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Feature Article - March 2013

The Perfect Ascent

The Next Wave in Climbing Walls

By Brian Summerfield


It's safe to say that for as long as people have been around, they have been climbing rocks. There are Chinese paintings dating back to the 5th century B.C.E. that show men performing this activity, and members of the Anasazi tribe, who carved structures and caves in cliffs hundreds of years ago in what is now the southwestern United States, regularly climbed rocks get "around town," as it were. Also, it has long been a component of mountaineering, as trekkers would often have to go up steep rock faces as part of their ascent to a peak.

But rock climbing as a recreational activity in and of itself did not come into being until the second half of the 19th century, as adventurous English, American and German sportsmen started to scale large geological formations in places ranging from Yosemite National Park in California to England's Lake Country to the Dolomites of Northern Italy. And even then, it was something of a novelty. It wasn't formally recognized as a separate sport from mountaineering until the 1950s, and the number of climbers at any time before the 1980s—when sport climbing with indoor walls started to take off in certain parts of North America and Europe—was very small.

What a difference a few decades makes! Figuring out the current number of active climbers in the United States can be tricky, as young people who rock-climb once or twice a year as part of a scouting, church or other youth organization are sometimes counted and sometimes not. But recent low-end estimates (meaning only those who participate in the sport at least once a month) run from 500,000 to more than a million. Put more casual climbers into the mix, and you're probably talking between three to five times that amount.

So it's not unreasonable to say the number of climbers in the United States runs into the millions, which is remarkable when you consider that the sport counted maybe a few thousand participants prior to 1980. And it continues to gain momentum in all parts of the country thanks to outreach, innovation and depictions in movies, TV shows and other media. If you manage a facility and want to connect with this growing population, here are a few things you need to know.

A More Social, Accessible Experience

Kenny Matys, who started climbing in 1989, was part of what could be called the "first wave" of the popularization of the sport in the United States. He competed in more than 100 climbing competitions, including the International Federation of Sport Climbing's (IFSC) World Cup and the X Games. Though he's since retired as a professional climber, he remains active in the sport as a participant and as president of a Utah-based company that supplies climbing holds for walls around the world, from recreation centers to consumers who build their own setup at home.

Matys said he sees another, larger wave of people coming into rock climbing, due largely to a shift in focus. When he started out, the participants were predominantly interested in route climbing, which places an emphasis on height. But in the late 1990s, he said, the sport began a move toward bouldering, which involves a more horizontal form of "climbing" that typically doesn't get more than 10 feet from the ground. And while the phrase "rock climbing" still tends to conjure up an image of an incredibly lean, strong individual hanging off the side of a cliff hundreds of feet above the earth below, "low altitude" bouldering is today the most popular form of the sport by far.

Why has bouldering overtaken route climbing? For one reason, it's more social, explained Leslie Rasch, sales manager for a Boulder, Colo.-based climbing wall manufacturer. Her company sells walls to facilities all over North America, and has supplied them to places as far away as Ireland and the Caribbean as well.

"With bouldering, you can all take turns with a climbing problem," she said. "It can open up that social side of things, and that's helped proliferate the sport."

Also, the people participating in bouldering don't have to constantly be aware of the person on the wall, Matys added. "In a route environment, I have to be paying attention to what you're doing," he said. "You might have a spotter in bouldering, but it's not so intense."

Another advantage of bouldering is that it requires less in the way of equipment. In route climbing, participants have to put on harnesses and use carabiners to hook themselves on to ropes. They also need a live person on the ground performing belay duties, unless the facility has an auto-belay system, in which the climber links to a line that comes down from the top of the wall, Rasch said.

For that reason, bouldering is great for a membership that is increasingly on the go. "You can get a much more intense workout in a shorter amount of time by bouldering," Rasch said.

However, the rise of bouldering notwithstanding, there is still a demand for route walls, especially among more experienced climbers. "You will find some commercial gyms that are purely bouldering," Matys said. "That's not exactly rare, but most facilities have route climbing as well. [Bouldering] provides a quick fix. If I had more time, I would be route climbing more. I'm 40 and I don't care about chasing [climbing] grades."