Bouldering gyms are more popular than ever. (Photo: Trevor Williams/Getty Images)

The Climbing Gym Has Lost Its Soul

Indoor gyms are en vogue. One veteran climber and editor argues that the community has lost something amid the popularity.

Delaney Miller

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This article was first published by Climbing.

The climbing industry has boomed over the last decade. Impressive establishments have cropped up across corporate America, and they purport to cater to all. Climbing gyms appeal to a health-centric pop cultural consciousness as the latest epicenters for exercise—patrons can visit a modern facility and choose from a bouldering session, a yoga class, a treadmill, and more. Since the pandemic, climbing gyms have served as establishments for social revitalization. Many people enjoy going as a chance to catch up with friends face to face, meet new people, or go on dates. And climbing gyms are accessible, lively Instagramable institutions feeding a hunger for urban sports that’s been deepening for years. Over the last decade, they’ve become “cool.”

But doesn’t it feel like the climbing community has lost something?

While many people go to gyms for the workout or social hour, others climb for the internality that the sport provides. It’s a religious experience, one that awakens a metamorphosis of spirit and mind. We need a temple in which to practice, and while the rock always calls, gyms can and historically have provided a place of refuge as well.

There was an event, Back to Black, that took place February last year at Aman Anderson’s gym, Beast Fingers Climbing. Anderson, inventor of the Grippul, is one of the few Black gym owners in America. During the event, Anderson said: “I’ve been around, I’ve seen the climbing gyms. I started climbing when the mega-gym wasn’t close to today’s mega-gym. All the gyms were small, community-type environments. For me, coming into climbing at that time was better than if I had come into climbing the way it is now. The way it is now, you walk into a space and you feel like you’re walking into Disney World.”

After hearing that, I couldn’t shake it. There are currently nearly 600 gyms nationwide, many of them venture-backed chains. El Cap has an astonishing 21 locations across the U.S. The Bouldering Projects and Summit Climbing, Yoga, and Fitness each have seven locations; Momentum Indoor Climbing has six. Walk in to any of them. See a sea of shiny, luminous holds; the walls looming fifty feet high. Watch the climbers crank across the expanse, alternating between hangdogging, sending, taking rips, and doing laps. Across the mats and surrounding floor, there’s a rippling tide of gear, belayers, groups of onlookers, clusters of children, piles of backpacks and water bottles, the occasional Clif Bar wrapper. There’s a coach yelling, a small impromptu yoga class on the corner matts, and beyond that, rooms full of sweaty moms and dads and young people on treadmills and lifting weights. Others are out and about, putting on gear, getting ready to join in.

The above image should be good. For many, it is. And modern climbing gyms are objectively better than their predecessors—they’re bigger, with better constructed walls and more open designs. But the feel of them is what’s off. Why is it that you used to walk in and it felt like home? When did the feel become that of Disney World?

Growing up, my gym wasn’t flashy. The walls were just 30 feet tall and held too many angle changes to be conducive to decent setting; most of the holds were old and slippery and caked with chalk. It was family owned, and everyone who went there knew each other. It was there that I learned the culture of climbing. I learned ethics, how to train, and a deep passion was instilled within me.

I fear for the longevity of the soul of our sport—the overwhelming gnawing that made old-school climbers cut their own hangboards and craft homemade gear. The polished holds; the layers of dust and dirt; the dog sessions. The spaces where I actually felt at ease. Knowing that Anderson felt the same way, I reached out to him. I needed to know why he said what he said, and where he thought things went wrong.

Anderson talked about moving from D.C to Colorado. He spoke at length about Earth Treks Rockville, which was possibly America’s first “mega-gym.” It was the gym Anderson had joined while living in D.C. After moving west, he went to the Earth Treks Golden location. The Director of Earth Treks centers, Seth Murphey, had a hand in fostering the feel of all the affiliated gyms.

“Earth Treks Rockville had this welcoming feel,” says Anderson. “And Murphy had replicated the Earth Treks Rockville feel in Golden. So I said, ‘Seth what is it about you and building communities in these gyms? How do you do it?’ And you know, he was a believer. And he was like, ‘Man, I tried to just give it that church feel.’”

That church feel; the deacon at the door, the people saying “Welcome! Welcome!”; the handshakes and the communion. The singular, focused consciousness. I understood immediately what Seth had been trying to do.

Anderson continued: “The challenge is, maybe Earth Treks did a good job of replicating that feel across the country, but now it’s not Earth Treks anymore. It’s something else. And that whole churchy feel, that ‘Welcome to blah blah, blah and heart warm Southern Baptists feel,’ it’s just not out there anymore.”

Most gym employees don’t seem to have the same experience or enthusiasm, I offered by way of possible explanation. It’s hard to blame them: In an Instagram survey of climbing gym employee salaries, of the 263 responses, 62 percent stated they felt they were unfairly compensated. Many also said they worked multiple jobs, and that they’d experienced unsafe working conditions. We need our deacon back, but for that to happen, gym employees, from the front desk staffers to the coaches to the setters, all need better compensation.

“What else has changed?” I asked. “The music,” said Anderson.

I laughed. It’s funny how something so seemingly small can change a space. We talked about how whiney or boring some of the playlists at local gyms had gotten. Anderson remembered how Earth Treks Rockville used to allow gym members to queue up songs in a jukebox for 75 cents a pop. “A couple of buddies and I would team up and we’d just string together a series of like 20 songs. We probably spent like 14 bucks. But we’d have that gym poppin!”

When I went to school in Fort Collins in 2013, I did the hour-long commute to Denver to train for competitions—the gyms in Denver were comparatively much taller and had newer holds, which meant better training terrain. I’d go between classes during the week when it wouldn’t be busy. I remember walking in on a Tuesday morning and one of the gym employees asking me what playlist I wanted to listen to. “Missy Elliot,” I said. They put it on, and then they kept putting it on every time I came into the gym after that. It was a whole year of Missy Elliot.

Setting style is another thing that’s changed. Routes and boulders should be set to prioritize the experience of every user, from beginner to elite, and should necessitate a rich and diverse pool of climbing movements. Not only that, they should give us storied experiences, serving as a lens by which we experience small moments of tragedy and comedy, confusion, adversity, pain, failure, and, if we’re lucky, triumph. They should teach the climber something physically and mentally and contribute to a culture of learning and development.

These days, I mostly see routes and boulders that are meant for beginner to intermediate climbers. Plenty of advanced to elite-level climbers will climb out an entire set in a day and then be relegated to spray wall or system board. Why should they pay for a huge facility that doesn’t serve them? Additionally, the grades are intentionally soft, which makes progression feel more accessible. This, unfortunately, does little to incentivize real improvement, and it’s the desire to improve, to devote time and energy to climbing, that helps build lasting community around the sport.

“If you had to sum it up, what is it that’s really changed?” I asked Anderson.

Together, we agreed that it came down to this: We had once felt free to be ourselves in the gym, and that just wasn’t the case anymore.

Anderson recalled one particular session at Movement Baker with a strong friend, someone who regularly climbed double-digit boulders outside, and how a front desk employee approached the friend to tell him his grunts were too loud. He was “disturbing the peace.”

That right there—that was it. People need to be allowed to express themselves through climbing. Here’s the part where I tell you about how growing up, training for National and International competitions, I cried in the gym at least once a month. I cried because I cared. I wanted it. I was there to lay my soul upon the sacrificial altar, and that’s what I did. I wasn’t embarrassed for it. It’s hard to imagine being comfortable showing that kind of emotion in most of today’s modern gyms.

Lead Photo: Trevor Williams/Getty Images