May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999

Climbing gyms go high-tech, top-dollar, and mainstream

I'll Stick with the Miso Soup
It sounds like a Zen riddle: When is a sumo wrestler too fat? Recently, sumotori who normally combine prodigious bulk with impressive agility and speed have become overweight because their performance schedules leave no time for training. Result: Fans have been complaining that blubbery 400-pound wrestlers are butchering their 2,000-year-old sport's intricate choreography of more than 70 acrobatic flips, twists, and thrusts—and in the process are reducing what should be a cross between ritualized combat and the Joffrey Ballet to little more than a shoving match between obese blobs. The crisis reached a head in May, when a rash of weight-related injuries, including blown knees and herniated discs, prompted the Japan Sumo Association to launch an unprecedented battle against bulge. According to new regulations, wrestlers who fail a body-fat test prior to competition will be diplomatically encouraged to scale back their 4,600-calories-a-day diets, which typically consist of up to a half-gallon of fatty chankonabe stew, several dozen fried chicken nuggets, a few hamburgers, a pound of rice, and two packages of hot dogs—all of it washed down with a gallon of iced tea and four or five pints of Kirin beer. But does this mean that the competitive circuit, which reconvenes this month for its annual Nagoya match, will now feature a parade of svelte sumotori? Don't bet on it. "The biggest wrestler of our time is 624 pounds, and he's trying to get down to 350," says Ken Coller, a Seattle-based columnist who covers the sport for the on-line magazine Sumo Web!. "He could spend the next 15 years doing that."

"We get 50 to 100 calls a day," says Paul Pitini, director of sales and marketing at Oregon-based Entre Prises, the world's largest manufacturer of climbing walls. "Most of the people who phone don't even climb; all they know is that everybody is suddenly screaming for artificial walls." If anything, that's an understatement. Ten years ago, there were only two major manufacturers of artificial climbing walls in America. Today, there are more than 30, and many are experiencing growth similar to Entre Prises's, which last year saw its sales increase 40 percent while profits rose nearly 60 percent—results that even a Silicon Valley exec would find respectable.

As the climbing craze continues accelerating, artificial slabs, crags, and towers are popping up all over the country in places formerly reserved for sensible shoes: malls, amusement parks, cappuccino bars, and retail stores. Goldman Sachs is building a 20-foot wall in its Manhattan headquarters where professional climbers will offer investment bankers private lunchtime lessons. In Bridgeport, California, the Marine Corps just completed an outdoor wall incorporating three types of simulated rock (limestone, basalt, granite). Drill sergeants there claim to be able to transform raw recruits into bona fide wall rats capable of scaling 5.6-rated cliffs—at night, in combat boots—in three weeks. And this fall when Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines launches its newest ship, the 142,000-ton Voyager of the Seas, the outdoor sports deck will feature a 33-foot wall attached to the smokestack. "For the first time, climbing is being exposed to a whole new demographic," says Shannon Sunderland, program director for the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America in Boulder, Colorado. "Now you have people climbing walls at county fairs in cowboy boots with a cigarette in one hand. I'm serious."

As the manufacturers rush to meet the increased demand, innovations run from the inspired to the bizarre. In what must feel like a threat to clowns and jugglers, $25,000 trailer-mounted climbing towers are now grabbing all the attention at fairs, birthday parties, and company picnics. Sporting goods retailers like Galyan's are clamoring for hydraulic walls, equipped with mechanical arms and electronic servo-jack systems, that can swing from a novice 12-degree slab into a 30-foot overhang at the push of a button. And then there are the self-generating ice walls, such as the 50-foot tower at the X Games, which cost $425,000, and supports 180 tons of ice.

In the past, much of this new technology has come from Europe, where climbing walls have been popular for more than 25 years. (The first indoor climbing gym in the United States did not open until 1987.) This year is no exception. The current state of the art in wall construction is something called Freeform, which entails shaping a polyester resin over a mesh-and-steel frame. The technique, first developed in England, enables designers to build in "natural" features such as cracks, flakes, and arêtes—a dramatic improvement over the traditional plywood-and-cement spray approach. Freeform makes its American debut this month at Manhattan's Plaza Health Club.

Meanwhile, Europeans are already looking ahead to the Next Big Thing: self-repairing ice walls that freeze from the inside out (look for them to appear at the end of this year). As for Americans like Pitini, it's all they can do to keep pace with present demand. "All I know is that business has gone nuts," says Pitini. "This industry is booming."

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