Rock climbing on the wall of Voiron - by Romary, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

America is slightly less obsessed with rock climbing than, say, surfing, but it’s mainstream appeal is hard to deny after the recent release of the Point Break redux and the rise of the outdoor apparel industry, much of which is geared (tailored?) to mountain sports. Climbing gyms have proliferated as a result, with the indoor climbinAg industry experiencing a 10% growth rate in 2015. Most of the climbing gyms in America are clustered along the Eastern Seaboard and in Southern California but, seen on a map, it’s clear that indoor climbing is nationwide.

If you live in California and climb, chances are you go to a gym. One reason is that most people in the Golden State don’t live near Yosemite, Joshua Tree, or Bishop. Local crags can be excellent in the big cities (check out our former posts for some ideas), but they generally aren’t as local as the neighborhood rock gym. Not only that, but climbing outdoors, even at the local crag, doesn’t always fit into a standard work day; it’s hard to beat a gym when it comes to climbing laps for a two-hour workout.

While this holds true for experienced outdoor climbers who train in gyms, it also applies to those climbers who started in gyms and have little or no outdoor experience. The strictly-gym crowd is growing independently of the climb-outdoors-but-train-in-a-gym crowd, and that trend is worth examining.

In an article in Climber Magazine, journalist Chris Noble refers to the “mentorship gap” created by the exponential growth of new climbers—in large part due to gyms—who don’t have access to any sort of training outdoors. It used to be that new climbers learned from experienced climbers, but now that relationship is breaking down because of an imbalance—too few experienced climbers to go around.

Another issue may be that crag climbing weeds out people who aren’t enamored enough of the sport to spend hours and hours schlepping gear and tying knots. The sport grew rapidly in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, but its recent growth, in the last decade, has been unprecedented. For this reason some climbers talk about the B.G.E. (Before the Gym Era) with a sense of nostalgia. Today, gyms offer urban climbers a taste of height and exposure, and a fast track to strength and skill, but leave out critical details about how to safely build an anchor, and what sort of ethics should climbers observe outdoors.

Realistically, this problem has been around since at least the 1970’s, when the Chouinard Catalogue first pitched the idea of clean climbing to its subscribers. Even then, the old guard lamented the rapid growth of the sport, and the droves of new climbers who stomped the grass, chipped the rock, and left chalk dust all over the place.

So what should a well-intentioned and aspiring climber do to get outside the right way? Like breaking into anything you’ll need a combination of resourcefulness, ambition, and tenacity to find someone who wants to teach you the ropes. If you have time, it can be as easy as showing up at a climbing area and asking to tag along. That sort of flexibility may be exactly the thing that leads some gym climbers indoors in the first place, though. If that’s you, then it’s important to remember that just buying a rope and winging it is almost always a bad call. Sadly, the American Alpine Journal is full of accident reports related to inexperienced climbers taking on more than they could handle.

The good news is that the climbing industry has begun to respond to this influx of new, enthusiastic climbers with educational opportunities, both to build climbing experience and to teach respect for the limited resources we all value. Check out your local gym or the internet for classes. Be price conscious, but always remember to check your instructor's qualifications. Remember, the objective is to learn from someone with experience.

SAANO Adventures Level I - Anchors and Rescue Course

Things to learn as you make the transition to outdoor climbing:

S-A-F-E-T-Y: learn about gear and technique in a mentorship environment

Etiquette: crags belong to all of us, and like most wild places they are fragile. Damaging, polluting, or creating conflict is unacceptable

By Brian Gruters


Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.