Indoor climbing has outreached its reputation as a niche sport. As college and community rec centers started designing elaborate walls into their facilities more than a decade ago, a new community of participants has emerged, and the sport has enjoyed a dramatic rise in popularity. In 2021, more than 5.6 million people participated in the activity, a 7.8 percent increase over 2019.
However, while enthusiasm for the sport of indoor climbing and bouldering continues to steadily ascend, operators and designers alike are revising their approach to how they offer the sport in their facilities. As far back as the 1990s, rec centers used climbing walls as the latest and greatest shiny object. Climbing and bouldering surfaces were thrown up in facility lobbies and hallways as artistic statements with little thought for how they would be used, programmed, monitored or maintained.
Here’s a look at how design of these facilities has been reimagined as indoor climbing continues to change and mature.
A wall done right
If you’re an indoor climbing enthusiast, you’d be lucky to count yourself a member at a place like Lake Nona Performance Club in Orlando, Fla. While the high-end fitness and wellness center offers a breadth of activities, the ROX Climbing Gym within the club is home to the region’s only 42-foot climbing tower. The 7,500-square-foot dedicated gym also features bouldering, top-rope climbing and rappelling. ROX isn’t an aesthetic focal point at Lake Nona, and that’s just one testament to how the design of these rec center mainstays has evolved.
Hervey Lavoie, partner at Ohlson Lavoie Corp., worked on the Lake Nona project, and he admits that the integration of indoor climbing into recreation facilities has been a journey. “I’m guilty of putting climbing walls in lobbies and using them basically as big artistic attention-getters as the first impression of a club,” Lavoie says. “But at the end of the day, it was a total failure as a meaningful member programming element.”
Chris Kastelic, architect with Perkins&Will, also remembers the early days of designing for indoor climbing. “Back in the day, you had to sort of sell people on the idea of climbing. It wasn’t something that people came out of the woodwork and requested,” Kastelic says. “As designers, we’re always looking for something new to kind of glom onto, and what’s cooler than a 30- or 40-foot tower of rock right at the front of your building, right? That was pretty common.”
Lavoie explains that it took time for people to understand climbing as more than a novelty, and for those who did understand climbing to step in and help guide the design process. “It took a while for the rest of the design community and the industry to listen to [climbing professionals] and understand what they were saying,” he says. “And I think what you see at Lake Nona represents the full progression of thinking in that evolution of going from just a visual amenity that some people will occasionally use, to something that is very meaningful for a diverse age group of people who really can benefit from and enjoy the whole experience.”
Keeping up with the private gym
Perhaps ironically, climbing’s popularity, and the emergence of private climbing gyms, has led some college and community rec operators to forgo inclusion of the activity in their facilities. Still others have sought to modify their existing facilities to accommodate the latest trends in the sport — bouldering, changeable routes, smaller training walls — which many private gyms currently offer.
“These so-called private climbing gyms are putting in these crazy amenities,” says Adam Koberna, president at Walltopia USA. “They’re putting in all these crazy colors on all of this stuff to attract people. And they’re constantly doing different things. So now the rec director is like, ‘Hey, all my students want that column gone, and they want that. How do I get that?’ And I think right now you’re at this kind of tipping point where that’s actually starting to happen.”
Koberna notes that the popularity of private climbing gyms that cater to both beginners and serious climbers alike has at the very least put pressure on rec directors to decide whether the sport is something they want to offer their members. “Our schools are kind of making a decision like, ‘Maybe we don’t want to offer climbing if there’s a competitive gym somewhere nearby,’ ” Koberna says. “I think that that is definitely part of the conversation.”
While private gyms might have previously seen rec facilities as competition, Koberna contends that they’re now seen as a good thing for everyone. “The climbing gym doesn’t offer programming for the most part,” he notes. “At the climbing gym, it’s cool to come in and train, do your own thing. The folks at rec centers are actually teaching classes, and that’s a different function. They teach people how to use a climbing gym properly. I think people, as well as the private gyms, are really benefiting from that.”
Flexibility and training
While two- and three-story climbing walls that were designed to look like the side of a mountain are impressive, they’re not very versatile and can’t accommodate the latest trends in climbing. At ROX in Lake Nona, all climbing surfaces are flat planes, as it allows for the accommodation of more climbing modalities.
“The biggest thing right now is bouldering,” says Koberna, which he explains requires smaller, irregular-shaped structures. Many enthusiasts prefer the simplicity of bouldering, which only requires a pair of climbing shoes and a sufficient crash pad to break landings.
The other thing that is prevalent in today’s private gyms are smaller, straight, flat-plane walls, which can be used for training in both traditional climbing and bouldering. “The moves involved in bouldering are very dynamic. Everybody’s jumping, and it’s more parkour-ish. And the people who set the routes for this, they want big, big handholds,” Koberna says. “To put a big hold on a wall, you need a big flat plane. So when you see all the walls with all the nooks and crannies, it’s like, I can only put a tiny hold on this thing.”
To that end, Koberna suggests smaller, flat walls that take up less room and can easily be customized.
“Those walls do not have to be tall,” he says. “They do not have to be big. You can do these 14-by-14 walls that are movable, and they have LED lights, and they tap into an app, and boom, you can get a group of people and just train on that.”
In recent years, many universities have converted racquetball courts to climbing facilities, but schools have tended toward installing more traditional climbing walls in those spaces, which Koberna says doesn’t work. “They’re actually the worst climbing walls ever,” he says. “I don’t think the industry is there yet. I think it’s a couple more years, and we’ll start trying to influence that. But if, instead of building a big climbing wall, they just put five of those training walls in, that thing would get used constantly.”
The angle of smaller training walls can also be adjusted, and handholds can be set pretty much anywhere on the wall, meaning they can accommodate just about any skill level. “You can have a wall that goes to 70 degrees to less than vertical,” says Koberna. “And if the holds are done right, you can have a 60-year-old on that wall, or you can have the best climber in the world.”
Field of play
While many climbing enthusiasts are content to simply hone their skills and get in a good workout, a healthy community has come together around competition climbing. As colleges and universities consider their facilities, they’re increasingly looking for counsel on what exactly they might need if they’re looking to host competitive climbing events.
“We talk with our customers about having the right ‘field of play’ in order to have the opportunity to participate in some of those events or host your own events,” says Bryce Benge, project manager at EP Climbing. “Not all rec centers are interested in that, but some universities have climbing teams. It might be more robust in some areas than others, but it definitely is growing. Thus, creating a field of play that allows you to do different types of competitions in a specific way is becoming more and more important to people also.”
Benge notes the University of Michigan, which includes a versatile climbing gym within its new rec center. “The proposed climbing area within that gym, in our eyes, is equivalent to a commercial climbing gym’s climbing area,” says Benge. “That’s pretty new. They want to do a speed wall. They want to have areas that have lead climbing. They want the full bouldering and the full breadth of climbing. In theory, they could hold a serious competition there that would be on par with any other competition in the country. That’s not necessarily their goal, but they’re creating that field of play that gives them those options for the future.”
And if you don’t have a D-I budget, Koberna says that technology may soon allow for competitions between people who aren’t even in the same gym, reducing the need for additional equipment and travel. “With the right software, you can set a route, whether it’s a big wall or a little wall, and let’s say we have modules that are in Germany and in the U.S.,” he explains. “And if the guy in the U.S. sets a route, people in Germany can be like, ‘Oh, I have that exact wall, I can do those holds.’ And now people can compete from around the world. I think that’s where colleges should go.”
While those tall spires of imitation rock may not disappear entirely, the way designers are thinking about offering indoor climbing has radically changed. Kastelic, of Perkins&Will, likens it to changes that happened in other parts of the rec facility. “I would almost parallel it to what you see with fitness,” he says. “It used to be big open space, and you throw in as many machines and treadmills and bikes as you could cram in, and that was a fitness center. Now you’re seeing designs that are far more specialized and modular. I think you could kind of say the same thing for climbing, where gone are the days when you just kind of slapped a rock wall in the middle of the building and suddenly got climbing. Now things are a little more targeted, a little more appropriate for the use. And, frankly, I think it’s become more exciting.”