In 2001, when I tied my first figure-eight knot, the word “rock” still very much applied to the sport of rock climbing. It seems bizarre now, but in those Power Bar-fueled days you had to trek to an actual cliff or boulder to climb. And when you did, you wore an ugly, clunky helmet, a harness that compromised your fertility and zero people thought you were cool.
Climbing gyms were cramped, dusty and reeked of the 90s. They definitely weren’t architectural gems the size of airplane hangars that serve as real-life Tinder-meets-yoga studio-meets-sober-nightclub. But that’s what you get at today’s top facilities. Gym owners are making up for lost time, plunking them down every which where, pumping the music, churning out yoga classes, belay classes, birthday parties and memberships.
In 2014, there were 350 rock gyms in the country, a number that has since grown by 30 annually. In the last few years, rock gyms have doubled, tripled or quadrupled in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and even places where not a single rock lies within a day’s drive. There’s a bouldering wall in Brooklyn Bridge Park. A climbing wall slated at Chicago’s Navy Pier. A hipster-packed gym in every hip American neighborhood. A five-story, 100-foot-long-wall coming to West Palm Beach, Florida, for Chrissakes.
In unprecedented numbers, newbies are flailing around in mesh shorts. Wearing harnesses while bouldering. Demonstrating odd, and nerve-wracking, belay techniques. Clipping huge bouldering chalk bags to their harnesses. But also, they’re breathing a whole lot of new stretchy-pant-clad life into what was a niche, crankish pursuit your parents used to mistake for mountaineering. I’m guessing mom and dad know what it is by now.
Climbing, as The New Yorker, puts it, “has turned into the new squash or tennis for a certain young professional set,” who, an industry study found, “don’t see themselves as outdoorsy.”
It makes a climber wonder: Are all these EDM-filled, newbie-packed, yoga-tinged climbing gyms ruining something sacred? What exactly are indoor-gyms — and indoor-kids — turning the sport into? A…fitness craze? On par with CrossFit? Or Zumba for the young and the hip?
But unlike skateboarding, climbing isn’t in the midst of an identity crisis about selling out. No one cares about competitive climbing. Few people make enough money off the sport, including its top athletes, to be called sell-outs. It’s more just weird when Alex Honnold shows up on 60 Minutes, or mainstream media gets obsessed with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s Dawn Wall project, even if they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. Core climbers are rarely heard disparaging gym-born climbers like Sasha DiGiulian or Ashima Shiraisha. More often, they’re amazed at how high gym climbing has pushed difficulty standards.
I’ve only ever heard climbers appreciate the fact that beautiful, modern climbing gyms, full of fun routes, yoga-pant-clad asses and six-packs have finally come to their city. A majority of climbers I know, myself included, owe something of their romantic lives to a chalky fling that started in a plastic, pheromone-scented grotto. Why go on dates or to outdoor climbing areas when you can have both for $70 a month, unlimited yoga included?
And unlike surfing (which, as someone who also happens to ride waves, can compare), gym climbing doesn’t pose the same threat as wave pools might. Gym climbers don’t necessarily clog outdoor crags the way that future pool-surfers from Texas might hog a SoCal peak. Even if they did, most climbers would probably greet them with a nerdy politeness. (Compare interactions in your local lineup with those at your local climbing crag. You’ll hear less aggression. Like none.)
Sure, it’s annoying when we find our outdoor gems too crowded to do our thing. And yes, the popularity of climbing gyms contributes to that. But, as opposed to a swell, cliffs won’t shrink to nothing over a few days. You might have to brush some chalk off a route, but it’ll be there tomorrow, same quality as it is today. If you could surf in perfect conditions from 6 a.m. to midnight every day of the year, wouldn’t you?
Maybe yoga is a closer parallel to climbing. Or ski resorts. They’ve all become embarrassingly commercialized. Become a punchline. But if they hadn’t, you might not have done your first sun salutation, your first run or your first boulder problem. What’s been gained, versus what’s been lost?
Rock gyms have definitely made climbing less cool. Mass appeal will do that. But I definitely still want a membership.