The Soul Of The Climbing Gym

Is Changing

Climbing gyms have always been different from other types of fitness gyms. The activity melds your body and mind together in a different way than any other type of exercise. Even when we’re indoors, climbing makes us feel good, and not just in our bodies. It has the potential to lift our spirits and bring us into community with people we normally wouldn’t know at all. It causes paths to cross and friendships to be born.

The reason this is on my mind is because recently, Climbing Magazine published an article entitled, “How Climbing Gyms Lost Their Soul.” Delaney Miller, the author, suggests that climbing gyms have become too big and therefore aren’t welcoming anymore, that in them, you are no longer free to be yourself. She says that the huge gym conglomerates that exist nowadays have become more like Disney World than church. She also seems to be saying that the kinds of climbers that are born in these giant gyms are different and that it is changing the larger community, or the soul of the climbing gyms.

Miller is working out some serious nostalgia in this article, lamenting the loss of the time and place where she came of age as a young climber, where she was well-known, where everybody knew her name. Anyone who started climbing more than 10 years ago could probably meander down that road. There is a place for this nostalgia, as long as we remember that nostalgia is usually a looking back to the good things of our own personal past, but it’s not necessarily a complete historical picture. Every person may not have the same story, the same blurry, fuzzy warm memories of the small (or small-ish) climbing gym experience. As the climbing world broadens, it’s important to hear all the stories, or as many as we can.

Since the 1990s, when the small grungy gyms were what existed in most places, interest in climbing has continually ramped up year by year, especially in the last decade. Climbing is now an Olympic sport, afterall. Gyms have to be able to keep up, to accommodate this growing population. One result is that new gyms have opened, and they are bigger. People interested in climbing have also diversified, and the climbing gym also has to be able to better-accommodate and encourage that diversity. They need to be places that can house many people with many different backgrounds and experiences and beliefs under one roof; they need to offer a new kind of hospitality. Smaller gyms may have a harder time with this, and so the bigger gyms with better funding, more space, and more programming tend to be attractive to a larger population.

Here in Pittsburgh we have felt these growing pains. However even though it’s a major city, Pittsburgh still manages to feel like small-town in some ways, and even though the ASCEND gyms are the biggest we’ve ever had here, they aren’t mega-gyms in the style of the gigantic gym complex that Miller, in her article, accuses of destroying the soul of climbing. ASCEND will also never be the same as the “grimy dingy hole in the wall vault” of The Climbing Wall (TCW). But it’s still the local Pittsburgh gym and has held onto a bit of that local feel. The owners— who were die-hard TCW members at one time themselves— are from here and try to encourage a sense of community on a larger scale. This doesn’t necessarily mean that such a broad, diverse group feels like one big happy family.

While some of us can grieve with Miller about the loss of the small gym, or the smaller climbing community, we should remember that they also had their limitations. Gyms have to entice the masses to join and become members in order to make money and stay open and offer even more perks. We wish it weren’t true that they need to be money-making businesses to survive, that this means that climbing itself has become more of a commodity. I would say that modern gyms are more like a mall than Disney World, offering all the members’ felt needs inside of one space, and we climbers have a lot of felt needs. This is why there are all the other things now— yoga, cardio and weight lifting equipment, and training boards— we need them in order to be better climbers. We need foot washing stations. We really, really do.

Gyms also feel different these days because people seem to be different: just Google “loneliness epidemic,”  or read the headlines in almost any news publication about how polarized we all are in this country. It’s all over the media that people remain isolated even when they are surrounded by others. I’m not here to argue if this is actually more true now than in the past, or if it is just more visible now than ever before because of technology. I do think that the very open space the new gyms offer allows for some kind of isolation, the ability to remain apart, especially if that’s what you want. If you aren’t completely smashed together, you are less likely to make eye contact, bump into each other, maybe chit-chat about the problems or routes you are working on. Even the walls themselves are less crowded with holds. I wrote a little something about The Climbing Wall closing on my Substack awhile back, and one person commented: “The thing I've noticed most at the new gyms is how many more people are there by themselves— earbuds in, climbing high with confidence in the modern pads that reduce the need for spotters. It feels sort of antiseptic, not raucously social enough. Just the common need for spotters in the old TCW made for so much more positive interaction, so many more friendships in the gym, in outside climbing areas, and just in life.”

Music is super important— how else are we supposed to feel like we’re crushing it in a climbing video?— and, not-so-surprisingly, highly individual. Like Miller reminisces in her article, I too remember the days when I could plug in my phone at TCW and play whatever music I liked while I climbed. Before that, before smart phones and music apps and playlists, WDVE was on constantly, sure to give us our hourly dose of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Hotel California.” But not everyone was invited to share their music, and maybe some people hated what I played.

It’s probably always been true that most people want to listen to their own music and only their own music, but now there is technology to assist us with this desire. Now more people wear earbuds and don’t listen to what’s playing over the gym’s speakers. In my experience, which is limited mainly to the least busy hours when the gym is open, the music that is being played on RockBot makes me want to plug my ears and hum “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. If no one is using the app and contributing (which you can do as a climber at ASCEND!), the algorithm is neglected, and therefore the vibe suffers. Does “I Would Do Anything for Love” by Meatloaf make anybody want to crank the gnar? Just wondering.

It begs the question though, does wearing earbuds contribute to less spontaneous, organic conversations with other members? Is a sense of community lost in some way because of them? Of course, some people need to have the freedom to tune others out. Even though I'm guilty of such a thing, I never wear earbuds myself. Case in point— most people who climb at ASCEND probably don’t even know who I am.

So it isn’t only about the feel of the place, it’s the feels we bring in with us. Many of us want to remain anonymous, unknown, do our thing and only engage with the people we have come to see. We have a schedule to keep. We are busy. Make way! This is how the gym accommodates all the new people: there is a new etiquette. There’s enough space — spread out.  Stay off the pads. Don’t spot your neighbor so no one gets hurt. Don’t spray beta. Don’t assume. Sometimes it's easier not to engage at all than wonder if you are going to do or say something wrong.

Though the soul of the climbing gym may be troubled, it isn’t missing. When I walk into the gym on any given day, and look around, there are still pods of people here and there talking and climbing together as well as some loners like me. It will always be, for the majority of people, such a social sport. Organic, spontaneous conversations still emerge even if it’s different than in the past. Connections can be made if you want to make them. Really, the climbing gym is there for you to make of it what you want.

Personally, since COVID, I’m hardly ever at the gym during the busy hours on weeknights. I usually climb or lift during the day when few souls are around. It’s definitely removed me from the greater part of the climbing community, though I manage to stay in touch with some of the people I used to climb with. I’m such a creature of routine, tied to my training workouts, and a total introvert that I find it hard to carve out the time in my life for the scheduled programming at ASCEND, like the Women On Walls or Over The Mountain climbing club (yes, I’m one of those elder-climbers now— maybe I’m in denial) or the book clubs that sometimes meet to talk about good books. It definitely feels harder to be a part of the community than in my younger days.

I need to be more intentional, hence this blog post and maybe more in the future. I wonder whether through it I will get to hear other people’s stories and learn more about the climbing community that frequents ASCEND these days.

Questions that I’d like to ask every single member if I could:

  1. How did you get into climbing?

  2. Who do you love climbing with?

  3. What does a perfect day in the gym look like for you?

Written By

Jen Hemphill

Jen is a longtime rock climber, mom, and writer.