Hands gripping hold on climbing wall
(Photo: Trevor Williams/Getty)
Outside Business Journal

Opinion: Modern Gyms Are Failing Outdoor Climbers

In the age of knee-jerk monetization, have indoor climbing gyms jumped the shark?

Hands gripping hold on climbing wall
Steven Potter

from Climbing

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When I moved to New York City in October 2011, I half intended to quit climbing forever. Having spent most of high school and college gradually disenchanting myself with my dirtbag dreams, I had accepted the first “real” job that came my way (as a researcher at an executive search firm in Midtown) and was trying to get excited about a long grim future of glass towers and after-work IPAs. Thankfully, however, on my first day in the city, I stumbled onto a B train, rattled across the Manhattan Bridge, and found my way to Brooklyn Boulders, where I discovered an unlikely climber’s paradise.

This was the OG Brooklyn Boulders, pre-franchise, pre-labor dispute, pre-Bouldering Project sale, and back then, as the only “modern” gym in New York City, it played host to New York’s surprisingly robust population of core climbers, which then included bone-crushers like Vadim Vinokur, Tyler Landman, Ashima Shiraishi, and the late Phil Schaal.

The gym’s best two walls were its simplest: they stood beside each other, one at 30 degrees, one at 45, both about 15 feet wide and 12 feet tall, both so densely packed with holds that they almost resembled spraywalls, 40+ problems between V3 and V12 on each wall per set. This feat was made possible by the fact that the problems often overlapped each other, with most holds participating in multiple boulders, each of which was demarcated not by the color of the hold, as is now common, but by colored tape. I’d never seen so many boulder problems so close together. The route setters were constantly having to concoct fresh new tape color combinations: Brown with red and white stripes, brown with green cross, brown with Cleveland Browns sticker, and so on. Whether you climbed V3 or V8, there were often six or seven climbs to choose from on the 45-degree wall alone—each in a slightly different style. Blue-black not work for you? No problem, try camouflage. So strong you’ve sent the whole set? No problem; make up your own problems; you’ve got a freshly set spraywall right in front of you.

Instead of quitting climbing, I trained at BKB for 18 months, left for two years to climb outside again, and then moved back to the city for graduate school in 2014, just in time to watch the gym—which now had several competitors in the city—switch from taped problems to color-coordinated holds. Overnight the size of the holds increased and the problem density plummeted, even while the setting cadence (the frequency with which they re-set the walls) stayed the same. The result: where once the 45-degree wall might host eight V8s, now it held just two or three problems of that grade—and maybe ten or so scattered throughout the gym. And with fewer holds on the wall, making up your own problems was harder. Suddenly, at BKB, people were running out of problems to climb. 

The Failure of Contemporary American Gyms

I mention the original Brooklyn Boulders because its story parallels my experience of the evolving priorities in American climbing gyms over the last fifteen years. As climbing has gotten more popular and an increasing percentage of climbers come to see gym climbing as a sport distinctly separate from its outdoor counterpart, gyms have gotten bigger and cleaner and plush with amenities. But more space does not necessarily mean more or better climbing. For even while square footage and hold sizes have grown, setting density has shrunk, and setters are increasingly emphasizing flashy but space-wasting holds and moves that might look good on TikTok feeds but only minimally resemble the majority of movements we find outside. 

This isn’t necessarily a problem—or, rather, it need not necessarily be a problem: Saunas and coworking spaces and apre-sesh lattes can be nice; comp problems and burly slopers offer a certain kind of full-body training that creaky outdoor climbers like myself can benefit from; and making things look cool on Instagram and TikTok is too central to the communication of modern identity for me to risk dismissing without a more serious investigation than I have space to mount here. Yet my experience is that, whether they intend it or not, gyms are too often prioritizing these amenities at the expense of both the quality and quantity of climbing. 

What’s More Wasteful?

The transition from tape to hold color happened slowly, gym by gym, and was regarded with fatalistic dismay by most climbers I knew. We couldn’t help but notice that the increasingly common system was synonymous with two things: (1) fewer overall boulders (since there are far fewer hold colors than there are tape combinations); and (2) fewer powerful climbs on the walls best suited for powerful climbing (since most early adopting gyms tended to equate a particular color with a particular difficulty—white is V7-8, for instance; red is V9 and harder—which meant you could never again have multiple climbs of the same grade on the same section of wall).

What’s so bad about tape? we asked.

Well, tape, the counterargument always seemed to go, is wasteful, each strip useless after its one and only deployment. Going without tape cuts down on waste while also giving the walls a cleaner look.

This is true about tape. I worked as a barter-setter throughout college (a once common but probably endangered arrangement in which climbers used to set at commercial gyms in exchange for free memberships) and can vouch for the fact that we threw away great mounds of tape back then. But I don’t buy the wider implication that not using tape is less wasteful than using it. 

Because the reality is that new gyms, with their gigantic footprints and excessively proportioned holds, are plush with waste too. Polyurethane doesn’t grow on trees and is not recyclable once our hands and shoes and liquid chalk have ruined their texture. And since color-based problems necessarily decrease problem density, gyms have to be bigger in order to fit enough problems to satisfy their visitors; this means increased square footage and more space to heat and air condition. It also means that setters, faced with vast empty walls, have begun using larger and larger holds to make the walls look full—i.e. to make it seem like they’ve filled the gym with its maximum possible number of climbs, when in fact, since so many modern holds consist primarily of non-critical material, they’ve just filled the walls with lots of color.  

If tape was vilified as wasteful, why aren’t we talking about these gigantic wall-monopolizing holds? Why aren’t we decrying the dinner-plate-sized hunks of plastic whose only usable feature is a half-pad crimp? Take a look at the @expensiveboulders Instagram account, which features literally hundreds of boulders whose holds and features cost multiple thousands of dollars, and tell me our priorities aren’t misaligned. When I see $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000 spent on a single boulder problem—a price-to-problem ratio that is by no means rare on @expensiveboulders—the long-simmering climbing bum within me boils to life. 

“Why do we need bigger gyms if that’s just going to lead to fewer problems per wall?” the bum asks. “Is this really the best use of our money? Why not pay human setters to set more cheaper boulders rather than fewer expensive boulders? Why do we need holds the size of computer screens or steering wheels when the only part you can actually grab is the size of a cell phone? Why not save money on holds and give gym discounts for local school kids or install solar on the roof or become a rolling contributor to Paradox Sports or the Access Fund or the Honnold Foundation? Why can’t we just go back to the old days and set more problems with smaller holds and distinguish them from one another with tape?”

I think the answers to those questions—and the real reason our gyms now look and feel the way they do—have to do with aesthetics and the Instagram age, with group-think and market pressures, with the priorities of venture-backed gym owners and our increasing inability, as consumers, to differentiate between viewing and participating—all of which, taken together, have distorted the purpose of climbing gyms and the role they play for climbers. 

Climbing Versus Aesthetics in the Age of Knee-Jerk Monetization

One way that setters have come to justify the bigger-hold, fewer-problem paradigm is by imitating the gymnastic style that—for a variety of fascinating reasons—has come to dominate the international competition scene. At their best, these comp problems are like art pieces, murals made animate by our attempts to move through them. Take a look at the Flathold Youtube channel, which is all about World Cup setting, and you’ll see that artfulness is a central consideration for World Cup setters—setters who, because it’s a comp, have both the climbers and the audience in mind. But when these World Cup aesthetics are deployed in commercial gyms, the logic of who the problem is “for” isn’t quite as clear. World Cup boulders are (a) designed to be hard to do in a four-minute attempt window without wasting too much energy for later boulders, and (b) are designed to be at least as pleasing for the audience as they are for the climber. But recreational climbers are (theoretically anyway) climbing for themselves, not an audience, and we can rest between attempts as long as we want. So why this proliferation of TV-worthy boulders? Are we so used to seeing climbs that we now evaluate our climbing experiences based upon how the climbs (and ourselves as climbers) might appear to a fictional spectator? Or is this spectator even fictional? Are that many of us really recording our gym sends and posting them to the ’Gram?

That said, I kinda get it. Training function (or the lack of it) notwithstanding, modern gym climbs—composed of splashy yellows and pinks, with upside down toehooks and coordination dynos—are often beautiful. Climbing walls look cleaner and neater and more accessible when a minimum of color-coordinated boulders mar the otherwise smooth surface of each panel. And I think these visual preferences, while accentuated by the Instagrams and TikToks of the world, are also deeply human: Our minds instinctively connect dots, superimposing narrative into our world, and as a result we’re attracted to clearly delineated pathways. This is one reason why competition problems stand alone on their section of the wall: they look better; they show up better in photos; and they’re easier for the audience to read and understand. (The same principle relates to attractive lines outside: Dreamcatcher and Luxury Liner are so classic in part because they take the singular path up an otherwise unclimbable section of rock.)

Conversely, spraywalls and their kin—walls clogged with holds of every shape and color—look (and are) chaotic, a sea of stars with few obvious constellations. These walls (which are expensive because of the sheer number of holds required but by definition have extremely good price-to-problem ratios) don’t just fail to easily produce pretty Instagram pictures and marketing copy, they also require climbers to work harder to see and read boulder problems. This increases the barrier to entry for new climbers—and barriers to entry are exactly what commercial gyms, whose business relies on a beginner population willing to shell out for expensive day passes and gear rentals and how-to courses, fundamentally want to minimize, even if that also means quietly minimizing the experience of other, more experienced climbers while simultaneously enlarging the gym’s environmental impact. 

The catch? The chaotic visual nature of these spraywalls (and their old-school relatives) is directly related to their functionality. They are chaotic because they contain a lot of information—a lot of options, a lot of climbs. And for some climbers, those climbs are far more important than the increasingly cushy accessories found in most new gyms.

Fun fact: that first Brooklyn Boulders had no sauna, no showers, no in-house coffee makers or beer bars. The workout facility had two often-broken treadmills, some rings, and a rowing machine. Their problems rarely featured flashy protuberant holds because such holds claimed too much space on the wall. But if the OG BKB existed today with the same setters and the setting priorities, it would be one of my favorite gyms in the United States. 

Maybe I’m Just a Curmudgeon  

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not anti-progress. One reason that I can feel nostalgic for gyms that used shredded car-tires as landing zones is because I doubt that I’ll have to backflop on those car tires ever again. I can fondly recollect the asthmatic air quality of those dingy first-generation gyms largely because I no longer have to keep an inhaler in my climbing bag. Indeed, there’s a lot to like about modern gyms. I like the weight rooms. I like rowing machines and auto belays. I like lattes and beer bars, working spaces with organic restaurants built in. I like that there are MoonBoards and Tension Boards and Kilter Boards to offset the fact that the modern setting has strayed so far from its training roots. And you know what? When my fingers hurt, I even like the fact that these new gyms have a wide variety of open-handed volumes to dance around on. 

So in the war between aesthetics and quality, can we really expect quality to win? I’m not optimistic—but I’m also not entirely consumed by despair. 

To my mind, most modern gyms are out of balance, favoring looks over the kind of functionality that most outdoor climbers actually want. And I’d love to see that swing the other way a little. I’d like to see a bit more emphasis on the actual climbing over the aesthetics of the things we climb. I’d like to see more environmental consideration when gym owners and setters think about the buildings they build and the walls they design and the holds they fill those walls with. I’d like to walk onto a new gym and feel the same sense of sweaty-tipped awe I felt when I first walked into Brooklyn Boulders 11 years ago.

Lead Photo: Trevor Williams/Getty

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