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TNB: Storm Years or Typhoon? The Biggest Issue in Climbing

By Alison Osius

Indoor energy. Some unknown named Chris Sharma rocks the crowd at Earth Treks in Maryland. Phot: Bob Feroli.I was 500 or 600 feet up on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, clipped to a single hex, when my friend Doug fell. And hung. About 10 feet below me. I can still see him, and remember the chilling thought, There’s nothing holding us but a hex.

The 5.9 pitch, the crux of Vertigo, followed a dihedral, turned a corner, and traversed a few moves to gain a crack. Stalled in the crack by rope drag, as if I were pulling an elephant, I had stopped and belayed on a big hex. A good one, but only one. Doug had now removed my last pieces of pro leading to the anchor.

“Doug, can you get back on?”


Doug Elson and I both survived, and he, steady and capable, is now a physician in Bozeman. I didn’t know (until after that day) to use long slings to reduce drag. Or to downclimb, no matter how far, if lacking more than one anchor placement.

The learning years; the most dangerous years. The storm years, as my friend Steve Dilk called them the other night at the gym, as we fell into horrified reveries.

“After I survived my storm years …” he began a sentence.

The scary thing is that, unlike many beginning climbers today, we at least had mentors. Is a typhoon approaching?

I’m not saying my mentors were perfect. They were just other college kids, not guides with systematic methods. But they’d all learned from someone else, and several had been to Outward Bound or NOLS. Ian Baker visually checked everyone’s knots. Charlie Bates called it “unforgivable” to let go of a rope with your brake hand. He and Chris Blatter quietly picked up and packed out any can or bottle they saw trailside.

Stone Summit hosts a huge infusion of youth, including teams that travel there as a destination. Photo: Andrew Bisharat.Today we climbers face a whole new era, with skyrocketing numbers entering the learning years. They are climbing in gyms, where they gain a modicum of knowledge, but gym staff won’t be there when they walk out the doors and to the crags.

Recently Chris Warner, owner of the three Earth Trek climbing gyms in Maryland, spoke at an American Alpine Club board meeting, and presented some big numbers:

  • There are now 500 commercial climbing gyms in the USA.
  • There are 10,000 climbing walls including those in rec centers.
  • Users are signing 130,000 digital waivers monthly (with the Rock Gym Pro online system), and that doesn’t even count paper ones. The total of waivers signed is estimated at over 2 million a year.

Warner tells me, “We get over 500 check-ins every weekday in our Rockville gym and over 1,000 on weekends. I am sure others—Brooklyn Boulders, Planet Granite—get more.”

Kyle Waggoner of the USAC observes that in 2010, ABS Regionals attacted 1,069 participants, while 2014 Regionals have received almost 2,000 signups, an 86 percent increase in four years.

Today Boulder, Colorado, has four major gyms, and Warner has just, on November 26, put in a mondo $6 million facility in Golden, only 35 minutes away.

Today we climbers face a whole new era, with skyrocketing numbers entering the learning years.A recent trend, exhibited at major facilities like Movement Climbing + Fitness in Boulder, and anticipated in others such as the upcoming First Ascent Climbing to open this spring in Chicago (where Brooklyn Boulders LLC has also just signed a lease), is to create not just a brass-tacks climbing facility but a whole experience. Amenities include other gym equipment, childcare, full-service locker rooms and cafes.

The next trend appears to be, as Waggoner says, “Nobody’s limited to geographic area anymore.”

Like Chris Warner, who is expanding west from the mid-Atlantic, owners are moving outward. From the Bay Area, Touchstone Climbing is opening in L.A., and Planite Granite is expanding to Portland, Oregon.

Meanwhile, the owner of Stone Summit in Atlanta, an enormous gym and veritable youth magnet, is about to open a second facility in nearby Marietta, Georgia.

Says Pete Ward of NE2C Productions, which runs the Unified Bouldering Championships tour, “As a community, we have to understand that all future climbers will come through gyms and that as the country urbanizes … those gyms will be in densely  urban areas. Most future climbers will be city people."

Will the gym learners go outside? Sure. Mark Kroese, president of the AAC, reports that in a survey of gyms in his city, Seattle, found that 70 percent of members aspire to climb outdoors.

Of course, another way to look at the numbers above is to marvel that 30 percent prefer to remain inside. People climb for different reasons, and in gyms many are finding community as well as excellent workouts.

Kroese says with wonder and humor, “I asked my son”—a lifelong climber, now 25—“what his favorite types of rock were. He said, ‘In order: 1. Plastic, 2. limestone, 3. granite, 4. volcanic tuff, 5. sandstone.’”

And whether those climbers moving outside will even stay outside (or return indoors after a few forays) is another question. But gym-to-crag climbers are a giant emergent group. I think their education is the top safety issue in climbing.

The good news is that the industry is responding. Over Halloween weekend, the Access Fund (supported by the AAC) sponsored a gym-to-crag “Educate for Access” symposium in the Shawangunks, New York. recently listed over half a dozen gyms (Vertical World, Upper Limits, Edgeworks, Boston Rock Gym, Planet Granite, Mesa Rim and Aiguille Rock Gym) as among the many who have developed programs to teach outdoor safety and ethics. Warner was quoted as saying any gym member should ask if a facility is a member of the Access Fund, AAC and Climbing Wall Association. All are advocacy groups, with the CWA forming 10 years ago to promote risk-management practices and serve gyms, staff, manufacturers and others in the industry. The organization recently released a “ClimbSmart” video featuring Chris Sharma, Sasha DiGiulian, Paul Robinson and Jason Kehl discussing risk and awareness (in gym use). The climber-writer Matt Samet has written the illustrated

Crag Survival Handbook for gym climbers in transition.

Ty Tyler of the Access Fund says: “There is a clear conclusion that something needs to be done to begin reaching climbers throughout the community. The indoor setting is one of the ideal opportunities, but not the only one.” The AF plans education at a national level, with “regionally relevant” information for gyms, local climbing organizations and local climbers. The AAC’s Craggin’ Classic, held this year at Smith Rock, Oregon, offered a gym-to-crag clinic.

“We don't need to be afraid of gym/city kids,” says Pete Ward. “Look up on the Dawn Wall and see Kevin Jorgeson, Tommy Caldwell and Chris Sharma. KJ and Chris are gym kids who, for my money, turned out pretty damn good. “It's up to us to communicate what is important.”


* * *

Encourage any gym climber you know to take classes. To read up. To hire a guide (see—especially in learning the additional complexities and risks of trad climbing. It’s worth whatever money it takes. There is so much to learn in climbing, and in this sport we can’t afford to learn from our mistakes.

If you see someone erring out at the crags, speak up. Your opinion may not be welcome (mine sure wasn’t last time I tried), but you could prevent an accident, and will at least gain peace of mind from trying.

And while we are at it, here are two things for each of us to do every time, a matter of sustained vigilance. Most of the accidents this magazine sees could be prevented with these steps. We could fill the Accident Report every single issue with incidents regarding the latter.

  • Visually check each other’s knots and belay setups every pitch, or at least ask, before a person leaves the ground, “How’s your knot?” When you untie and tie in five or 10 times a day at a sport crag, it’s too easy to mess up, and to neglect to check. Check. 
  • Always have a knot in the end of your rope, when belaying, lowering and rappelling. Not just neophytes but experienced climbers neglect this all the time. I personally know six people—six—who have accidentally dropped someone when the rope end slipped through a belay device. Just tie the knot!


See this TNB by Duane Raleigh on related topics.

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