un­der­stand.

2. Wash­ing­ton climber Brit­tany Goris at VW’s Seat­tle lo­ca­tion in 2016. Like many of Amer­ica’s orig­i­nal gyms, VW has evolved with the new wall, hold, and fa­cil­ity tech­nol­ogy to be­come a mod­ern train­ing cen­ter, as well as a gath­er­ing spot/ hub for the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

1. Matt Kerns demon­strat­ing a clas­sic 1980s stepthrough on ex­pox­ied- on rocks at Ver­ti­cal World ( VW) in 1987, the year the gym— Amer­ica’s first in­door climb­ing fa­cil­ity— opened.

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