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Highly Manicured…Dirtbags

Once a hangout for empty-pocket climbers, modern climbing gyms are breeding a generation of sculpted yet sheltered athletes.

by Chris Van Leuven

It’s 7 p.m. on a “$10 Friday” at The Spot climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado, and it feels like a party. Electronic music pounds out of mini-fridge-sized speakers, and a packed house of climbers holler at one another over the competing background noise. Some barefoot raddies lunge wildly out of an overhang from one hold to the next. One dude is attempting an all-points-off sideways leap from a giant manmade blob to a downward-facing tube—located six feet away under a roof.

Streams of teenagers pour onto the main floor, snaking around chalk pots, chalk bags, and haphazardly tossed iPhones to find a place where they can stay together, chat, and maybe get in a few boulder problems featuring suitcase holds, two-foot-long worm holds, and running starts. Chalk is everywhere, on faces, arms, and smeared over tops and bottoms.

Meanwhile, outside, over the past few weekends, Boulder’s popular sport climbing areas have been jammed with cars. But the classic traditional lines, those that require the skill of placing your own gear such as cams and nuts, are now more open than ever.

In talking with graybeard trad guys and longtime gym owners, and then witnessing the scene at The Spot, it’s clear that the sport is dividing into specialized user groups. Only about 10 percent of today’s gym climbers make it outside to climb at all. That leaves the crusties like me free to get on the committing lines, while the entry-level sport routes, the ones that most resemble what you find inside a gym, are packed with the next generation of highly athletic crushers.

But when you’re far above your belayer while lead climbing a hairball route, it’s easy to overlook that this next generation of gym and occasional sport climbers is quickly overcoming us oldies in raw power, dynamic movement, and sheer numbers. And with climbing slated for the 2020 Olympics, gym climbing is only expected to get more popular. The crustie concern? These super athletes, accustomed to climbing within spitting distance of espresso machines and yoga classes, are less connected with the sport’s roots.


It would commonly rain for a month straight where I grew up in the Bay Area making outdoor climbing impossible and forcing my friends and me to train obsessively indoors. Ambiance was an afterthought. We were there to get ready for Yosemite or Joshua Tree, which have all the ambiance we ever dreamed of. The gyms got us strong for our outdoor goals—though once there we were still ill-prepared for the complexities associated with “real” climbing. Still, we beat up our fingers and shoulders in dank, windowless warehouses, and then went home and studied maps and guidebooks.

Back in 1991, my local gyms, Class 5 Fitness in San Rafael, and CityRock in Emeryville, weren’t nearly as attractive as places like The Spot. Often holds were molded from toxic resins, and sometimes clay holds or chunks of real rock were bolted to the wall. Class 5 management shoveled pea gravel onto the gym floor to make soft-ish landings. Today’s clubs feature cushy foam flooring. It was also dusty, cramped, and the walls were low and uninspiring. A session there felt like a trip to the local community college gym with my swimming team. It made for effective cross-training, but it wasn’t exactly fun.

A few years later, Touchstone Climbing, started by Mark and Debra Melvin, opened its first facility, a huge gym called Mission Cliffs in San Francisco. Next they bought, moved, and expanded nearby CityRock by three times its size and renamed it Berkeley Ironworks. The facility became Touchstone’s concept gym, adding a spacious fitness area, a yoga studio, and an indoor cycling classroom. A pioneer in the climbing-gym-as-full-service-health-club movement, Berkeley Ironworks revolutionized the industry. These days, Touchstone owns and operates 11 gyms.

Now nearly every major city in the U.S. has a gym like Ironworks—million-dollar spaces where members hang out with friends, sip lemon grass smoothies, take exercise classes, engage with members of the opposite sex, and generally turn a solitary outdoor sport into a social indoor one. There are now 414 commercial climbing gyms in the country. Twenty-seven of them opened in 2016, and scores more are scheduled to open in 2017.

With improvements in the shaping of holds came skin-friendly ergonomic designs and textures—and a step away from grips inspired by natural rock. The drab, gray holds of yesteryear were replaced with bright, aesthetic versions placed on increasingly more complex, ever-taller walls. Inside, the male-female ratio gap has all but closed. The apparel is more fashionable, and the vibe is more that of an athletic outlet than a replication of the outdoors. Instead of learning to climb from individual mentors as in the sport’s dirtbag past, climbing gyms offer coaches and support youth climbing teams.

All of which means, climbers no longer have to sleep in their trucks and cook ramen with white gas to fit in. “People want to put that climbing T-shirt on for the weekend,” says Dan Howley, owner of The Spot. “It’s part of that Amazon Prime two-day shipping, immediate gratification mindset.”

Brooklyn Boulders president Lance Pinn calls his four gyms, which operate in urban Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York, “third spaces,” after home and work, where climbing is just one of the attractions. “Our facilities are focused on intertwining our community with whatever they can get behind,” he says. “Fitness is one of those avenues.”

Hilary Harris, founder and operator of Evo Rock + Fitness, recently opened a $5.5 million gym—her fourth—in Louisville, Colorado. In addition to roped climbing and bouldering, the facility offers yoga, a full exercise gym—and a dedicated space for kids. Harris wants to attract couples where one member can focus on climbing even if the other just wants to take a spin class. A majority of her members don’t climb outside and have no interest in doing so. “For a lot of people the gym is the end,” she says, “it’s not the means to the end.”


At age 14, I discovered climbing during a backpacking trip with a friend along the Northern California coast. Standing on the beach by an exfoliating wall of sand and grit, we soon found ourselves scrambling. We dug the edges of our hiking boots into whatever we could find on the wall and firmly held onto the fragile protruding knobs. I still don’t know how we made it up the 20 feet of rock we dared to ascend. The experience didn’t grab my buddy, but I was hooked. Once home, I collected climbing books, especially John Long’s tales like Rock Jocks, Wall Rats and Hang Dogs, and also Climbing Anchors, Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, and Accidents in North American Mountaineering. Long’s stories filled my head with inspiration from climbing’s elite, while the instructional books helped me avoid killing my partner and myself.

A year after learning basic movement in the gym, I frequented Turtle Rock in Tiburon. Located on top of Ring Mountain, it was a short bike ride from school. Ring Mountain offers staggering 360-degree views of the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area. The boulder is 15 to 45 feet of schist with golden flecks of minerals, all coated in a soft sprinkle of tacky sea air that makes the slick holds easier to grip. I often met up with local Russ Bobzien, who was climbing Turtle Rock before I was born. I studied as he pointed out sequences on the wall in a game of connect the dots. The experience is etched in my brain: the damp green grass that brushed past my legs as I walked to the rock; the ocean wind blowing in from the Golden Gate Bridge; the days and weeks I spent practicing Russ’ sequences. I grew intimate with the beautiful stone, and learned every pocket, edge, and glassy smear.


Back at The Spot in Boulder, a few hours have passed. The after-work crowd just left and the scene is dying down. As with my old days on Turtle Rock, the skin on my hands is raw and my fingers throb. Except here, instead of peeling off my climbing shoes and replacing them with a pair of flip-flops from my car before pulling a beer from a cooler, I slide my flip-flops out of a cubby and wander over to the front desk to order a beer. I crack open the sour, hoppy brew and spin around on the steel barstool to watch some shirtless college kid with greasy hair and pants held up with a string, swinging and jumping his way through a boulder problem that has stymied me for days. He is not only crushing these artificial routes, so is almost everyone else in his posse. I wonder how long they’ve been climbing? Two years, maybe three?

It doesn’t matter. I’m impressed. But I can’t help but think that these crazy, off-the-wall moves aren’t relevant for most outdoor climbing, even bouldering. Leaping sideways to snag a ring-shaped hold in a temperature controlled environment above a padded floor doesn’t enhance the balance and composure one needs to tiptoe up a granite slab where the holds are fingertip width—while the wind and the sun and the rain remind you of your insignificance.

Climbing outside, in the world—unless you’re rolling solo—each move you make is a test of faith in yourself and your partner. And when you both overcome a cryptic stretch of stone, where every grip faces the wrong way and feet skate on tiny ripples yet somehow you reach the top, that self-inflicted tension is replaced with a flood of shared accomplishment. There’s a bond that forms from mutual commitment and adventure. That’s what inspired John Long and countless others to write gripping climbing narratives. I only hope the gym generation climbs long enough to experience it.

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