Climbing walls have made massive progress in the past 10 years in South Africa. The days of being crammed into the broom cupboard of the uni sports centre, sipping on R5 cans of beer between send attempts are for most people long gone. A new era of commercial gyms is taking centre stage.
I’m not saying that the industry has exploded to a point where it is able to sustainably support all of these gyms, but there is certainly a notable industry growth and additionally an almost untapped market of people that haven’t even heard of climbing. Many of these individuals may not be opening the next version of Mary Poppins anytime soon but they probably do want an alternative to keep their children busy. It’s not just children who have cottoned on though. Climbing is a lifestyle for some but gym climbing is an incredible complement to a busy schedule for others. Naureen Bretherick, a well known South African rock-climber, explained that being a new mom means her time is more valuable than ever. Popping in to the gym for 2 hours is an efficient way of going climbing between her role in the corporate world and changing diapers. As compared to driving out to Bronkies for a few hours, the convenience of a city bound gym outweighs the old mantra that climbing in a gym is not ‘pure’ nor that fun. In contrast, climbing gyms are a source of social interaction, an awful lot of entertainment and a way to get you stronger than you believed imaginable. After all, what’s a boulder problem without a bit of peanut-gallery banter?
Cape Town’s very centre has arguably the world’s most convenient multipitch trad routes that are absolutely world class. Yet there are five existing climbing walls that are all doing exceptionally well. Currently it could be said that the abundant rock near the CBD makes this city a climber’s haven. And it is partly (but not exclusively) because of this and the resultant climbing community that the climbing industry is doing so well. The other reason is that these business owners created a demand by supplying the city with the facilities and marketing them to the general populace. Three of these are commercial gyms, with a strong membership base. They are not even in competitition with one another. They service a completely different client base. While the other two, club walls, usually reserved for the student or traffic bound, offer a way into the climbing lifestyle. The gyms have the advantage that they provide someone who has no existing connections to the climbing world the opportunity to try out something active that doesn’t (have to) involve a weight room whose sole (read soulless) purpose is to give you a better reflection in the mirror lined walls. People want to be fit, strong and active without the pretence attached to standard exercise gyms. So next time you are queuing for the warm up routes, remember that we all have to start somewhere and that a thousand top-ropers are better than a single team of rugby jocks 😉
How do we avoid these crowds if we are serious about training? The delight of good route rotation means that the non-gym walls are almost a dusty relic. Home walls are a nice thought but inevitably end up getting you the fittest they ever will during the construction phase. New, clean holds and freshly folded towels make that few hundred rand worth it. Provided the gyms keep up with the metaphorical Joneses, of course. There is nothing worse than arriving at a gym with the same tired old routes week after week. Nor is it acceptable for them to be impossibly or poorly set. Good routes make a gym average. Poor routes make them unclimbable except for birthday party madness. But if the gym in question gets this all right, all the 8B boulderers AND those notorious top ropers will turn out in their 1000s, week after week, printing money for the gym owners.
But it isn’t a case of five loaves and two fish. Only so many people can climb at once in a gym so how do we deal with the crowds? Here are some ideas to optimise your gym climbing experience.
Find out the schedule of the coaching clinics in your area. When a large team of climbers is doing laps on your project, you might start feeling perturbed. But if you know it is the week before the lead comp circuit, you can pretty much bet that this will happen. So periodise your own training so it doesn’t synch up with the existing comp circuit training.
Attempt to schedule your rest days around busy gym days. If you are lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, make use of the gyms’ down times. I’m yet to see an absurdly busy gym on a Tuesday lunchtime for example.
Pick the other gym! There is always that one gym that has either been there longer and going there has just become a habit, or, somehow they got the location-to-route-rotation ratio of the recipe right. If you are taking a beginner climbing, don’t take them to the gym that has the best forty degree wall but not a slab in sight. Make date night at the quieter, more vertical alternative. Chances are you will avoid bumping into your ex too! Suck it up and pay the day-pass rate for once in your life. You might even find that the other gym suits you better traffic-wise and gives you less hives from drama-encounters.
Avoid birthday party times on rainy weekends. These and corporate events are often the lifeblood of a gym. They are vital to keeping the gym open. So rather than having to worry about squashing a child when they stray off into the boulder sector, have a look on the gym’s website, notice board or facebook page to see when the party bookings are. Most well designed gyms keep a separate area for birthday parties but smaller gyms may have no chance but to squeeze all the cake and merriment into the boulder cave. Accept this as part of the experience and do your best to go before or after such a booking.
Speak to your gym staff about what you want to see at the gym. Don’t complain under your breath about “that shitty purple 23 with the massive reach”. Find the route setter and talk to them about it or write it up on the feedback board and then tell someone you did so. Give constructive feedback about how friendly the front desk staff is or that the mens urinal doesn’t flush. Be kind about it though. Working at a climbing gym can feel like a thankless task. Gym staff pour their hearts into the gym to make it great for you. Yes, it is a service industry but imagine being locked in your favourite place in the world, everyday for eight hours a day without being able to enjoy its fruits. It is easy to overlook things so feedback is usually welcomed. Maybe you could brighten up the manager’s day by bringing them their favourite latte before hounding them about the terrible systems board set up that has been there for months. Remember they are probably at the mercy of their superior but most climbing gym owners will listen to suggestions from their staff if it means their business is better run.
While we are on the topic of being kind to gym staff, you will find your gripes will probably be taken more seriously if you leave timeously. Staff cannot be expected to stay an hour late because you are the last one in the shower EVERY day. Go home and shower if you need to have a final burn on that route before closing time. The graveyard shift is a great way to avoid the high traffic times. It is probably the best time for projecting and using the training equipment. However you do need to be considerate on exit. Making friends with the staff will make your time at the gym much more pleasant.
Do yoga. If the climbing wall really is too busy, why not buy a pass to the yoga studio for an alternative workout? Check the class times and make use of your gym’s other facilities on the busy climbing nights. You can always end off with a conditioning session after the class.
I have climbed at, coached at and worked with many of the country’s gyms from construction through to managerial roles. These strategies really do work to improve your gym climbing experience. Give them a bash, and be nice, always.