First U.S. Climbing Gym Turns 30

Rich Johnston (pictured) and Dan Cauthorn co-founded Vertical World (PRNewsfoto/Vertical World)

Rich Johnston (pictured) and Dan Cauthorn co-founded Vertical World (PRNewsfoto/Vertical World)

30 years ago, in a rundown warehouse in Seattle, two ordinary climbers made history when they glued chunks of rock onto sheets of plywood. With not much more than a vague concept and a shoestring budget, Richard Johnston and Dan Cauthorn laid the foundation for what is now the indoor climbing gym industry, and opened Vertical World, the first indoor climbing gym in America.

Even though the local climbing community initially declared the idea would fail, the two built the first gym with 3/4″ plywood, epoxy paint and rocks glued to various surfaces in the warehouse. Launched with sweat and ingenuity and hope, today Vertical World has over 80 employees, with another 15 coming online with their new gym in Lynnwood, Washington, this summer.

“It is amazing to think that the industry started in such a bootstrap way with us barely getting by with gluing rocks on the walls, cleaning the bathrooms, scraping enough money to buy another can of paint, and enjoying all the challenges thrown our way. The stories are prolific, and there are plenty of them!” remembers Dan Cauthorn.

Thirty 30 years later, there are climbing gyms in every major city, and the 2020 summer Tokyo Olympic Games will feature sport climbing for the first time. Currently Vertical World has two operating locations with a third opening this summer: Seattle, Redmond, and Lynnwood. Today, memberships account for about 60 percent of the business. The other 40 percent is from classes, camps, and youth programs.

Community and education are a big part of Vertical World’s mission, and the youth climbing team is an area of special pride. Vertical World has been and is still a major force in the USAC system today.

“We have a philosophy that touches on the heritage and history of climbing,” Rich says. “We are not a daycare, or amusement park. We teach kids the risks and responsibilities of climbing and how to interface with the environment, by hosting trail work days and teaching the impact climbing has on the outdoors.”