Number Cruncher | Climbing gyms are on the rise

Once the realm of elite climbers and pros, public climbing gyms are tapping into urbanites’ interest in alternative workouts. The result? An evolving gym culture and a surge in new facilities.
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Graphic by Corey Buhay

Graphic by Corey Buhay


The number of climbing gyms in the U.S. is clambering upward, having more than doubled in the past decade. In 2015 alone, the U.S. indoor climbing industry saw 10 percent growth, according to data from the Climbing Business Journal, with 40 new gyms bringing the total up to 381 at the end of the year.

The growth of bouldering-specific gyms has been slower to grow than rope-only or mixed climbing gyms because of their limited offerings. But 50 percent of new gyms in 2015 were of the bouldering persuasion, made popular by the low cost of entry (no harness necessary) and the sociality that comes from having more climbers on the ground talking about a route as opposed to suspended out of earshot.

Circuit, a Portland-based gym, opened in 2005 and how has three locations. The gym offers bouldering as well as yoga classes, summer camps, and birthday parties. Credit: Evan Lovely/Flickr

Circuit, a Portland-based gym, opened in 2005 and how has three locations. The gym offers bouldering as well as yoga classes, summer camps, and birthday parties.Credit: Evan Lovely/Flickr

OIA bills indoor climbing as “the sport that will dethrone CrossFit.” Thanks to extensive media coverage of Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell’s ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015 and sport climbing’s inclusion on the table for the 2020 Olympics, climbing has expanded from its dirtbag extremist fringes into modern awareness.

Tim Holliday, manager of Climb Max Mountaineering, the Portland-based retail headquarters of shoe and hardware brand Climb X, also credits technology and the social nature of climbing for its rapid growth.

Mobile applications and websites like Mountain Project make outdoor climbing more accessible, and in places like Portland, Chicago, and New England, outdoor climbers spend the high number of poor weather days in gyms. According to Holliday, any increased interest in climbing has a snowball effect. “If you’re into climbing, you try to get your friends into it so you have someone to climb with,” he said.

Climbing partners navigate the routes at San Diego’s SolidRock Gym, a combination bouldering and rope climbing gym that opened in 1993. Credit: Zac Zupancic/Flickr

Climbing partners navigate the routes at San Diego’s SolidRock Gym, a combination bouldering and rope climbing gym that opened in 1993. Credit: Zac Zupancic/Flickr

The majority of the gym climber tidal wave, however, won’t transition from indoor to rock, according to a recent OIA analysis. Black Diamond’s VP of marketing Niclas Bornling and Scarpa’s climbing category manager Mark Busby told OIA that many new climbers see the gym workout as its own end rather than as a way to stay in shape for outdoor climbing.

The urbanization of climbing has prompted both gyms and brands alike to reimagine the sport. Many gyms now offer wifi and a café-like setting to encourage members to get comfortable and stay a while even when they’re not climbing. At The Spot, a bouldering gym in Boulder, Colo., climbers can jump off the mat and onto a barstool. Other gyms, like Brooklyn Boulders, offer social programming to cultivate a climbing community centered around the gym.

This bouldering gym in Berlin, Germany, features a bar – a trend that’s becoming more popular in the U.S. Credit: Tim Lucas/Flickr

This bouldering gym in Berlin, Germany, features a bar – a trend that’s becoming more popular in the U.S. Credit: Tim Lucas/Flickr

Black Diamond’s Gym-to-Crag Collection features gear and apparel designed with the urban athlete in mind, including stylish apparel that transitions to the bar as well as it transitions to the outdoors.

A number of companies have increased their offerings of gear for beginners. Korea’s first climbing shoe company, Butora, has entered the U.S. market with a last that flares outward after the sole, mimicking the fit of a street shoe rather than a traditional narrow-toed climbing slipper.

Gym growth is consistent, but it isn’t perfect. In 2015, eight gyms closed, according to Climbing Business Journal. Bigger competitors drew the curtains on some of these retirees, highlighting the ascendance of the megagym. Smaller gyms may not be able to rest on their laurels in the warming climate of the sport. Like brands, they need to adapt.

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