By Abree Murch
From holds and walls to setting World Cup competitions, there are very few parts of the climbing world Chris Danielson hasn’t touched. Though perhaps most well-known for his work with USA Climbing, he is well aware that his path through the climbing world is a convoluted one. “I have friends that I’ve climbed with for a long time and if you asked them what I do, they probably wouldn’t be able to answer,” he laughs.
Danielson has one of the most impressive resumes of anyone working in the indoor climbing industry; most international World Cups set, International Chief Routesetter, former Chair of the USAC Routesetting Committee and now administrator of the routesetting clinic program, USAC Rules Committee, designer of national competition bouldering walls, served on several CWA committees, climbing gym start-up consultant, and last but not least is the sales rep of several major hold brands.
But for a guy known more in the plastic world, he got his start on the rock of Colorado.
Getting His Start
Danielson grew up in the woods of upstate New York, but was introduced to climbing at the age of fifteen through an Outward Bound trip in Colorado. He learned the basics of top roping in the San Juan mountains and brought them home, where he and his friends made do with what local climbing they had. “We were running around, finding whatever spots we could outdoors,” Danielson explains. “We’d go to Blockbuster video late at night because it had a cobblestone exterior wall and rent some movies, and then after they closed we’d just spend some time climbing on this fake cobblestone wall, making things up.”
Danielson credits these late-night escapades with awakening his interest in routesetting, and his first real job in the climbing industry followed shortly after. While attending Miami University of Ohio, he began working at the school’s newly-built climbing wall. There he expanded his own climbing skills, learning to lead climb and then boulder at the Red River Gorge and Hueco Tanks, respectively. “Without that school program, I probably wouldn’t do any of the things I do,” Danielson concedes. “I think routesetting is a thing you learn on your own no matter what you do. There might be some foundation that you can give, but really the way you learn is through practice and maybe a bit of mentorship.”
When school ended, without any job prospects, Danielson decided to move out to Colorado with some friends. He had some construction experience and when he came across an ad in the paper for a job building climbing walls with Eldorado Wall Company, he decided to apply. “I went in on a Friday to interview with Eldo walls and left on a Monday to drive out to New Jersey to build the New Jersey Rock Gym,” Danielson recalls. “I did that for a year and a half and that definitely got me a good bit of experience in the industry.” He also worked at the Boulder Rock Club as a setter and started gaining exposure to bigger competitions.
Though his setting skills were developing at this point, Danielson decided to go a different way. In 2000 he took a detour into academia and completed a year-long accelerated Master’s program in philosophy, religion, and anthropology in Chicago. Afterwards he moved around the east coast, pursuing opportunities in the social sciences in New York, Washington DC, and Boston.
Yet all the while Danielson still had a foot in the climbing world. In DC, he worked briefly for SportRock Climbing Centers as a setter and head coach. When he moved up to Boston a year or two later for a part-time research internship at Harvard, he was brought on as the head setter at MetroRock, the newest gym in the area. “It was a big new gym and I had to do some routesetting planning,” Danielson says. “I had to figure out who else was going to be setting and how to manage the rotation of the routes. I eventually realized that they didn’t order as many holds as they needed. While I was doing that as their employee, I realized through the process of going in and talking to the owners about the operational aspects of the gym, that I might actually have something to offer people who are just starting gyms.”
Danielson was also referred to the owners of the Rock Club in New Rochelle, New York. “I knew I didn’t want to live in New York, so I thought, ‘Okay, what can I do to help?’ We simultaneously proposed that I would consult for them in some way. I didn’t know what that would look like and I think he just recognized that he could use some help and didn’t have staff people in place that knew the things he wanted to know in the early stages of starting the gym,” Danielson said. This opened his eyes to another possible line of work in the climbing world: “Those two experiences with those two gyms in particular, along with all of the others, led me to realize that I have a bunch of useful experience around the climbing industry.”
A Bricolage of Work
Near the end of 2005, Danielson was living in Rochester after spending time in Boston and New York. He was approached by eGrips to see if he’d be interested in selling climbing holds. “I had no idea about it,” Danielson explains. “I had no idea that was even a job – and it wasn’t really a job for most people at the time. But it was an opportunity to sell something that I thought was cool and work in the climbing world.” He moved back to Colorado to take the position as an independent sales rep with eGrips. In addition, Danielson remodeled homes and took a part-time job with USA Climbing, bringing him back into the world of competitive climbing.
“I’ve always cobbled together a sort of bricolage of work around climbing and indoor climbing, and that’s what my world is today,” Danielson surmises. He currently serves as a chair of the USA Climbing Rules Committee and administers the routesetting training program, in addition to continuing his work as a sales rep for a number of climbing-related brands and a consultant for new gyms: “Most of the time, I’ll work with someone over the course of anywhere from a month to a year or two years as their project grows, since climbing gyms take a long time to start up.”
After spending so much time in so many different sectors of the industry, Danielson has had a front-row seat to the explosive growth climbing has been experiencing. “I think the curve is a healthy one, as you reflect on the industry itself,” he observes. “And then there’s just small trends within that – though I’m not sure I’d call them trends as much as burgeoning developments. For example, we’ve seen the consistent growth of the bouldering gym model. And mere feet away from The Spot, you have ABC, which is a kid-centric, gymnastics model climbing gym. Or gyms like the Vital Gyms, which are generally smaller 24/7 gyms that are built as lower-cost startups but they have multiple facilities.”
Danielson has also noted other aspects of growth that are more product-specific. “There’s a general pattern of professionalization of what thirty years ago was a fun, private recreational industry for its practitioners,” he notes. “People really care about what they’re offering. They want to cultivate the experience. The ambiance is there with every other aspect of the climbing gym – the lighting, the flooring, the interior design. All of those are constantly evolving as part of the general pattern of growth.”
In terms of competition, Danielson takes a pragmatically optimistic view now that the Olympics are on the horizon. “I’m open-minded in terms of what I think is going to happen with the Olympics,” he says. “In terms of the actual implications, I’m simultaneously open and really comfortable with being kind of naive about it.”
An avid sports fan in general, Danielson approaches the Olympics from the standpoint of what’s interesting about sports. “You can’t imagine how it doesn’t make something more interesting when you have the Olympics come into the equation. Now, interesting doesn’t necessarily always mean good – it’ll probably mean pros and cons,” he said. But he doesn’t see these challenges as inherently negative. “The Olympics, as long as it’s presented in a positive light and what’s presented represents the sport well, could be a great thing.”
In terms of how the Olympics might affect his business, Danielson predicts growth consistent with the long-term pattern seen thus far in the industry. However, he does take interest in the fact that climbing is the youngest of the five sports being introduced in Tokyo in 2020. “There’s a chance that because it’s the newest of the new sports for the audience, it could have a greater impact in terms of what happens in the global marketplace of climbing. But I don’t know. I’m intrigued by it, excited by it, but I’m not foolish enough to think that it won’t come with a bunch of hard questions for the sport of climbing or implications for what you’d call the soul of climbing.”
Danielson’s own philosophy on this soul of climbing doesn’t seem to be one that’s easily swayed by changes in the industry, Olympic or otherwise. For him, movement is movement. “If you take change with an open-minded approach, that climbing can be for people what they’d like to make it be – and at the core of it, it’s moving over a wall, and the fluidity, beauty, and technical facets of that movement – then wherever it goes, it can be good.”