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Feature Article - April 2019
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Rise to the Challenge

Climbing, Ropes Courses, Obstacle Racing & Beyond

By Joe Bush


The past three decades have seen the climb of nontraditional fun in recreation. Zip lines, climbing walls, ropes courses and obstacle racing have risen along with athletic activities like parkour, CrossFit and functional fitness—diversions that involve adrenaline and strength-related exercise.

Climbing dominates this trend, as the instinct from childhood to use playgrounds rungs and bars and handholds to pull oneself up has morphed into vertical walls with grips and foot placements that can be moved around for maximum variety. Inside or out, the all-around use of the body while climbing has attracted fitness and adrenaline junkies alike.

According to Climbing Business Journal, from 2015 to 2016, the number of commercial climbing gyms in the United States increased from 388 to 414, and 43 more sprung up in 2017. That total doesn't include climbing walls in stores or municipal recreation centers. Prepare for this number to continue to, ahem, climb because the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will feature three climbing categories: sport, speed, and bouldering.

The melding of traditional gyms or yoga studios with climbing gyms seeks to give people flexibility and less reason to choose another location to do both regular fitness and climbing, said Drew White, who manages the climbing programs at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland, Ore.

"There's a large group that uses climbing as a substitute for lifting weights or climbing versus playing basketball or instead of a team sport because it is an individual sport that you can do your entire life," White said. "Folks coming out of college are really into fitness, and they're finding climbing gyms to be the end-all and be-all. You can go to yoga, you can do your strength training, you can climb, which is fun and strength-building and community-focused, and when you're done we can all go have a beer together."

Climbing presents all sorts of creative programming possibilities for kids, competitive teams, moms, the disabled and the elderly. White said his club has been around for more than 120 years, and he's trying to help its climbing presence catch up with its much more established swimming and gymnastics programs.

The club boasts 10,000 overall square feet, with 6,500 square feet devoted to all three climbing disciplines.

White said the climbing team has grown 220 percent over the past four years, and he's developed a climbing school for kids who are not interested in a team environment. Adult usage also has increased.

"It's been a problem because we have so much programming going on in such a little space, we're hoping with that uptick in participation that upper management will consider expansion so our adults can grow and thrive," White said. "The climbing gym has evolved from a place where people came to get stronger and then go outside (to climb); it's now a place where people are going to find their community."

If your rec center could use some of that spirit and revenue boost, there's been a coincidental rise in companies that supply climbing walls and gear and programming and advice. Todd Chester, marketing director for a climbing wall, boulder and hold manufacturer based in Bend, Ore., said more and more organizations are studying whether climbing fits into their plans.

"The industry buzzword is exploratory play, and climbing fits right into that role," he said. "Right now we see more park districts looking outdoors into their public parks and creating some bouldering areas."

Bouldering is climbing with no ropes. Chester said until the past five years or so, climbing was about recreation and focused on getting people into the sport. The goal was indoor-to-outdoor transition—people learned in a controlled environment and then took those skills outdoors.

These days indoor climbing is an end in itself because it's turned competitive, said Chester.

"Climbing indoors is a mainstay now. You can see the number of commercial gyms opening across the United States, and the growth of the Climbing Wall Association, the number of athletes transitioning to collegiate competition and youth competitions. These programs are growing by leaps and bounds with USA Climbing."


Chester said this puts more emphasis on route setting—the changing of the handholds on the wall to raise or lower difficulty and add variation. Walls from 10 to 15 years ago were realistic, with a lot of natural features. Today's walls are pretty blank, allowing route setters to be more creative.

"That translates into changing routes more often, and that's good end product for members," he said. "If they change things once a month, you have a month to climb everything and you know different zones are going to change continually and always give you a new environment."