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What is Indoor Rock Climbing?

Updated: Apr 28

When you hear “rock climbing,” you might think of a massive mountain that you must scale and scramble over rocks to summit vertically. You might think it’s for the daredevils, adrenaline seekers of the world. And to a degree, you’re right. Rock climbing started as an outdoor sport where individuals used ropes, harnesses, and other devices to scale rock faces that people didn’t believe were possible. In fact, before 1987, indoor rock climbing was non-existent in the United States. But in May 1987, Vertical World opened in Seattle, opening the door to an entirely new take on the sport: indoor climbing on manufactured walls. Little known at the time was that Vertical World would be the first of hundreds of indoor climbing facilities to open in the United States.

Today, indoor rock climbing is far from Vertical World's initial offerings of plywood sheets with actual rock holds adhered to them. The indoor climbing industry is now nearly a billion-dollar industry, with over 600 indoor climbing gyms in the United States. The once-novel idea of creating a winter training space for climbers psyched on sending outdoor projects is now its sport.

The exponential growth of indoor climbing is highlighting the generational dichotomy between climbers. Older climbers who grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s began their rock climbing journeys on natural rock in the great outdoors. But, the "next generation" born in the past two decades are more notably termed "gym rats." Their first introductions to rock climbing were through the indoor version of the sport. Whether via birthday party, kids class, or family outing, a kid's introduction to rock climbing typically pulls on colorful plastic in a climate-controlled environment. For many young rock climbing crushers and phenoms, their first introduction to indoor rock climbing progressed to a love for freedom, creativity, and community, leading to them joining the indoor rock climbing youth teams. For indoor rock climbing, the youth programs and teams have been a massive factor in the sport's growth. Like other organized sports, the indoor rock climbing teams meet, practice, and train for competitions - something that didn't exist before the advent of plastic or resin holds bolted onto plywood walls reaching 60-plus feet into the air.

woman in an indoor rock climbing gym

Indoor rock climbing has made rock climbing more accessible and increased the pool of athletes. As with all sports, more resources, talent, and optimized training have led individuals to push the boundaries of rock climbing beyond what anyone imagined in 1987. It used to be that Chris Sharma sending V9 or V10 outside was a big deal in the climbing community and affirmed his pro status. Now, kids are sending V10s before they hit double digits, and route setters set V9s and V10s indoors that regular rock gym goers can send in their training. To make it as a pro climber, your tick list of climbs must include multiple V12s or V13s, and you'll have lots of equally strong competition vying for those sponsored positions.

It's worth elaborating on the careers indoor rock climbing has created and the next generation of climbers it produces. As mentioned, route setters are the backbone of indoor rock climbing gyms. These employees are responsible for creating boulders and sports climbs. Taking the available sets of climbing holds and features, they must piece them together in a thought-provoking, fun, and simultaneously challenging order. A route setter must understand climbing movements and be able to create climbs accessible to beginners but complex enough for the most vital gym members to try. The other two careers booming from the advent and popularity of indoor rock climbing are rock gym owners and climbing hold makers. As more gyms open to meet the demand, more artificial climbing holds of all varieties are needed. Not to mention that there is a constant push for the designers of artificial rock climbing holds to create new shapes of climbing, smaller holds, and overall more complex shapes that are fun to climb on but also present newfound challenges to the elites in competitions.

All in all, there are a few essential things to know about indoor rock climbing. Although relatively new, it is rapidly growing and accessible to all athletic abilities. There's an established competition system around indoor rock climbing and many jobs that didn't exist 40 years ago when rock climbing meant traveling to a mountain and scaling nature's features.

There's so much more we could dive into about indoor rock climbing, but we hope this gives you a brief history lesson and overview of all it brings. If you have any questions about the sport or anything related to rock climbing, please drop them below!


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