Over the past four decades, climbing has gone from a countercultural activity taking place entirely on natural rock walls to a highly competitive sport that, for the most part, happens inside. And yet the scene in a climbing gym is very different than a yoga studio or a spinning class. There’s something special about roping up, even if there is a ceiling over your head. We dispatched our intrepid producer, Maren Larsen, to spend 16 hours straight in a popular Denver climbing gym to understand what exactly keeps people coming back.
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Maren Larsen: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Maren (field): What time is it? 8:30? Yeah I am losing my ability to form coherent sentences, but you know, other than that, everything's going great.
Maren: That was me, Maren Larsen, one recent evening after fourteen and a half hours in a climbing gym in Denver.
I was there not to climb, but to talk to climbers in an effort to figure out why they were there. After all, this is the Front Range of Colorado, and there are plenty of outdoor adventures to be had nearby, including climbing on actual rock. But all across the country, even in places with easier access to great climbing than Denver, gyms are packed. And if you've been to one yourself, you know that the scene is very different than what you find in a traditional fitness gym or yoga studio or spinning class. But... how? And why? Well, the best way to find out is to spend a very long day talking to climbers.
Field tape: Climbing is this crazy balance between pushing through boundaries, but also being aware about your own boundaries and not just pushing too much. And that's what I learned with climbing every day
Maren: But first, some context. Before 1987, when the very first modern climbing gym opened in Seattle, you had to actually go outdoors go climbing. But over the years, more and more climbers have come to the sport through the gym. And many of them never even make it to the crag.
Maren: I was born in the mid-90s, and just a couple years later a climbing gym opened up in my small hometown in Colorado. My parents are both climbers, and their friend ran it, so I practically grew up there. I was rolling around on the crash pads in diapers and getting clipped into a full-body harness as a toddler. In adulthood, climbing gyms have continued to be a major part of my social life: in these spaces, I've worked jobs, met and made some of my best friends, and even went on ill-advised first dates.
Meanwhile, their popularity has soared. A 2021 report from the Climbing Business Journal found that indoor climbing is now more than twice as popular as all outdoor disciplines combined. This is no doubt fueled by mainstream movies like 2017's The Dawn Wall and 2018's Free Solo, followed by climbing's debut in the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. Most people can't just hop on to the big walls of Yosemite or solve an olympic-level bouldering problem, but if they can find a climbing gym, they can try the sport out.
These days, I describe myself as culturally a climber, rather than athletically one. I've never climbed expert grades or become truly obsessed with the sport, and I haven't had a gym membership in years. But still, these sweaty, chalky places feel a bit like home to me.
So it didn't sound like a half bad idea to spend 16 hours camped out at one, talking to other people who have found themselves drawn to these indoor spaces for outdoorsy people.
Maren (field): Good morning. It is still dark out and I am walking to the climbing gym. Well, not walking. I'm walking to my car and then I will take my car to the climbing gym.
Maren: At 6:00 am sharp one weekday morning, I rolled up to a gym in the semi-suburbia of eastern Denver. By the time I fished out my recorder, people were already chalking up and hitting the plastic, and an exercise class was about to start up in one of the multipurpose rooms. As you'll hear throughout this episode, it's a noisy place and not really ideal for recording interviews.
Maren (field): What are the mornings usually like here?
Jake Crine: Um, man, so usually it's kind of, We'll get like, like 10 to 15 people.
Jake: Usually in the morning.
Maren: The 40-foot walls of this gym are familiar to me, though for most of the handful of times I've been here I was part of the after work crowd. This place is called UBERGRIPPEN ....ubergrippen, a name that I find nearly impossible to say with a straight face. According to the owner, Jake Crine, it's climbing lingo that describes the feeling of relief when you grab the first good hold after a particularly challenging sequence of moves, though I found this definition impossible to verify independent of their business cards and website.
Jake and his wife Kim, who I catch when they arrive for the day with their two adorable dogs, opened Ubergrippen 6 years ago in 2017. They call it an indoor climbing crag, and don't let Jake overhear you calling it a gym.
Maren (field): I mean, you call it an indoor climbing crag.
So why, why that approach? And why did you pull that?
Jake: I hate gyms.
Maren: You hate gyms. So you decided to start one. Great.
Jake: It's a crag. I started a crag. Let's, let's be cool. We have a gym and it says the gym upstairs where you can go lift weights, where you can pick things up put things back down and that's my idea of going to a gym and it just sounds miserable versus climbing's more social and, it's about the experience with your friends and your community and, the essence of going out to the crag. I wanted to try and create that here, whereas not just to go to the gym to get fit. It's to go to the crag to enjoy your time with your family and friends.
Maren:It sounds like you're an outdoor person who created an indoor space to feel as much like the outdoors as possible.
Jake: Well, we're in Denver and we're 30, 40 minutes from the foothills.
Maren: Right. Yeah.
Jake: So depending on traffic it could be an hour.
Jake: There's a lot of professionals and young families that came to Colorado. They are drawn to the Colorado lifestyle. Mm-hmm. But it's still far away. It's not like out your doorsteps. Like some communities, you can go on a mountain bike ride right there. You gotta kind of work for it. And if you want to be able to train so you're a little bit more ready for your weekend adventure, then this gives you an opportunity to do it.
Maren: It was pretty clear from the start of our conversation what Jake's vision is for his–look, I think I'm going to have to call it a gym.
Jake: We're the community crags, so we pretty much plant ourself in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. Right? Walk out our front door and see them right there, there's houses right there.
Jake: There's a school right there. There's a church next door to us. We're not in an industrial warehouse park. Again, our vision when we opened was we wanted to make this a community place. So being in the heart of the community that we live in and, and had at the time lived in for 10 years is really important.
Maren: Jake's love of indoor climbing started when he was a high school student in New Mexico.
Jake: My, my story of when we opened, we're driving around our neighborhood here. We saw all these young kids and have this aha moment that they're gonna be high schoolers sometimes soon. Um, and they would need something to do and reflected on when I was in high school, like first thing my friends and I did when we got our driver's license was start to learn how to climb.
Maren: So Jake is a climber who fell in love with the sport in his teens, with his friends, and now, three decades later, he's a dad and he's still at it. It's clear from talking to him that he hopes his not-a-gym will serve gym users like him at all stages of life.
As I start walking around Ubergrippen and introducing myself to climbers, I get the sense that he's pulling it off. There are all kinds of people here, and it seems like just about everybody is a regular.
There's a group of four who come in at 6 am three days a week.
Unidentified woman: They'll do climbing competitions here, they call it League.
Maren (field): Mm-hmm.
Unidentified woman: Um, but our first team name was Morning Glory.
Maren (field): That makes sense. Yeah, that totally makes sense.
Maren: I spot a woman camped out with her laptop, alternating laps on the wall with answering emails.
Maren (field): Working from the climbing gym today?
Unidentified woman #2: Yeah, a little bit of working while climbing.
Maren: I even talk to a guy who could tell me a thing or two about spending whole days at the gym, because, for a couple years, he lived in his van in the parking lot.
Dirtbag Climber: You know, the typical, dirtbag climber life of living in a van.
Maren: Most people here, of course, do not live in the parking lot. But a lot live in the neighborhood. Chris and Alex are neighbors just north of here, who say they come in once a
Maren (field): What is the thing that like gets you the most psyched?
Chris: It's taking a fall.
Chris: Taking a big fall. Alex catches me.
Chris: Feels really good. So falling off of the wall is you falling off the wall.
Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Chris: And surviving. And surviving and knowing it. Just picking up the pieces and getting back after it.You're doing it wrong if you just go straight up.
Maren: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris: Gotta really take that spill. So.
Maren: Yeah. Who needs to climb clean? Like that's ridiculous.
Maren (narration): And they got their kids into the sport, too.
Maren: What do you see your kids getting out of it?
Chris: I think definitely confidence is a big thing with their kind of strength to weight ratio. They can excel pretty quickly.
Chris: Uh, at this, at least as compared to myself. It's something we can do together to where like the 11 year old can do the same routes that I'm doing, and he started at the same time I did too.
Maren: How does it make you feel to watch your kids like…
Terrible. That's why I had to come every week. He doesn't come every week, so like, I have to come every week to make sure I,
Alex: you're already competing. Already competing.
Chris: Oh, totally. Yeah. It's always competing.
Maren: How long do you think you can keep that up?
Chris. Oh, it's already done. Yeah.
Maren: He's not exaggerating.
Megan: the kids in here are the best climbers,
Maren: This is staff member and coach, Megan.
Megan: Like this group that's here now, the team, I mean, they climb stuff that are like the only other people in the gym that can climb it is like our setters.
Maren: Take Elena, who's 17 and has been climbing here since she was 12, after going to a few birthday parties at gyms and loving it. Now, she's on the competition team, and she's here all the time. If she's not on the wall, she's staring up at one, cheering her teammates on.
Maren (field): I think I overheard you saying you come in six days a week, five or six days a week. Yeah?
Elena: Yeah. We have practice three days a week, and then I'm out in here almost every other day that I don't have practice. I just like climbing that much.
Elena: I guess. But, um, I, there's a really great sense of community here. Like I can come in and I can see members I know or my own teammates almost every day that I'm here and like we can work on stuff together. And it's just a ton of fun to be in here, pretty much.
Maren: Do you think you're going to keep climbing when you go to college or, uh?
Elena: Yeah. That was actually a big factor in where I decided to go. Um, I got out of all the schools I got into, I had to make sure that there was a climbing community at the school and like access close by for me. So I ended up at the University of San Diego cuz there's two gyms within 10 minutes of campus. That's something I really want cuz I'm in here so much. It's just like part of what I do and it makes me happy. And it's like my stress outlet too, so I just need to keep doing that.
Maren: It's not just kids like Elena that seem to get pulled into spending practically all of their time here. I meet Chris and Scott, two guys who seem to be about retirement age that are chatting with a few route setters as they put up new climbs with power drills. Scott spends so much time here that he asked Jake for a job, and recently started working here part time. They say that climbing takes them back to their youths.
Maren (field): What do you feel like you get out of climbing?
Chris: Uh, the opportunity to be an eight year old boy Again, every, you know, every time you come to climb, you can just be an eight year old boy to play. Um, climbing has just a huge element of play, and so, accidentally you end up getting a workout, uh, and you get your head cleared for like going out and playing in the afternoon. Like an eight year old kid.
Maren: What about you? What does it do for you?
Scott: Well, I kind of come here to train to climb outside, but I, I also feel like Chris, you know, it's like when you're on the wall, you only care about what's four feet ahead of you. You don't care about what happened that day at work or, you know?
Chris: Yeah. When, when you're a kid, all you're thinking about is what's, uh, four feet, you know?
Scott: Yeah. A foot in front of you. What lies ahead.
Chris: Right. It concentrates the mind like, like those damn little eight year olds get to do, and the rest of us have to live these scattered lives,
Scott: It's true.
Maren: Everyone I talk to has found a way to work climbing into their scattered lives through the gym. I find Hazel and her mom Mari, who are squeezing in a mid-morning session together between work and school.
Maren (field tape) Who got who into it?
Hazel: She climbed in high school and then we went for her birthday in November and I really liked it when we went together, so.
Maren: Oh wow.
Hazel: So she did, yeah.
Maren: That's so cool. What is it like climbing with your mom?
Hazel: Oh, it's my favorite thing ever. Yeah, she's very impressive. It kind of hurts my ego that she's better than I am, but I'll get there at some point.
Mari: She'll get there soon.
Hazel: It’s just my ego.
Mari: She's just about there. She'll get there soon.
Maren: Can I ask how old you two are?
Hazel: I'm 18.
Maren: Oh wow. Okay. That's amazing. Two generations of climbers.
Mari: But my bad news is that she's getting ready to go to college. So.
Maren: Far away?
Maren: Oh, there's good climbing in California.
Hazel: There is. Go Slugs!
Maren: That'll be fun.
Hazel: I'm excited.
Maren: So you're gonna have to find a climbing buddy.
Mari: You can raise up your own climbing buddy. But then you gotta go find a new one when they go off to college.
Maren: You think you'll keep climbing?
Mari: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I think, uh, she sort of reawakened the beast.
Maren: For those in search of a new climbing buddy, there's the Belaytionship Board, a place in the gym where solo climbers can post their information and hopefully meet someone to trade belays with–and maybe make a friend.
I catch an older climber named Catherine while she's waiting for her new Belaytionship match, a woman who looks to be in her twenties who she's just meeting for the first time.
Maren (field): How long have you been climbing?
Catherine: Uh, over 30 years.
Maren: Oh my gosh. What first got you into it?
Catherine: I saw a competition down at CSU and I thought, I've gotta do that.
And so I took a class outside first, and then I started going to another gym called, uh, paradise.
Maren: What did you like about it? What, what, like when you saw it and you said you had to do it, what was it about it?
Catherine: Um, a lot of problem solving.
Catherine: I mean, even watching them go up the body movement. I sit, I was a ballerina, so it felt like ballet to me almost, you know?It's a combination of strength, finesse,
Maren: What keeps you doing it after all these years?
Catherine:I just love it. I mean, you know, of course I'm not as, uh, strong or anything, but it doesn't really matter. I think how hard you climb, it's, it's a sport that anybody can do, I think. And I don't mind climbing with younger people. I still climb in five tens, you know.
Maren: If you don't know climnbing's rating scale, a five ten is a fairly difficult climb, in the range of upper intermediate to advanced, depending on who you ask.
Maren (field): Can I ask how old you are?
Catherine: Um, I'll be 74.
Maren: That's awesome.
Catherine: But, um, there's not a lot. You know, I don't have a lot of contacts my age, you know, some that are, you know, in their forties, but that's still younger than some of my children, so yeah.
Maren: Catherine will climb no matter what, even if her oldest climbing buddies are young enough to be her kids. And I'm betting that a lot of them struggle to keep up with her.
Maren (field) I've been here 12 hours, 12 hours and 15 minutes. So I'm gonna take a break and do yoga for a little bit and then come back.
Maren (field): I just drank a coffee. I'm not usually a two coffees in a day person, but today is one of those days and uh, yeah, it's going well. We're, uh, still having good chats with people, so things are good.
Maybe it's time to put on my harness and climb something.
Maren (narration): As the after-work crowd starts to roll in to Ubergrippen, I see a pair of climbers wearing some kind of earpieces I don't recognize, and an employee tells me that the climber on the wall, Bill, is blind. I walk up to them just as he touches the ground after finishing a route that I've seen stymie multiple people today.
Maren (field): I saw you guys climbing and was curious. Do you have a second to talk?
Bill: gimme a sec to
Maren: Yeah, yeah. Take your time.
Bill: Take myself out.
Maren: What's your name?
Ethan: Mine's Ethan.
Maren: You, you work here?
Ethan: Yeah, I work at the desk.
Maren: Yeah. Yeah. Sweet. Uh, how long have you two been climbing together?
Bill: This is our first time. About an hour and a half.
Ethan: Yeah, an hour and a half.
Maren: That's great. How's it going?
Ethan: Okay. It's a learning experience where we're getting there.
Maren: Yeah. I, I noticed you're wearing the earphones. Can you tell me about that?
Bill: So they're, they're an intercom headset.
Bill: So they connect, they're connected to each other directly and so either of us can talk into it and we hear each other. Um, so it just allows him to talk to me in a way that I can hear.
Ethan: So I just try to give him instructions like, um, I've been trying to use like clock terms, like where they reach and like how far it is.
Maren: Right. How long have you been climbing?
Ethan: Like six years ish. Six years? Yeah.
Maren: What about you?
Bill: About eight. How did you first get into it? My girlfriend introduced me, got me back into it. Cause I did a little bit of climbing in grade school,
Bill: for like a couple of years and then I hadn't since then. And then there's a group called Paradox Sports and she got me that. She, one of her friends got her into that and then she got me into it.
Maren: What do you, what do you feel like you get out of it? What do you like about it?
Bill: I love the challenge. Yeah, just like the puzzle.
Bill: Solving aspect of it. I like kind of the mindful presence to it. Like you can't, there's not much else you can think about when you're trying to climb a climbing route.
Bill: I can't think about what am I gonna have for dinner or, you know, what my boss did yesterday.
Bill: But it's also very rewarding to finish a, a route, especially like this, where it's really hard all the way up. It's, it takes a lot longer to climb a route for me than, than average people. So I spend a lot more time like on the wall and like holding, like walking off on holds and just like holding on.
Bill: So it takes a lot more energy and it takes a lot longer. SoI don't get as many climbs in, in that same period of time as other people would.
Bill: But I'd say we got four. Four or five in.
Maren: Yeah. Have you met other blind climbers?
Bill: Yeah. I know quite a few blind climbers. Uh, Um, Paradox Sports, that's all sorts of disabilities, but they have a good number of blind people I know of at least like four or five in the Denver area.
Maren: Do you climb together at all?
Bill: Yeah, so my girlfriend's one of them.
Maren: Oh, sweet.
Bill: She climbs here with me sometimes. We were here Saturday.
Maren: And she, she got into it a little bit before you, is that right?
Bill: Yeah, a couple months before me.
Maren: Oh, that's cool. That's really awesome. Are you gonna climb something else? Do you have other plans besides this?
Ethan: I think we're done today.
Bill: We're just about done for the day. Yeah. I don't think I could climb anything else if I wanted to.
Maren: That's when you know you're done, right?
Bill: Yeah. Yeah. I'm gonna have a hard time opening the car door.
Maren (narration): While Bill is certainly getting a workout in, his bigger reasons for being here align with what I've heard from most people today: they climb as a form of meditation, to shrug off the stresses of daily life. And they come to the gym for social connection: to spend time with their friends and partners and kids, often the very same people who got them hooked on climbing to begin with.
And then there are the people who get really obsessed. They find climbing and it takes over their lives.
Maren (field): How long have you been climbing here?
Flip: Uh, almost since it opened. Yeah. Uh, what, four years? Okay. Yeah, my kids got me started in this.
Maren: They got, you started in climbing in general?
Flip: Yes, they did four years ago. Yes, they did.
Maren: Oh my gosh. How old are your kids now?
Flip: They're 27, 23. And my 15 year old. Full-time climbing partner.
Maren: Oh my gosh. That's great.
Maren: So they all got into it and then they pulled you along with them?
Flip: They pulled me along with 'em. I thought it was dumb. Why, why would you come in here and just climb up stuff? You know? It was silly, but I was hooked my second time.
Maren: So what happened the first time?
Flip: It was a lot of work. That was, it was a lot of work. And you know, I'm, I'm getting older and yeah, it was a lot of work, but it was, it's addicting.
Flip: It is. It's terrible.
Maren: Okay, so what got you the second time?
Flip: Um, to see if I could do better than I did the first time.
Flip: Because I'm one of those guys, so, yeah.
Maren: So you were just like, I didn't get it last time. I wanna get it this time.
Flip: Yeah, absolutely. And then that was it. And then I was just hooked.
Maren: How many times a week do you climb?
Flip: At least five five's, probably the short week. I try to do at least six. And then today is like just a workout day.
Maren: So you like you really caught the bug.
Flip: I really caught the bug, yeah. And I'll be 60 in November and I feel like I'm in better shape now than I was in my forties and fifties. But I'm mentally sharper too. I really, I like what we're doing in here. So then I bug the owner for a job and I work here too.
Maren: What do you think climbing does for you?
Flip: It's changed my life.
Flip: Yeah. My kids will tell you that. Yeah. Yeah.
Maren: What do you think has changed about you because of climbing?
Flip: I, I just, uh, everything. It put me in a place where, it, it's not drudgery every day, all day. Now I know that at the end of the day, I'm gonna be coming here. It's just a release, and then that part of my day is gone.
You know, I don't go to bed thinking about everything else. It's just like, God, that five 11 really kicked my butt today. I really want to finish it. that consumes me now. Instead it'll work,and I really try to snag the guys that are like my age, the, the moms and dads that come in with their kids, you know, that, that don't climb.
I always play, you know, good cop, bad cop with my boss and tell, Hey, I'll give you some shoes and a harness for free if you want to try it. And, um, you know, I've gotten quite a few parents to come in and, and get climbing with their kids because it's not like soccer where you just sit and watch and yell at your kid.
Now you're on the end of the rope yelling at your kid, and then your kid's also yelling at you, you know, go, go, go. Mm-hmm. So I really dig it.
The other thing I really liked about this sport versus a lot of other things that I've tried is coming in here, I didn't get that whole, Hey, what's this old fart doing in here?
You know, it was, Is, Hey buddy, you need some help, or, Hey, can I help you? Or, Hey, do you need a catch? You know, people are very willing in this sport. I, I find in general, they wanna see you get better.
And the other thing that I really like about this is I don't care what kind of politics you, you, you follow. I don't care what color you are. I don't care about your social agendas. When you've got a harness on and you're on the end of a rope, we're all climbers.
And I like that.
Maren (narration): For people like Flip, the love of climbing came first, and the community followed. For others, like high school senior Lily, who I interviewed with her best friend Charlotte, it's the other way around.
Lily: I came here and I was like, uh, I don't really know how much I'm into climbing. But then like meeting all of the coaching staff that I initially worked with and then meeting friends like Charlotte, it was like they're my best friends in the entire world. And it's like being able to meet people like that was why I stayed. Um, yeah,
Maren: I think I'm more like Lily than Flip. For me, the love of the climbing gym has always stemmed from the community, and climbing itself has followed. But the beauty of these spaces is that they make room for both.
Ubergrippen tries to set itself apart in that regard: the crag/gym distinction that's so important to owner Jake is meant to put community first. And while traditional outdoor crags can be places to socialize and not all climbing gyms foster community well, the combination of a permanent location, built around a shared interest, with room for unstructured activity makes them ideal social spaces in a way that traditional non-climbing gyms rarely are.
Just take it from Shondra, librarian by day and climber by night, who's a kind of expert on this topic.
Shondra: Libraries are an example of like a perfect social infrastructure. As a librarian, I can say that with all humility. And I think next in line is a family crag, like this one.
Shondra: It serves as like this way of cross pollinating ages and abilities and, people have this activity that they can talk around to get them started, but it really becomes a community where you just talk to anybody because you have something automatically in common and then you find out all of these other things that you may have in common. It's not just climbing. It serves a real social purpose
Shondra: That we miss in other places.
Maren (narration): In all honesty, I think I've been missing the community space of a climbing gym in my life. I've come here a few times since moving to Denver almost a year ago, but I don't live in the neighborhood, so I don't make the trek often. Being here for 16 hours, though, makes me want to. At the end of the day, when the gym is nearly empty, I do a couple climbs on the autobelays by myself.
Maren (field): All right. First climb of the day. Technically. But here we go.
Maren (narration) Topping out on a climb after spending the whole day on the ground looking up at these walls feels good. But I kind of wish there was someone on the end of the rope cheering me on. Next time, I'll bring my belay buddy.
Maren (field): Thanks for everything.
Jake: Yeah. And, uh, yeah,
I'll, I'll probably be back soon to actually climb and be a normal person here instead of doing this. Have a good night. Nice, nice to meet you all.
Maren: Thank you to Ubergrippen Indoor Climbing Crag for letting me hang out for a whole day, and sorry for calling it a gym. And thank you to everyone who let me interrupt their climbing and socializing to interview them.
This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Music and mixing by Robbie Carver.
Listener, is there a place that's the hub of your outdoor community that you want to tell us about? Record your story as a voice memo and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave us a review wherever you listen, or tell your new belaytionship buddy about it.
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