Indoor Climbing: America’s Hottest New Workout?

By Kathleen McAuliffe

When Daniel Duane spent his weekends scaling Yosemite in the 1980s, climbing was an outdoor experience, as rooted in nature as in physical challenge.

After an extended hiatus, Duane returned to the sport, when his 11-year-old daughter Hannah joined a competitive climbing team. But when he dropped in on her practices at a San Francisco indoor climbing gym two years ago, he discovered a new subculture of climbing taking root in America’s biggest cities

“I was just astonished by how crowded it was and how crowded it was by a culture I didn’t recognize,” said Duane, contributing  editor at Men’s Journal. “It was filled with happy, cheerful, urban hipster 20-somethings.”

In the last five years, the number of indoor climbing gyms nationwide has risen by an average of nine percent annually, according to Climbing Business Journal, with more 42 facilities scheduled to open in 2017.

The trend isn’t limited to climbing meccas in Colorado, but urban centers like Chicago. Since the 2014 opening of Brooklyn Boulders in West Loop, the number of gyms in Chicago has more than doubled. First Ascent Chicago established its first two gyms in Uptown and Avondale, with a third Humboldt Park facility opening later this spring. National climbing gym operator Planet Granite will also open two Chicago gyms in 2018.

Mike Helt, editor in chief of Climbing Business Journal, attributes the boom to business-savvy climbing gym operators, who saw in cities an untapped market of potential climbers. Once they opened in areas like Atlanta and Houston, they sold climbing to millennials as a fresh, family-friendly fitness option.

“[They were] marketing climbing to people other than hard-core rock climbers,” Helt said. “[It’s] getting families and kids, people who want to be healthy and active, and want something new and different, into climbing gyms.”

They have exposed climbing to urban 20- and 30-somethings, most of whom have never scaled a mountain outdoors. So what’s the appeal? Indoor climbers are attracted primarily by the uniquely social atmosphere and the variety, Helt said.

“Climbing offers something that traditional gyms can’t touch, which is the social aspect of going to a climbing gym,” he said. “You can have a workout, laugh, have a conversation with your friends all at the same time. That’s difficult to do in a regular gym. When you’re in a yoga class … in Crossfit, it’s difficult. When you’re climbing, you can talk.”

“It’s a great place,” Duane said, “to see and be seen. And it’s a novel thing to do after work. You can ride your bike over after work and go out for beers with friends afterward.”

Indeed, these facilities have re-imagined climbing, a historically solo activity, as a highly social, full-on fitness experience, which has resonated with millennials looking to spice up their workout routine.

“People get tired of going to a basic gym, running on the treadmill and lifting,” Helt said, ” What climbing has is a health/fitness component to it that always changes.

“When I go into the gym and do a route, that route is going to change next week, next month. Every time I go, there’s always something new. That novelty and variety of your workout is huge for people.”

For some, climbing is more than workout. It’s a sport. Several Chicago gyms have also launched youth competitive teams in climbing, which will debut as an Olympic sport in 2020. At First Ascent Avondale, climbers practice several times per week. They participate in local and regional championships for ten months per year, culminating in the USA Climbing Youth National Championships.

Athletes compete in two main categories. Bouldering is an obstacle race on a climbing wall, in which athletes are scored on their ability to navigate artificial obstacles- or “problems”- in a set amount of time. The other category, sport and speed, is essentially a race to the top of the wall.

To prepare, athletes do “a ton of core and flexibility training, because core strength and control and flexibility are really central to climbing activity,” Duane said. “And of course, zillions of [climbing] routes.”

For his daughter Hannah, climbing has yielded the same character-building effects as other sports, he said.

“I think it’s given her a great sense of purpose in a way, and identity,” Duane said. “Both in daily life in that there’s a mission that she’s on and also, she sort of looks ahead in life.

“Climbing is a very progressive sport in the sense that you want to develop a list of routes you want to do and difficult grades you’d like to be able to climb. She is starting to develop both of those things in her mind and it gives her a positive and excited vision of her future.”

Indoor climbers are taking that enthusiasm to the mountains. Over 2012 and 2013, the amount of outdoor climbers tripled and has since remained steady at 2.2 percent of the American population, according to the Outdoor Foundation. The movement is likely to continue, as 12.1 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds reported a desire to try climbing in 2016, the Outdoor Foundation’s first year of tracking that metric.

Duane has seen this demographic shift at his old haunts.

“The outdoor crags are just exponentially more crowded than they used to be and there’s no way to explain that without the effect of climbing gyms,” he said.

“I don’t know if it’s a minority of the indoor climbers … But whatever the percentage is, it’s enough to have utterly transformed the landscape of outdoor climbing in terms of the crowds.”

He acknowledged that on the most popular routes, crowds create bottlenecks and longer wait times. But indoor climbing has also created a larger, vibrant community of athletes, hobby climbers and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

“I think it’s kind of fun for [Hannah], that social feeling when you go hiking … and you find a lot of fun people who are into the same sport you are.”

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of the story had the wrong location for First Ascent Climbing & Fitness. It has locations in Avondale and Uptown.

Photo by Steven Friedman via Flickr