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.
Hundreds of the nation’s most elite athletes in indoor rock climbing just had their version of the Super Bowl in Denver.
As the Olympic sport expands across the U.S. and Colorado, USA Climbing’s national championship last month was a sort of homecoming. The governing body in 2018 moved from its longtime home in Boulder to new headquarters in Salt Lake City.
“We definitely wanted to have a presence back in Colorado. That’s where USA Climbing got its feet off the ground,” said Ben Lowe with USA Climbing.
Sold-out crowds at The Spot climbing gym in Denver and G1 Climbing in Broomfield cheered as climbers — a mix of past and potential Olympians — tested themselves in three disciplines: 50-foot sport-climbing routes, a speed competition and short, powerful boulder problems.
Athletes made it as far as they could on routes designed to test their strength, agility and coordination.
In the sport climbing finals, only one athlete, Sean Bailey, completed a route without falling. He reached the top to raucous applause after battling a series of angled, plastic blocks screwed into the wall. The route required him to lunge toward small plastic rock holds with the tips of his fingers, hook his heels to pull his body up and swing across the wall while hanging on by only a few fingers.
The competition marked the end of the indoor-climbing season, but also provided an opportunity for new and returning climbers to begin scoring points to qualify for next year’s national team.
Once on the national team, athletes travel the world, competing in the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s World Cups. They also get the chance to try out for the team going to the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
A surge in popularity
• Bouldering is when the climber attempts to solve a short, powerful route, without using ropes, in under 4 minutes.
• In sport climbing, also sometimes called lead climbing, the athlete attempts to get as high as possible on a wall reaching heights of about 50 feet while clipping their rope into metal clasps as they go. In both bouldering and sport climbing, the routes are entirely different for each competition.
• In speed climbing, athletes simply try to get to the top of a set, uniform route as quickly as possible. It’s comparable to the 100-meter dash in track.
Indoor climbing started as a way for climbers to train during the offseason. Now, it’s blossomed into one of the fastest-growing Olympic sports. One that Coloradans are eating up.
In 2000, there were about 150 climbing gyms in the nation. Now, there are nearly 600, according to the Climbing Business Journal.
“It’s been a pretty massive surge in popularity, not just over the past two or three years though, it’s been seeing massive growth over the past 10 years,” said Lowe, the communications director for USA Climbing.
The indoor climbing industry is firmly anchored in Colorado with dozens of gyms across the state and a host of indoor equipment manufacturers thriving along the Front Range.
“Definitely explosive (growth) here in Colorado,” said Dan Howley, founder of The Spot gyms in Boulder and Denver. The Spot has hosted several past national climbing competitions and was home to bouldering nationals at their Denver location this year.
While USA Climbing is working to grow the sport around its new Salt Lake City base, Colorado athletes and fans continue to be a big part of the sport.
“There’s always been a lot of really great athletes, especially young athletes, that have come out of Colorado. It’s got a long history in competitive rock climbing,” Lowe said. “Whenever somebody starts climbing the ranks and we hear they’re from Colorado, that’s definitely no surprise.”
That’s in part because of Boulder’s enduring ties to the sport.
“In the last 20 years, the Boulder area is sort of the Hollywood of rock climbing,” said Jason Haas, founder of G1 Climbing, “and if you’ve wanted to make a name for yourself in rock climbing you’ve had to live here.”
Two athletes from Colorado, Brooke Raboutou, 21, of Boulder, and Colin Duffy, 18, of Broomfield, already qualified for the national team trials in March. Both participated in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but the next Olympic trials have not yet been scheduled.
Members and staff from both G1 and The Spot also competed in nationals, with at least one making finals.
While it may be a few years before USA Climbing comes back to Colorado for nationals, both gyms say they hope to continue hosting other regional and local competitions. The Spot hosts four bouldering competitions every year and G1 hosts another. There are also USA Climbing youth, high school and collegiate competitions across the state.
Indoor versus outdoor climbing
The burgeoning sport is still at a point where fans can easily interact with the top athletes. During finals the weekend of Nov. 12, climbers battled the problems and routes set for them while spectators casually rubbed elbows with Olympians and other legends of the sport.
Nathaniel Coleman, a silver medalist at the Tokyo Olympics, was among the crowd along with Raboutou and Duffy. Kyra Condie, another Olympian, at nationals won the bronze medal in lead climbing and was fifth in bouldering.
“It’s like going to the World Series but the local community doesn’t get to meet the star athletes in the NBA playoffs or the Super Bowl,” Haas said. “They don’t get to shake hands with Peyton Manning and have a conversation with him. But in climbing we’re still at that level where you can.”
While the sport began with a strong connection with outdoor climbing, most agree the two have started to diverge.
“A lot of the routes that are set for these pros are now incorporating gymnastic, parkour-type movements,” Howley said, “physical movement that you’re not going to find you’re able to do safely outside.”
Indoor climbing also offers a new, unique option for people interested in overall fitness, Lowe said.
“There’s a lot of people out there who have a hard time going into a typical gym to run on the treadmill or lift weights for a few hours,” Lowe said. “They want something they can actually actively engage with and challenge themselves not only physically but also mentally.”
Howley calls himself a “hardcore evangelist” for the sport.
“Indoor climbing has made this sport accessible and visible and popular to a larger community that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to it, and to me that’s nothing but good,” he said. “Climbing makes people better as humans, it does so much for you. … It’s really good for the individual, it’s good for your soul and it’s food for building communities that care about each other and support each other.”
Now, USA Climbing and gym owners are working to make the sport more accessible to everyone.
Haas said it’s a pivotal time to make sure the sport grows and doesn’t turn into a fad that comes and goes. He said that growth lies in accessibility to the non-rock climber.
He hopes for a day when people understand climbing like they do basketball or football.
“I should be able to turn on the television and go: who’s winning?” he said. “We have this great opportunity to show the whole world this sport and they can share it whether they physically do it as well or just spectate.”