The Game of New Climber Retention

Climbing at Petra Cliffs. Photo: Sam Simon
Climbing at Petra Cliffs. Photo: Sam Simon
Climbing at Petra Cliffs. Photo: Sam Simon

By Joseph Robinson
Every day, inexperienced climbers unknowingly walk into what could become for them the scariest place on Earth: a climbing gym. Based on discussions with multiple inexperienced and experienced climbers and climbing gym managers and owners, I believe the greatest impediments to retaining these new clients are their fears of 1) gym climbing itself and 2) experienced gym climbers.

Given these fears, an inexperienced climber’s analysis of whether to continue climbing or not can be modeled in economic terms as a sequential-move game. The simplest form of a sequential-move game involves two players with two strategies apiece who move one after the other. In this game, perfect information is assumed (both players know their opponent’s strategies) and, thus, self-interested players will choose the strategy which yields the greatest personal gain – or payoff – given the other player’s strategies. The resulting solution set of actions is the (Nash) equilibrium outcome of the game.

Here, inexperienced climbers play against experienced climbers. Inexperienced climbers move first and may either climb regularly or not climb regularly while experienced climbers respond to the decision of inexperienced climbers by acting with an invested interest in or respectful indifference to inexperienced climbers’ immediate success. On a 1-5 scale of utility – or happiness – and assuming an alternative venue produces a payoff of 3 for both players, this game can be modeled as follows:

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Since inexperienced climbers know it would be in the best interest of experienced climbers to act respectfully indifferent towards them when they climb (5 to 4), inexperienced climbers will choose the payoff maximizing option of not climbing regularly (3 to 2) should they play this game repeatedly. Experienced climbers no longer have the option of being respectfully indifferent or actively invested in the success of inexperienced climbers with the regular absence of inexperienced climbers, and therefore the equilibria for this game are Climb Irregularly-Act Indifferent (3, 5) and Climb Irregularly-Act Invested (3, 5). Neither solution suggests inexperienced climbers ought to return any time soon.

The Players: Inexperienced Climbers

First, this model assumes inexperienced climbers prefer to climb regularly since they could receive a payoff of 4 by doing so as opposed to a payoff of 3 from the next best alternative. In reality, a great deal of inexperienced climbers view climbing as a singular event, a curious activity satisfied by the invitation of a friend. “A lot of people come just because they have relationships with people who climb,” said one climber. “I went climbing because a handsome guy invited me,” said another climber. Retaining new climbers, then, first and foremost requires a perception shift from climbing as an event to climbing as a workout, sport, social gathering or the like requiring continuous attendance at a wall or gym. Only then would inexperienced climbers prefer climbing regularly over the available alternatives.

Assuming an inexperienced climber desires to climb regularly, he or she must first overcome feeling intimidated by the climbing itself to do so. “Not knowing how to fall properly is scary,” said one climber new to the sport. “People can tell you over and over how to fall back but actually doing it when it’s such a foreign action is completely different.” Whereas experienced climbers have become knowledgeable of how to fall safely and have grown accustomed to their capabilities on the wall, inexperienced climbers claim none of these comforts. To account for this additional fear, it’s best to limit the possible payoff of climbing for an inexperienced climber to a 4 as opposed to a 5 for experienced climbers because, even with the aid of experienced climbers, some things must be learned by doing.

Next, an inexperienced climber desiring to climb regularly must overcome feeling intimidated by experienced climbers. “I was definitely intimidated [by other climbers],” the same climber said of her first climbing gym experience. Why? For one, climbing is difficult to practice alone. “I think what’s most intimidating is that a lot of people in the gym have clearly been climbing before if not often,” she continued. Unlike pick-up sports like basketball or soccer or even slacklining, inexperienced climbers can’t just go outside and work on their skills before practicing with others. Improvement beyond pure strength and conditioning in climbing requires regular appearances at a climbing wall at the outset.

The second reason concerns gym set-up. “Something about stepping in front of that wall makes me feel less confident in myself and my interactions,” the same climber added. At most climbing gyms, a climber can’t climb (up) without becoming more visible and only one climber can (safely) climb a route at a time. Hence, every climber on the wall is a bit of a spectacle. For inexperienced climbers insecure in their knowledge and abilities, such can be rather discomforting. If this discomfort – when combined with the fear of gym climbing itself – is too great, inexperienced climbers will receive payoffs less than 3 and, thus, will seek alternative ways to spend their money.

“It’s just kind of embarrassing to have people watching you figure it out,” she concluded.

The Players: Experienced Climbers

Ideally, all experienced climbers would invest in their fellow climbers to curb such fears of judgment and safety. Respect is expected at any communal venue and should not reduce an experienced climber’s payoff of 5, but investment which makes a difference in the payoffs of an inexperienced climber requires effort which bears a cost: time. “For most people, introducing people to climbing is a hobby just like everything else,” said one experienced climber. “Some people love to climb, and other people love to climb and want to share it with others.” This climber attributed the growth at his previous gym to one experienced climber who made it his hobby to invest time into the new guys and gals, to teach them climbing technique and make them feel welcome. “A climber was willing to sacrifice his time to invest in others, and that’s how he ended up with 70 members instead of 20.” For busy climbers interested in projecting a new route and pushing themselves in a short time, that effort may reduce their payoff from climbing – if only down to 4 – and tip the scale in favor of acting merely respectfully indifferent towards inexperienced climbers instead of actively involved in their success.

Even if experienced climbers find time to invest in inexperienced climbers, offering appropriate advice can be tricky for the same reason: time. For some experienced climbers, it’s been decades since they first began climbing. “[Experienced climbers] don’t remember what it’s like to start out on the wall,” said the same climber. Campusing on a V1 as a warm-up, this climber pointed out, ignores how degrading it can feel to an inexperienced climber projecting the route. Offering beta afterward is a step in the direction toward retribution, but often such advice ignores the difference between the two climbers in strength and body weight. If an inexperienced climber is struggling on a V1, more likely than not the issue is not just where to put hands and feet. “You could just say that the two groups don’t easily mingle because their forearm strength isn’t compatible,” the climber concluded.

To be sure, all climbers interviewed agreed that nearly all experienced climbers do not purposefully act intimidating towards inexperienced climbers. “Its not even a mean thing,” said one experienced climber who, despite reminiscing about feeling not welcome as a new climber, noted the difficulties he now faces in welcoming and teaching experienced climbers even though he readily desires to do so. “I hope I’m not coming across as that stereotypical d*** to this new guy,” he added.

The Game Changers: Gyms

The onus of retaining inexperienced climbers need not be placed on experienced climbers alone. Climbing gyms can and do change the payoffs of this game by implementing strategies to curtail the fears of inexperienced climbers and erase the burden for experienced climbers so both players can climb regularly and earn maximum payoffs of 5. Below are four ideas dreamed up by successful climbing gym owners and managers on how to develop inexperienced climbers into lifelong gym members.

1) Setting the Stage, Mood Setting and Route Setting:
Eddie Kline, owner of Soaring Ledge crossfit and climbing gym in Holland, Michigan, addresses the fears of his potential clients well before they step into the gym. Soaring Ledge posts monthly short videos which highlight specific members in sync with the gym’s mission of expanding fitness to people of all abilities. Inexperienced climbers tuning in, then, immediately see they are wanted and accepted. “I want people to come and feel like they know people,” says Kline. “[These videos] put a face on it. It’s not just put your headphones on and climb. We are a community of people.”

Once a climber enters, Kline emphasizes the importance of putting the concept of a comfortable community into practice. Soaring Ledge does so both off the wall and on the wall. Off the wall, Soaring Ledge hosts a sociable area with 30 lawn chairs and a half dozen climbing and fitness magazines where climbers can rest and get to know one another. Providing such a space halts potential intimidation by uniting climbers of all skill levels on a personal level. “This is my coffee shop,” says Kline.

On the wall, Soaring Ledge boasts a variety of routes for climbers of all abilities and, most importantly, caps the life of routes at one month. “The change of routes encourages them to keep coming here,” continues Kline. Capping the life of routes ensures beginner and advanced routes are swapped on a regular basis, and the prospect of a fresh send on clean holds just might trump existing fears for some inexperienced climbers.

2) The Double SƧ: Services and Staff:
The first thing you will notice when climbing at Petra Cliffs Climbing Center and Mountaineering School in Burlington, Vermont are the multiple kids crushing harder than you. This, no doubt, can be attributed to the extensive programs available to both adults and youth. “Kids become more comfortable when they have an identity,” says Petra Cliffs co-owner Andrea Charest. The programs at Petra Cliffs provide a structure through which youth and adult climbers alike can solidify their identity in the climbing community before climbing at open hours among experienced climbers.

The second thing you will notice at Petra Cliffs is the friendliness and availability of the staff. All staff members act like they know you already and care about your climbing experience. Such is also true for staffers running the climbing programs. “I think for a lot of kids it’s a bonding experience,” says Charest. “They come back because they really like the instructor.” Having staff on hand who are welcoming and invested in their clients during programs and open hours can take the burden off experienced climbers to create the positive tone your gym needs to retain inexperienced climbers.

3) Marginal Discounts for the Marginalized:
Unfortunately, not all inexperienced climbers can afford climbing programs or frequent gym visits. “There’s always a financial barrier with at-risk youth,” says Cam Hill, manager of The Mountain Goat nonprofit climbing gym in Greenville, South Carolina. Thus, The Mountain Goat directs all profits to its partner nonprofit, GOAT, which hosts outdoor trips for local at-risk youth, and offers free or reduced membership options for youth interested in a program at GOAT or The Mountain Goat. While this model may be difficult to apply at for-profit gyms, the idea is still a good one: offer income-based membership options. If providing such is too complicated, offer membership discounts or gear incentives for new members. Almost every climber interviewed identified cost as a secondary impediment to inexperienced climbers returning, and as one experienced climber put it, “you know you’re in when you buy your first set of shoes and a chalk bag.”

4) The Discounted Marginalized:
Lastly, and certainly not least, even if 1), 2) and 3) are implemented a minority population of inexperienced climbers will still be excluded. “We do not exclude anyone from climbing; if you want to climb, we will help you,” says Frank Abissi, owner of Higher Ground Rock Climbing Centre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. How? Abissi heads the adaptive climbing program at Higher Ground for climbers anywhere on the spectrum of disabilities, from autism to cerebral palsy. This program provides disabled climbers with the accommodations to succeed and feel comfortable enough to return. A secret impact of this program, though, is its effect on gym atmosphere. Abissi tells this story:

Usually, climbers go up a few steps and then don’t want to get any higher. I’ve never seen that with adaptive climbing. They take a different mindset: they don’t stop until they reach the top…One kid came into the gym who has autism. One of our experienced climbers then came in who was wearing a Grand Valley State University t-shirt. Well this kid falls in love because he’s a big fan. So the climber takes his shirt off and gives it to him! The climbers watch when they walk through [the gym] and clap when someone [in the adaptive climbing program] does clip at the top, and that drive goes with them. It does change the mood when they climb. It really does put a great vibe into the gym when it’s going on.

Include an adaptive climbing program at your gym and you will create an atmosphere where all are welcome, inexperienced climbers feel grateful enough to climb amidst intimidation, experienced climbers feel humbled enough to give back and all climbers feel inspired enough to crush hard again and again.

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Joe Robinson has been working in the climbing industry for over a decade and currently manages CBJ editorial. He traveled the world as the IFSC’s community manager during Olympic inclusion and across the U.S. while writing for Alpinist, Climberism, DPM and CBJ. He also worked in local climbing gyms of the Pacific Northwest and West Michigan while advancing economic empowerment, educational equity, youth development and diversity programs of national nonprofit organizations.