Feature Article - March 2002
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Boulder Dash

Climbing Wall facilities race for the next level

By Stacy St. Clair

Be cool

The Front climbing gym in Salt Lake City wanted that same jaw-dropping reaction when it opened its doors in November. The owners designed their new facility with aspirations of bringing indoor climbing to the next level. The business partners, who were all raised on East Coast, wanted to bring a hip, metropolitan freshness to the gym. At the same time, they knew a chic atmosphere could not come at the expense of wall quality.

Salt Lake City climbers, considered by many to be the sport's most passionate and knowledgeable athletes, would not frequent a facility that it didn't challenge their skills. In addition, most members are also outdoor climbers accustomed to Utah's breathtaking vistas—an aesthetic obstacle many Rocky Mountain gyms must hurdle.

In order to open their dream facility, the owners decided to find a different location. The gym previously had been housed in warehouse-type building in nearby Sandy, with the climbing wall installed straight across the back wall. It was a bare-bones facility that attracted only die-hard climbers.

The Front climbing gym in Salt Lake City

"That was all fine and dandy," Powers says. "But climbing gyms are a business, and now we have a great one."

After selecting the new location, The Front's owners purchased a top-of-the-line climbing wall made of furniture-grade wood. The decision was an expensive one, but Powers says it gives the gym the unique feel owners desired. A laminate or plywood wall would have given the facility the exact cookie-cutter feel they wanted to avoid.

"We didn't try to make a mountain indoors," Powers says. "We made a sculpture indoors."

The Front owners also bucked convention and installed the wall in a U-shape to encourage spectator viewing and give climbers more room. The design won rave reviews from participants in the two Professional Climbers Associations events held there last year.

"That design has proven to be the smartest thing we ever did," Powers says.

Having met the experienced climber's demands, the owners turned their attention toward potential converts. They provided ample space for bouldering, a newcomer-friendly type of climbing in which participants grasp supports instead of ropes to scale the wall.

Though rope climbers often scoff at bouldering, novices are drawn to it for several reasons. It can be done without a partner and seems less intimidating than rope climbing. Those who boulder also have the thrill of freefalling onto a heavily cushioned area when they slip; rope climbers just hang there.

The nature of bouldering—plummeting to the ground after every mistake—also allows for more socialization at the wall's base.

"With ropes, that's a more serious endeavor," Russo says. "In bouldering when you fall, your friends are there heckling you at the bottom."

While The Front made a great effort to ensure the ultimate climbing experience, the owners also designed the facility to appeal to climbers who don't always feel like climbing. The gym boasts weight and yoga rooms to rival any local fitness center. Dance music pumps through the sound system as it would at any other club.

Their effort has produced a boom in the gym's female membership. Women long have been considered an untapped resource for climbing gyms. For years, gym owners insisted women avoided indoor climbing because it was too risky and required too much strength.

In fact, it was just the opposite. Several studies have found women to be more natural climbers because of their balance and flexibility. They tended to avoid the earliest gyms not out of fear for their safety but more out of disdain for the location.

"It's difficult to get women into a warehouse," Powers says. "They just don't want to be there."

Warehouse-haters, however, have embraced the Front's trendy décor and ample natural light. Those who don't climb often join to take yoga lessons while their husbands boulder.

"We can compete against any of the 24-hour fitness centers," Powers says.

The Front's diverse programming is an example of how climbing gyms must adapt in the 21st century, experts say.

"The gyms are trying to make it so you want to be there even when you're not climbing," Russo says. "No more day passes. You want to have their business year-round."