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Feature Article - March 2002

Boulder Dash

Climbing Wall facilities race for the next level

By Stacy St. Clair


PHOTO COURTESY OF LIFE TIME FITNESS

Seven months ago, the Professional Climbers Association of America did the unthinkable: It charged spectators to watch an indoor climbing competition.

The move sent shockwaves through the sport, which until that time had never dared to ask fans to pay like spectators at other pro events do.

In the weeks prior to the competition, climbing enthusiasts were convinced few people would show. Some predicted the contest would be the first, and possibly last, event with an admittance fee.

The real shock, however, came the day of the first contest.

The fans paid the fee without blinking—no complaints, no rolled eyes nor heavy sighs. In fact, the debut event sold out, leaving the roughly 100 people without tickets to peer through the host gym's front windows. The next competition, which like the inaugural event boasted a $20,000 purse, attracted fewer people but still surpassed expectations.

The attendance trumpeted a clear message: Indoor climbing has hit the mainstream. It can no longer be dismissed as a daredevil's pastime or hidden in cold, damp warehouses.

"It has been an interesting year," says Marc Russo, editor of ClimbX Media, an online magazine dedicated to the sport. "The competitions were both big successes. It shows how popular the sport has become."

Climbing experts believe the professional circuit's success is the result of what they call a "trickle-up effect." Unlike sports such as basketball and figure skating where the pro athletes' fame and charisma filter down to the lowest amateur levels, indoor climbing's popularity was built from the ground up. The recreational climbers' passion for the sport has grown so much in the past decade, the creation of a professional circuit—complete with big purses and paid attendance—was a natural evolution.

"It's just pushed its way up," Russo says.

The sport was elevated on the shoulders of the 650,000 Americans who consider themselves technical climbers, according to the Climbing Wall Industry Association. The pastime has become so popular there are now more than 375 indoor facilities nationwide and at least one gym in every state.

Popularity, however, comes at a cost. As the sport becomes more common, so do its athletes. And the newcomers have high expectations, both literally and figuratively.

Sticking a giant wall in a dingy warehouse will not satisfy the masses. Even the novices are expecting their climbing gyms to be as hip and offbeat as the sport.

"The warehouse is the rock gym of the '90s," says Jay Powers, co-owner of The Front climbing gym in Salt Lake City. "It has gone its course."