Vice Visits CWA Summit


Vice Sports freelance writer Matt Whittaker visited the Climbing Wall Association Summit last month and came away with a new outlook on the climbing lifestyle. Vice, a counterculture media empire, is just one of many major news outlets that have picked up on the popularity of climbing and the boom in climbing gyms.

Photo by Flickr user Joshua Kruger via Vice Sports.
Photo by Flickr user Joshua Kruger via Vice Sports.

“The tenth annual Climbing Wall Summit was a sign of how mainstream rock climbing has become. Gym owners, athletes, and industry leaders from around the world browsed various booths hawking plastic handholds, climbing harnesses, and other gear. Although the attire was decidedly casual—jeans, t-shirts, sandals, dreadlocks, at least one man bun, and not a tie in sight—the scheduled presentations included such fairly square topics as the U.S. economic outlook, customer acquisition, insurance, and private equity investment.”

Whittaker’s title to the piece, “The Next Generation of Climbers Wants To Stay Indoors”, gets at the heart of climbings appeal and may make some old school dirtbags nauseous. But this title is absolutely true because gym operators have fine-tuned their approach to selling climbing to make it more appealing than going outside to the local crag.

“At some point between the first ascent of El Capitan in the late 1950s and today, climbing, or at least a sizable portion of it, underwent a shift from countercultural wilderness activity to an indoor sport whose participants might otherwise go bowling. Nothing typifies this more than the evolution of climbing gyms, which once functioned as places to train for the outdoors but have since become destinations themselves. The small facilities built by climbers for climbers in decades past have given way to big, bright warehouse-sized behemoths offering showers, snacks, coffee, beer, Wi-Fi, yoga and fitness classes, and pro-shops to sell climbing gear. Business is booming.”

All that new business is allowing for entrepreneurs to enter this maturing industry with a greater guarantee that profits are not far behind.

“The popularity of indoor climbing has spawned a sub-industry of companies that design or manufacture the polyurethane protrusions that are bolted to walls as foot- and handholds. The companies are no longer simply trying to mimic the shape and feel of natural rocks. They’re now catering to a new breed of climber who’s focused on the gym and particular about his or her climbing experience.”

“There hasn’t been one specific tipping point in climbing’s tilt toward the mainstream. Over the past decade, climbing has grown alongside other non-traditional sports and forms of functional fitness like CrossFit and obstacle course competitions like Tough Mudder and American Ninja Warrior. Industry participants point to indoor climbing’s appeal as a communal activity in an age of technological dislocation caused by smartphones and social media.”