The great indoors: how climbing is scaling up

The past few years have seen indoor climbing shift from a niche sport into a mainstream trend. Alongside this, bouldering centers and at-home climbing brands have also made a steep ascent.
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If you’re a member of indoor climbing’s largest demographic – white males aged between 18 and 35 (although gender parity and racial diversity is on the rise) – it’s likely that you or someone you know has recently taken up the sport. 

Analysts say its popularity is thanks to our obsession with Instagrammable experiences and self-improvement. There’s been a lot to inspire prospective climbers, too, from its upcoming Olympic debut in Tokyo to hit films on Netflix.

In 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made history when they completed the first free-climb (that’s with ropes, though not assisted by them) of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park – perhaps the hardest climb in the world. Two years later, Alex Honnold succeeded in a hair-raising rope-free climb up a different route on the same rock face. Both were made into films, The Dawn Wall and Free Solo, released in 2017 and 2018 respectively. 

Climbing has even turned into a full-on lifestyle choice: these days you can find climbing walls at gyms, cafes and co-working spaces. It’s less an alternative to outdoor climbing than it is to a traditional gym workout – climbing indoors is far more social than jogging away on a treadmill. Indoor climbing gyms are full of friends figuring out how to solve a route together. In many cities, you could now – quite literally – live, work and play at indoor climbing gyms.

In the US, indoor climbing will be worth $1 billion this year, according to the Climbing Wall Association – in 2017, the estimated industry revenue was $618 million – and indoor gyms are clocking up an average of 100 new members per month. Indoor climbers make up half the climbing population, according to the American Alpine Club

And it’s a trend that stretches beyond the US. The Association of British Climbing Walls says that the number of indoor climbers increased 40% to 50% between 2017 and 2019. In Germany, between 2010 and 2017, the number of indoor climbing gyms rose each year by between 10% and 27%. In Japan, the number grew from 96 to 435 between 2008 and 2015. 

This boom has been fueled by a subset of the sport: bouldering. Bouldering involves tackling shorter routes – usually on rocks or walls no higher than five meters. It's rope-free, so requires little equipment beyond shoes and a chalk bag, and there’s no safety training to get started. Traditionally, indoor centers cater for both bouldering and rope-climbing, but the boost is driven by bouldering-only venues. 

In Canada, 80% of the new climbing gyms that opened in 2019 were bouldering only, according to the Climbing Business Journal. Even during the pandemic they continued to open – there were a massive 44 new openings in the US in 2020, half of which were bouldering-only venues.

Three climbing brands to watch

Allez. Regular climbers will know this: your hands get destroyed. There are a number of specialist skincare brands to cater for dry, cracked and rock-worn skin. One recent addition is Allez, founded by a climber with a decade’s experience in the skincare industry. Products include the Recover hand salve, infused with CBD, ginger root, willow bark and arnica – and free from sulfates, parabens and other nasties. 

Orumm. Bringing Seoul street-chic to the climbing wall, Orumm – which means ‘climbing’ in Korean – is a lifestyle brand that’s riding off the country’s bouldering boom. Its colorful range spans comfy trousers, bright bucket hats and stylish, upcycled chalk bags. 

ÉCH. Stylish bouldering apparel with innovation in mind, ÈCH was founded in 2019 by a climber who wanted to solve the problem of scrabbling around for your chalk bag midway up a rock. The result is a range of climbing leggings and shorts that feature a built-in chalk pocket you can pat to dry your hands.

This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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