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More than 5 million people participated in indoor climbing in 2017, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2018 Outdoor Recreation Participation report—more than sport, bouldering, traditional, ice, and mountaineering combined. At least a portion of this group will eventually attempt to take their practice outside. But climbing in a gym is not like climbing on a crag, which is why industry professionals are looking for ways to bridge the gap, and—quite literally—help climbers learn the ropes.
Lance Sullins, owner of Ridgway-based Peak Mountain Guides, recently launched a gym-to-crag clinic, which focuses not only on promoting outdoor climbing, but also teaching participants appropriate safety protocols, etiquette, and environmental stewardship.
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According to the 2019 State of Climbing Report—the first-ever comprehensive document of its kind, co-authored by the American Alpine Club (AAC)—between 2010 and 2014, more than 15,000 rock climbing, mountain climbing, and indoor wall climbing accidents resulted in emergency room visits. That number is likely an underestimate, given that not all injuries are reported nor do they all result in an E.R. visit, according to the report. Furthermore, the report shares highlights from the 2018 Accidents in North American Climbing report: From 1951–2017, 5 percent of climbing accidents in North America were caused by climbers ascending routes that exceeded their abilities; 4 percent occurred from a rappel error or failure; and 3 percent happened from a nut or cam pulling out. However, the highest percentage of accidents was due to a fall or slip on rock or ice: 38 percent and 12 percent respectively.
Specific skills and practices can help people safely climb outside, Sullins says, such as flaking the rope (to ensure no unforeseen knots), correctly placing and cleaning aid, and building anchors, as well as understanding when to rappel versus lower-off of an anchor, and not top-roping the first pitch of multi-pitch routes.
“There’s a clear pattern that climbing gyms have created an awesome avenue for people to get into climbing,” says Sullins. “Most people will only be gym climbers, but there’s enough of people getting into climbing in the gym who are also climbing outside that it behooves all industry leaders to create these [educational] events.”
The indoor climbing industry is booming. According to the Climbing Business Journal‘s 2018 Gyms and Trends Report, 50 new climbing gyms opened across the country last year, and seven opened in Colorado alone—the second most to debut in the nation. Additionally, according to the 2019 reader survey from Rock and Ice, a magazine published by Carbondale-based Big Stone Publishing, the two most popular forms of climbing were sport and indoor, with 82 percent and 73 percent, respectively. Furthermore, 20 percent of climbers who responded to the survey said that the primary way climbing gyms can improve is by adding gym-to-crag programs, followed by mentor programs.
“The need for gym-to-crag education is a question for the industry, given that there’s a big threat with the increase of indoor climbing and how climbers will get educated and learn stewardship,” says Ben Yardley, associate publisher at Big Stone Publishing.
“Gym to crag” is not a new concept, but climbing industry leaders, such as Yardley and Sullins, are concerned that the pace of available programs may not meet the current demand. Beyond Peak Mountain Guides’ new clinic, Colorado Mountain School, Women’s Wilderness (WW), and Pikes Peak Climbers Alliance are just a few of the local outfitters that offer gym-to-crag programs. Programs differ based on location, duration, cost, targeted demographic, and the certification of the guides. For instance, WW and Peak Mountain Guides each employ American Mountain Guides Association-certified guides for their gym-to-crag programs.
Taught outdoors, Peak Mountain Guides’ new gym-to-crag curriculum includes a rundown of outdoor equipment, how to safely belay and lead climb outside, and how to clean anchors, as well as the basics of Leave No Trace and crag ethics. The bonus? Participants have an opportunity to learn about climbing areas they might not otherwise know about or have the skills, yet, to access independently, such as Unaweep Canyon or Black Canyon of the Gunnison. “The end goal is to provide awareness with the belief that people want to be good stewards. If you can help them understand how, they’ll do it,” says Sullins.
Peak Mountain Guides’ inaugural gym-to-crag clinic launched at OuROCK! Fest in Ouray in September. Sullins says he plans to offer four workshops in the spring and fall, in exchange for a suggested donation ($10–$50) that supports local nonprofit climbing organizations, such as the Western Colorado Climbers’ Coalition (WCCC) or the Ouray Climbers Alliance. Sullins is also partnering with other Western Slope climbing businesses, such as Glenwood Climbing Guides and Grand Junction’s Grand Valley Climbing gym, to get the word out about the clinic.
The program isn’t expected to turn a profit, but Sullins sees it as a way to give back to the community and provide a service that will organically market the brand’s guided tours—which usually cost $112 per climber—especially if they can get more gym climbers hooked on scaling rocks outdoors.
“I recognize that hiring a guide is quite expensive, and I still encourage someone in their climbing career to get professional instruction. But, not everyone is going to do that. So, as an industry, let’s provide a service project, and spend a few hours with people to give them the basics,” says Sullins.
If you go: Peak Mountain Guides’s next gym-to-crag clinic takes place on October 12 in Unaweep Canyon in support of the WCCC. Sign up online.