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Paige Keener, of Denver, prepares to climb one of the color-coded routes at Movement Climbing + Fitness in Denver's River North neighborhood on Dec. 3, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado has for three decades nurtured the slow-and-steady growth of indoor climbing gyms. But now, as the business built by bored climbers is roiling with consolidation, private equity investment, mergers, acquisitions and unprecedented growth, the Front Range is emerging as a battleground for the maturing industry.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

The gyms also are spurring technological and consumer innovation as waves of new-school climbers seek yoga, coffee, workspace, weight-lifting and even craft beer along with their chalky plastic holds on steep walls. 

Colorado, where the population is surging with people who love to play outdoors and support public lands, is a natural center for growing the business of climbing gyms, said Robert Cohen, CEO of Englewood-based El Cap Holdings, the largest indoor climbing company in the U.S.

In a state where skiing rules and nearly every riverside town has developed a whitewater park to simulate wild-river paddling, Colorado’s 39 rock gyms have brought the outdoors inside, creating a climbing experience without actual rocks. 

“It seems like Colorado gets it. So why wouldn’t you want to be doing this in Colorado?” Cohen said. “A lot of people here think about recreating indoors and outdoors the same way we do … climbing indoors can actually allow you to get the most out of your time outdoors.”

Spencer McCullough, right, works on his laptop at one of the desks scattered throughout the climbing area of Movement Climbing + Fitness. McCullough, who lives a block away from the gym, says that the combination of co-working, climbing and other fitness drew him to Movement over other spaces. “Plus you can take a break and get some climbing in,” he said. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

El Cap Holdings, formed last year when Maryland’s Earth Treks merged with California’s Planet Granite, in November acquired Colorado’s decade-old Movement Climbing + Fitness, adding three Boulder locations and two in Denver to its stable of now 16 gyms spread across five states.

Private equity sees the potential in gyms built, well, for everyone

Since the late 1980s, Colorado climbers have pioneered rock gyms and indoor climbing systems with facilities designed for climbers, but also for kids and all types of athletes. Boulder, home to USA Climbing and the Climbing Wall Association, has led the movement, with innovative gyms and programs that seeded today’s increasingly diverse rock gym business.

Today, there are more than 500 gyms in the U.S. dedicated to rock climbing and hundreds more walls in recreation and community centers around the country. There are dozens of companies making climbing holds. More than a dozen companies design and build climbing walls. A record 50 gyms opened across the U.S. last year, including seven in Colorado, marking the industry’s largest year ever, according to the Climbing Business Journal’s 2018 Gyms and Trends Report. That compares with 43 gyms opening in 2017 and 23 in 2016.

Matt Kimball, 33, attempts an “orange” level route on one of the bouldering walls at Movement Climbing + Fitness. Kimball, 33, says the climbing gym is his primary form of fitness these days. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

More record-setting growth seems imminent as rock climbing prepares for its Olympic debut in Tokyo next year and movies like “The Dawn Wall” and the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” expose mainstream audiences to the sport’s most accomplished athletes. 

And the financial world is recognizing that potential, with private equity firms funneling millions into expansion and consolidation, with much of that growth in the Front Range.  

Climber John McGowan founded the seminal Boulder Rock Club & School in 1990 — one of the nation’s first climbing gyms and schools. Four years later he and climbing veteran Steve Holmes founded Eldorado Climbing Walls in Boulder. 

A decade ago he and Holmes created Trublue Auto Belay, the engineering and design company that pioneered magnetic-braking belay technology now used by gyms, amusement parks and aerial adventure courses in 100 countries. Trublue rebranded as Head Rush Technologies and in May sold a majority interest to Seattle private equity firm Pike Street Capital

A setter plots new routes for The Monkey House, a new climbing gym in Carbondale, one of 39 indoor rock gyms in Colorado. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The injection of private equity money into rock gyms began in 2015 when Brooklyn Boulders inked a $48.75 million deal with New York private equity investor North Castle Partners. Brooklyn Boulders, which formed in 2009, moved its home base to Denver’s River North Art District in 2016, lured by the state’s offer of more than $550,000 in tax incentives if the company employed 33 full-time workers at the headquarters. 

Brooklyn Boulders has sprawling gyms in Chicago, Massachusetts and earlier this year announced its fifth gym — and its third in New York City — in Brooklyn. Founders Lance Pinn and Jeremy Balboni have expressed interest in developing gyms in metro Denver and Los Angeles. Last year the company, which employs 350, hosted more than 590,000 climbers.

“Colorado is a paradise for climbers and for people seeking adventure. That’s why Brooklyn Boulders moved here, so we could build a team that shared those values,” Pinn said. “Colorado really embraces the role that nature has to play in the economic landscape and has always been a leader on that front. Add in the arrival of the Outdoor Retailer trade shows and the ties between climbing and climbing companies wanting to be here are just getting stronger and sturdier. I really think we are in the right place at the right time and about to see a hyper-growth mode for the industry.”

Indie gyms also thriving

It’s not just the the deeply funded that are expanding. 

Louisville-based EVO Rock + Fitness is growing as it taps the trend toward adding weight and cardio equipment and yoga classes to climbing gyms. EVO Rock started in New Hampshire in 2012 and has added facilities in Maine and Louisville, where the company will soon open a kid’s climbing gym. Next year EVO will open a bouldering-only gym in Golden.

Louisville-based EVO Rock + Fitness has added cardio equipment and yoga classes to its offerings in Colorado, Maine and New Hampshire.(Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Boulder’s The Spot Bouldering Gym opened in 2002 and just opened its second location in Denver’s Golden Triangle. Ubergrippen opened in Stapleton in 2017.

Colorado also is home to several equipment makers who are feeding those gyms. In 2016, the International Federation of Sport Climbing announced the requirement of automatic belay systems in official speed-climbing events and awarded Littleton’s Perfect Descent Climbing Systems exclusive license to provide the auto-belay devices for World Speed Record contests. The company is in the spotlight as speed climbing tracks toward its Olympic debut in Japan. 

MORE: Climbing gyms used to only offer dead-end jobs. Now, they’re a foothold for a route through the industry.

Chris Warner opened his first climbing gym in 1997 in Columbia, Maryland, as an extension of his then 7-year-old international guiding business and climbing school. By 2017, the heralded mountaineer had grown Earth Treks Climbing and Fitness to five gyms, including a 29,000 square-foot facility in Golden. 

That same year Warner announced he had partnered with Tengram Capital Partners, a private equity investor in consumer and retail brands. Later that year, Warner merged with Planet Granite to create the largest climbing gym company in the country, with 11 gyms around Denver, San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, employing more than 1,000 people and drawing more than 2 million climbers a year. 

Now known as El Cap Holdings, the company in 2018 opened the largest climbing gym in the nation, with 53,000 square feet of routes spread across the former corporate headquarters of the failed Sports Authority retail empire in Englewood.

Have we reached peak climbing gym? It depends who you ask. 

Scott Rennak is the publisher and owner of Boulder-based Climbing Business Journal, which maintains the nation’s only complete listing of commercial climbing gyms, including information on closings and openings dating back to 2009. Rennak has been in the climbing business since the late 1990s, when he bought a gym in Cincinnati and started the American Bouldering Series competitions.

April Chang, 25, strategizes a big move on a “yellow” route on one of Movement’s bouldering walls. The walls use color-coded grips to create routes of different difficulty. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“I’ve been seeing this for 30 years. We have sensationalized the outdoors and now, to be an American is to go out and be an outdoorsman. Which is a great thing,” Rennak said. “But the only outdoor experience we have been able to authentically package as an indoors experience in climbing. And not only is authentic, but fast-forward 10, 20 years and it will be the dominant storyline of climbing.”

Colorado has always led the indoor climbing industry and it will continue to do so, Rennak said. But now it is leading by “testing saturation,” he said. 

“We are leading because we have hit saturation and we are taking on differentiation,” he said, describing how gyms are offering a more diverse array of experiences, from weights and yoga to entire facilities dedicated to kids. “We are a testing ground here in Colorado. It’s one thing when Chicago and L.A. and New York fill in with 20 or 30 gyms. We have almost 40 in Colorado, most here on the Front Range. So yeah, we are testing saturation, that’s for sure.”

Cohen, the chief of El Cap, disagrees with the notion that the Front Range market is saturated. 

“You have an idea when the market is saturated because people stop coming to gyms. We are not seeing that,” he said. “Gyms are getting more and more crowded.”

The decision to buy Movement from Mike and Anne-Worley Moelter was based on simple geography, Cohen said. The company, which the Moelters started in 2009 in Boulder, had gyms in locations where El Cap wanted to be: right in the middle of Denver and Boulder. 

With a single pass now good at 16 climbing gyms in five states, El Cap has taken a page from the modern ski resort industry playbook, hoping that ease of access across a wide footprint will lure more pass buyers. 

“The idea is that we want to afford people the opportunity to climb everywhere. You don’t have to choose between climbing at your home gym or with a friend who is a member of another gym,” Cohen said. “Climbing is year-round sport in terms of opportunity, but one thing you can’t do is get out there all the time. But you can get to the gym and train every day.”

Ice climber Heather Mobley gets indoor training at Marcus Garcia’s Durango Rock Lounge. Garcia says gym workouts, known as dry tooling, help climbers build confidence. “There’s good translation from gym to ice.” (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kevin Volz now owns Eldorado Climbing Walls, which has built more than 2,000 indoor climbing walls over its 25-year history. He sees another sign of maturation in the indoor climbing industry: charity and community outreach. 

After years of focusing on climbers, the climbing world is looking to grow the sport by developing indoor facilities in recreation-deprived urban neighborhoods. Volz’s team has joined several climbing companies in developing and building indoor walls at Boys and Girls Clubs across the country. Part of climbing superstar Kevin Jorgenson’s 1Climb nonprofit, and supported by his sponsor Adidas Outdoor, the new climbing walls in Boys & Girls Clubs in 10 U.S. cities, including Denver, are intended to introduce the sport to 100,000 inner-city kids. 

The 1Climb program, which partners the clubs with local gyms, will open a wall inside the Owen Boys & Girls Club in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood on Dec. 17.

“Something that really hasn’t happened in this indoor climbing space yet is philanthropy and it’s cool to see that unfolding as we get more inner-city kids climbing,” Volz said. “I think a lot of climbing companies like ourselves are exploring what else they can do in their communities to give back.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...