Climbing Gyms: The Good and the Bad

Original Post
Michael Arntz · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 0

What are some of the key differences between good and bad climbing gyms? Is it the variety of routes? The atmosphere? What made your favorite gyms so different than others? If you could add a feature to your local climbing gym to make it even better, what would it be? What irks you the most about the gyms lower on your list?

Seth Jones · · New Lenox, IL · Joined Feb 2015 · Points: 25

Good route setters and plenty of wall space for the size crowds the place draws are all I really want out of a gym. If a gym regularly has more than half of their ropes in use at a time, it's a place I would rather not hang out.

I really wish my gym had just a completely straight and vertical hand crack :(

Aleks Zebastian · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 175
Michael Arntz wrote:What are some of the key differences between good and bad climbing gyms? Is it the variety of routes? The atmosphere? What made your favorite gyms so different than others? If you could add a feature to your local climbing gym to make it even better, what would it be? What irks you the most about the gyms lower on your list?
climbing friend,

the good gym has excellent meat cave for bouldering, where you may take off your shirt and show your muscle to see who would be looking. You must need the sickness steep overhanging walls to pull your small rocks off and develop your uberklïngen and powerpinchën max crushing grip strength.

Also the staff they are surly, unhelpful, and unfriendly to most, but especially to those newcomers and children with as lesser ability to discourage overcrowding.
Paul Coakley · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2015 · Points: 15

Imaginative route setters!
Agree about crowd management.

Bill Shubert · · Lexington, MA · Joined Jul 2012 · Points: 55

Good route setters
High walls (45' minimum, 55' is better)
Decent size overall

Ted Pinson · · Chicago, IL · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 190

Variety of terrain. Ideally, you should have everything from slabs to roofs, with sustained overhangs for LA endurance. Agree about the least 50'. I really, really, really wish my gym had adjustable cracks like in some of the west coast gyms, or as Seth said, at least a vertical hand crack. Ours are all 10-11+, unfeatured and diagonal, so nobody ever climbs on them except masochists like me.

Tradgic Yogurt · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2016 · Points: 55

Good - the setting options, and the height
I moved out to where I am to develop as a climber and to train for a very tall objective. My endurance has definitely increased because 30-35 ft just wasn't enough *for me* to train for climbing full pitches clean.

My max grade is also slowly rising, both indoors and out, partly due to the longer routes and partly due to the more variety of terrain. The gym I learned to climb in was built to train specifically for one roof area, so there was little variety in overhang, it was all slab, vertical, or the one 90-degree roof.

That being said, the team of setters has done a very good job working with and around wall design decisions that preceded them, and they've done a pretty good job over the last few years training new setters as they join the team.

Bad - the setting options, and the ratings possibilities
Newest generation gyms seem to provide setters with a lot of freedom with volumes, terrain, hold selection, and so on. One of the risks that goes with this is the ability to make weird routes with non-sensical movement. Fortunately the team at my current gym has generally been able to void this, but the first six months they were open, setting was really iffy sometimes.

Community voting rating systems can especially lead to ratings that are not true to the outdoors due to people not spending enough time climbing outside, going to a variety of crags, etc etc. (There's also the issue that many places do this as an informal part of their business model, to get people excited to progress.) Then you take those people outside more and they realize that the gym grades are up to a couple grades off. If I cleanly lead a 5.11b at the gym, that could mean like, 10a or 10b at the nearby crags, both in terms of mental commitment and in terms of actual physical ability.

M Bageant · · Cambridge, MA · Joined Apr 2014 · Points: 50

Having sufficient good, enjoyable, varied climbing that gets reset with good frequency is #1 in making a gym "good." Good community and staff is #2.

For #3 I'd say that having at least a basic set of training tools is really key---like an autobelay for doing laps/ARC and at least a basic hangboard.

Really impressive is when gyms have the above and then also really nice and well-equipped fitness spaces; and even more impressive is when they have separate areas to keep children out from underfoot.

Aleks Zebastian · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 175

climbing friend,

yes, you definitely want soundproof cages for the children

NorCalNomad · · San Francisco · Joined Oct 2011 · Points: 105

Having worked in the climbing gym world...

Setting and customer service (both staff and facilitates) honestly come pretty close in my mind since I've been to some gyms with crap customer service and good setting which I don't want to go back to. Coming from a gym with literally world class setters it makes me expect that good setting it just something you need to have to offer a base line product, so I guess I'm a little skewed there.

I know a lot of people have come to almost expect a gym to be dusty and kinda dingy but there are plenty of gyms who keep up their facilities way better and I honestly think it makes for a much better experience. And it's not like I want climbing gyms to be like equinox or a private club, I could care less if a place has a sauna. But shit, I'm sure The Spot could figure out how to get a little more ventilation in there, just for one example. You certainly don't have to be big either, Pacific Edge is quite a small gym but keeps their facilities clean.

And the more intangible "atmosphere" of a gym is also super important. I've talked to a fair number of people over the years who have left/wish they could from certain Touchstone gyms because of the atmosphere there. This definitely ties heavily back into the staffing of the gym, but the "culture/ atmosphere" of a gym really does make a difference.

kenr · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Oct 2010 · Points: 10,214

for me interesting route-setting (slanted toward moves and holds similar to outdoor climbing) is most important.
So ...

  • The best thing for a gym is to have a top management team that still actually climbs outdoors, and has experienced what truly creative indoor setting can deliver -- and then insists that their routesetters deliver that -- at the easy grades as well as the harder.
The worst thing for a gym is management that cannot push their setters to be creative, because they themselves have never experienced really good setting -- usually because they have not traveled to gyms with good setting - (or maybe they don't love climbing enough themselves to be able to detect the difference).

  • I tend not to like very tall routes, because seems like the routesetter tends to run out of creative energy - (also it's difficult for me to communicate with my partner when gym is crowded). More creative setting seems to correlate significantly with shorter route heights.
  • I like to have the "on" holds for each route identified by tape color, rather than color of the holds, because that allows maximum creativity for the setter with minimum cost. Also makes it easier to use larger slopers and volumes. Also allows more routes in the same size wall area.
  • I definitely prefer high-friction wall surface. Because outdoors I climb mostly on high-friction rock. Even better is some significant texture mini-features, so that less-tall climbers have a better chance to succeed. And so everybody is not forced to repeat the sequence plannned by the routesetter.

. . . But unfortunately so far the serious efforts I've seen to more exactly simulate outdoor rock have not worked for me (somehow feels greasy?). The place I know that has worked hardest at this (for decades) is the DAV Thalkirchen center in Munich Germany, but for me they have not succeeded in doing as well as the usual creative re-arranging of modular plastic holds bolted onto a separate "background" wall.

  • I prefer vertically curved and horizontally curved wall surfaces. Rather than flat panels at different angles. Seems to stimulate more creative routesetting.

Parker Wrozek · · Denver, CO · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 83

Good route setting is the key. What I think that really means is good and interesting walls to set on. After a year at Movement Denver I got tired of essentially the same climb over and over. When you compare it to Earthtreks in Golden it is a night and day difference in my opinion. It is mostly due to the features available on the walls, not the setters ability.

Crowds are the other issue. I don't want to have to wait in line to climb.

Stay open until 11 at least once or twice during the week.

Victor K · · Denver, CO · Joined Jul 2003 · Points: 165

I wish my gym stayed open until 11:00pm.

Parker Wrozek · · Denver, CO · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 83
Victor K wrote:I wish my gym stayed open until 11:00pm.
Movement climber I would guess? Another thing I like about Earthtreks, open till 11 Tuesday thru Thursday.
Nick Drake · · Newcastle, WA · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 478

Easy way to make a crappy gym experience, poor/dim lighting with overlapping holds/tape of very similar colors. The crux of the route shouldn't be starting down trying to figure out if that mostly black rubber covered hold is actually dark purple or blue.

Footholds that are gigantic and extremely positive relative to what you'll encounter outside might allow for larger moves, but it does not translate to what most of us do climbing outside. I've actually enjoyed routes where the setters used many small chips for feet, giving climbers of different height more options and making it closer to the real world climbing.

A good gym should have a well designed movement board (again put some sh*t feet in the mix), a hang board with a pulley system set up, as well as the campus rungs. If I'm paying for a gym membership I don't want to build a woody at home and make my own hang board (and buy all the weights I would need).

pkeds · · Redondo Beach, CA · Joined Feb 2006 · Points: 30

The bad: hangar 18
The good: pretty much the opposite of that

Siobhan W · · San Diego · Joined Aug 2015 · Points: 15

I've only really climbed at a couple gyms, and one of them spoiled me rotten. One big stand-out feature of the meh gyms is painted holds. I'm fine with marking a route via tape, I prefer color matched holds, but for god's sake!! Don't paint the hold to match it with the rest of the climb!!! This paired with an apparent lack of cleaning the holds between uses really makes for slick and not so great climbing. Also, change out the ropes so the have some stretch left in them. Climbing on almost static ropes is no fun, and if/when I start leading at this new gym, I sure as hell won't be borrowing their ropes.

TLDR: DON"T PAINT THE HOLDS!!!, clean the holds, replace rope regularly

Stich · · Colorado Springs, Colorado · Joined Jan 2001 · Points: 1,470

Pea gravel = mmmm, bad

Also, an affordable day rate would be ace. Not paying for a membership. Ever.

NorCalNomad · · San Francisco · Joined Oct 2011 · Points: 105
pkeds wrote:The bad: hangar 18 The good: pretty much the opposite of that


I remember when I first walked in there, with a friend who had only been climbing a few times. While signing my waiver I asked where and how they do their belay test.

H18 Staffer: "you have an autolocking device?"
Me: "yeah I have a grigri..."
H18 Staff: "you're good then"
Jack Servedio · · Raleigh,NC · Joined Feb 2016 · Points: 30

The initial stench when you walk in the door is a good yardstick for measuring the quality of the gym.

There is a certain lower level cutoff, somewhere between death via asphyxiation and and a mild stinging of the nostrils. Though, I have never found one, a gym smelling somewhere between crisp mountain air and freshly washed sheets would be ideal.

Victor K · · Denver, CO · Joined Jul 2003 · Points: 165

Unfortunately, the most important characteristic for a gym is location. Because it IS a gym, convenience is a huge factor. Is a great gym experience worth an extra hour in the car?
Here in the Front Range, we have a lot of gym choices now, with more in the pipeline. They each have their qualities. But nothing is better than 5 minutes from my house.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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