Reaching New Heights

Growing Your Climbing Program


From this year's recent Super Bowl ads to blockbuster TV shows like American Ninja Warrior, climbing has taken center stage in the athletic, fitness and recreation industries. And its popularity continues to grow.

According to the Climbing Business Journal's tracking data, the U.S. indoor climbing industry grew 10 percent from 2014 to 2015, with 40 new gyms that brought the nation's total to 388. That number is now even higher, with projected double-digit growth for 2016 to be just as robust.

Given the industry's steady climb over the past five years, and the eagerness of investors, lenders and developers to get in on the action, first-time operators are opening gyms all over the country. What was once thought to be critical to climbing's success (large cities, natural climbing terrain and an established climbing community) is no longer true. Climbing's crossover potential to mix and complement many other programs, and its expansion (beyond climbing and bouldering) today includes aquatic climbing, ice climbing and hybrid climbing-parkour-obstacle courses. Speed climbing and competitive teams have turned climbing into an exciting spectator sport.

In response, traditional, static, faux rock walls of yesteryear are giving way to colorful geometric panels and curving lines with new surface textures that, in many cases, can be swapped out for easy rotations or upgrades, and that allow almost limitless route-setting options. Holds, too, add to the spectacle, with an array of candy colors (some even lit with eye-catching LED lights). These are just a few examples of the many ways the climbing industry is evolving and adapting to attract and meet the needs of a growing audience.

For the past few years, this wider audience has been fueling the groundswell for the emergence of bigger gyms that can offer more than just a climbing experience. They can provide all-around fitness training to give serious climbers—especially competitive climbers—workouts to improve their climbing performance.

"Climbing in general is growing as a sport very well," observed John Wiygul, partner and general manager of Highpoint Climbing and Fitness in Chattanooga, Tenn. "Instead of seeing 'mom and pop' small standalone climbing facilities, large upscale multi-gym climbing companies are emerging in the industry," he explained, adding that the reason for such growth is that more climbers are seeking the best places to train indoors.

Climbing gyms are also thriving in smaller cities with smaller venues—a big departure from the mega-gym trend—and to many's surprise, these smaller gyms are succeeding in America's flatlands. The Midwest, despite its lack of outdoor climbing terrain and pre-existing climbing community, is rockin' the indoor climbing scene. What this demonstrates and validates is rock climbing no longer requires a sizeable local group of climbing enthusiasts to survive. Moreover, a notable shift in climbing has occurred. Climbing programs are no longer just the training wheels meant to prepare novices for outdoor climbing. Instead, indoor climbing has become a sport, fitness tool and recreational activity in its own right.

The numbers clearly show smaller gyms from as little as 800 square feet are holding their own, while established fitness facilities that add climbing space and climbing programs are significantly enhancing their existing fitness programs. But perhaps the icing on the cake is that climbing is reaching a demographic heretofore considered nearly impossible to attract and hold: the elusive teenager.

Social Climbers

Millennials are notoriously community-minded and highly social. It stands to reason, then, that such a communal experience as indoor climbing would become a favorite activity of this generation. "I think that the social side of it has a lot to do with its popularity," said Mike Moelter, owner and founder of Moving Climbing & Fitness in Denver. "If you take a yoga class, for example, it's all very internally focused, and there is very little interaction with the person next to you. In climbing, however, many go with friends. It's very social with those on the ground talking about what to do next, or holding the rope and encouraging you the whole time. The social aspect alone is a big component of why people come back."

To that end, many gyms have discovered that offering amenities to encourage and facilitate the social component is just good business. At the Multnoma Athletic Club (MAC) in Portland, Ore. (one of the oldest private athletic clubs and the second largest in the country), they strive to make their environment as accessible and community-oriented as possible.

"The bouldering gym is a huge thing. We're trying to make it a spot in our club where you come hang out with friends and work out. It's about community," said Drew White, head climbing coach and outdoor supervisor. "Next we are going to add a place where people can work on computers so that if a kid has a class, their parents can work right there while their kid climbs. A lot of gyms are putting in brew pubs and restaurants, too. We are lucky we already have that. So after a workout, if people want to eat dinner or get a beer and hang out, they can."

Upward Mobility

However, climbing isn't just for the community-minded, the ninja-warrior wannabes or those into extreme sports. Its physical training benefits intersect with many other fitness disciplines. And thanks to its versatility (it can be taught one-on-one for those who learn best that way, or taught in a group setting for those looking for a communal experience), it is reaching a broad spectrum of users: young, old, special needs and able-bodied, fun-seekers and competitors, singles and families. It's all there.


Those with special needs, for example, are finding that climbing can be therapeutic as well as esteem-building and socially beneficial. Climbing is often a gateway to finding peer acceptance. "We do have lots of kids who have some special needs in terms of autism, and it has really changed their lives," said White about the positive experience for special needs families. "Others with genetic issues have found climbing almost a therapy to develop muscle. One-on-one instruction is especially beneficial, and we have even found that climbing is a segue into mainstreaming. And often the family follows and it becomes something they can do as a family."

Chris Prange-Morgan, couldn't agree more. Prange-Morgan, an advocate and volunteer with Adaptive Adventures, brought a chapter of this special needs organization to her native Wisconsin. The organization, founded in 1999, provides adults, children and veterans with physical disabilities the opportunity to experience outdoor sports including climbing that can literally change lives.

"All of climbing is adaptive in the sense that we all use whatever strengths we have to make our way up the wall, and we all have some strengths and some deficits to work with (some folks are shorter, some are taller, some people are flexible, some not-so-much, etc.)," Prange-Morgan explained. "The climbing culture is intuitively set up to help folks find and play to their strengths. In addition, the climbing community inherently embraces struggle. By nature, most folks who are drawn to rock climbing love the mental and physical challenge of the sport. It is intense, yet communal … and cultivates a sense of trust in others and a strong ethic of safety and encouragement."

Climbing, she concluded, is a strong metaphor for persisting and overcoming, no matter the challenge.

Fit and Active

Climbing also has become an invaluable tool in the athlete's fitness toolbox. Gyms and recreation facilities aren't just adding climbing and bouldering walls for their own sakes. They are adding them as part of an overall fitness program, prizing it for its unique ability to be both fun and rigorous. Indoor climbing and bouldering has become very accessible for the average Joe and Jane, as well as for the training athlete.

Climbing has become an integral part of fitness programming to create a well-rounded athlete. As a result, many gyms include a variety of training options. From the common pullup bar to medicine balls, weights and yoga, clubs and gyms now see climbing as a niche under a larger fitness umbrella in the effort to provide a well-rounded workout.

In the case of Moving Climbing and Fitness, which opened in 2009, the decision to combine a full-service fitness club with an emphasis on traditional competitive climbing was a pragmatic one. They saw a way to eliminate the need for two club memberships—one for fitness and another for climbing training. As one of the first to put everything under one roof, their model of combining many fitness disciplines in one building has been successful. The facility, which has hosted national as well as international competitions, is just one of a growing number that have tapped into climbing as a competitive sport.

"Climbing has become a popular sport," Wiygul acknowledged. "There are teams at all levels from youth through adult. The sport has climbers coming back for more."

Ready, Set, Go

Those who have already ventured into climbing territory will tell you, however, that merely adding a colorful climbing panel and a high school teenager to belay a rope will not cut it. "You have to have skilled labor positions, and that starts with both setting and instructors. Without good setting you can't really provide a good teaching environment, and you're going to have a hard time retaining membership and getting people to come back to your class," White said. "A lot of people start a program and think we'll set the holds and it'll be fine. But the turnover of routes on a weekly or bi-weekly basis is pivotal."

Climbers like diversity and a new challenge; frequently setting new routes will offer them that opportunity and keep them coming back for more.

One of the key factors in making that happen is having a well-trained staff. A knowledgeable setter who can keep people engaged, and an instructor who not only knows how to climb but has good teaching skills, are instrumental. Unlike many other sports, however, on-going training and certification for setters is not commonplace. In fact, it is limited to just a few places in the country. For that reason, it is especially critical that budgets include a line for spending on annual training.

USA Climbing hosts two training conferences per year, for example, but thankfully, there also are world-class gyms that offer it as well. "We have a robust route-setting program," said White, an international route-setter trainer as well as facility owner. "That's our biggest specialty—our route-setting. We host a lot of clinics, and USA Climbing has certified setters come in and host a clinic at our facility."


What many successful climbing gyms also share in common is a vision of both long- and short-term goals. In the case of The MAC, which already had a large, 125-year-old multipurpose fitness facility, the addition of a climbing wall and an accompanying program had to come in stages. In phase one, the climbing wall they purchased shared space with their badminton courts. In phase two they added more climbing walls to expand up to one-third of the gym. Finally, in phase three they added a speed climbing wall, a bouldering wall, and bigger holds to do more complex route-setting. What really made all the difference, however, was the consistency they gained when they finally had a dedicated space—a climbing gym—where they no longer had to share space or an identity with another sport. And programming, understandably, became more diverse with each addition.

Up, Up and Away

No discussion about the climbing industry's upward trajectory would be complete without addressing the impact new technology is having on the sport. One such technological improvement has been the emergence of different kinds of auto-belays, those mechanisms that safely anchor a climber to a wall and prevent them from falling should they slip. In times past, belaying has required another person to hold the rope for a climber. However, with auto-belays, even a first-time climber can scale a wall without much introduction, providing them an almost immediate sense of accomplishment while also saving a facility money by eliminating the need for additional staff. Auto-belays also allow a single climber to work out without the need for a partner—ideal for those who might not be quite so community-minded, or who might feel uncomfortable working with a stranger. The creation of aquatic climbing, as well, has transformed a safer climbing experience into a more thrilling one where falling into the water below is just part of the fun.

From all current indicators, many believe there is only one direction climbing's popularity can go: up.


Kelli Ra Anderson