Sporting Life: Plastic Purgatory

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Illustration by Jamie Givens

Illustration by Jamie Givens

Believe it or not, not all rock gyms are created equal. I first pulled on plastic in 1987 at the Vertical Club in Seattle. Along with the Colorado Athletic Training School (CATS), in Boulder, Colorado, and the Portland Rock Gym, the Vertical Club was one of the country’s first commercial indoor walls. Even then, in the dark ages, this gym had a good thing going: sculpted bouldering walls with permanent problems, arm-blasting traverses on cobbles, and jam cracks—a solid dose of varied terrain. My first hometown gym was the Albuquerque Rock Gym, which opened in 1988. They did a good job, too, with roofs, gently overhanging terrain, technical faces, and crazy comps that involved rope swings and ringing cowbells. Any improvement to the ABQ gym almost invariably involved cutting a new hueco in the plywood and slathering it with Bondo, but the owners ran a tight ship and kept things fun.

Gym, hold, and training technologies have evolved, especially with mega-gyms opening in purpose-designed buildings, instead of shoehorning into 18-foot-high industrial spaces beside the highway. Still, and oddly enough, anachronistic, subpar gyms continue to exist well into the new millennium and, worse yet, continue to bilk climbers out of their money. Which brings us to this: the four worst experiences of my plastic life.

1994, ITALY. Chasing after an Italian girl, Chiara (a six-year relationship that eventually fizzled), I’d moved to Turin for a semester abroad. Never mind that rocks, boulders, and the Alps surround Turin; when I showed up, the January air was so smoggy I didn’t glimpse the peaks my first six weeks there. Rudderless, not knowing any climbers, I chain-smoked Marlboros, swilled red wine, and silo’ed pizza while sputtering inanities in pidgin Italian. When my lady forced me to buy a pair of skinny jeans like the Italian emo kids, and I could barely stuff my idle, corpulent self into them, I knew I had to get climbing again.

With the aid of Chiara’s mother, Teresa, I flipped through the phonebook until we found a palestra (gym) that mentioned a climbing wall. “Lots of carabinieri [a notoriously macho, paramilitaristic Italian police branch] exercise there, so it might be… different,” said Teresa. “I will drop you off.” And so I found myself stranded on the city’s smokestack outskirts in a cramped, single-room weightlifting gym that had a bouldering wall shoved into one corner.

It looked grim, but the angle of the 10-by-20-foot wall was adjustable. You simply turned a torture-chamber hand crank to tilt the wall; sketchy ring-and-chain set-ups on either end, in theory, prevented its toppling. Desperate for a pump, I wired one greasy-gripped traverse, adjusted the wall, and traversed again. I repeated the process till I’d maxed out the angle at around 30 degrees past vertical. With a “fan club” of close-cropped, Italian-cop weightlifters looking on with quizzical hostility, I traversed like a madman for two hours. The little woody buckled and swayed above the hardwood fl oor with each reach, but f--k it, I was climbing: if the damn thing fell on me, at least I’d have died doing what I loved.

I met some climbers a week later and found actual rock and the area’s real climbing gyms, so I never returned to that little wall. But I imagine it’s still there: same holds, same routes, same crew-cut meatheads slinging their iron and glaring at anyone dumb enough to pull onto the wall.

2001, WEST COAST. Fattened up (again) by a debauched, sedentary grad-student lifestyle, I’d mired in yet another city, on a road trip with my then-girlfriend. We’d climbed at Maple Canyon on the drive west from the ’Rado, but because I was so porky, I didn’t send shit. I needed to train so I could climb respectably on the way home. We found the city’s rock gym in a seedy warehouse district, filled out waivers, and paid up. That the guy working the desk—a slug-eyed, affected little nob with a hyper-sporty P-tail—was barely interested in helping didn’t much bother me. Such things are not abnormal. So we toproped for an hour till we realized the best terrain was lead-only. Back to the desk. Could said gentleman give us a lead test? we wondered.

“Lead climbing… members only,” he mumbled, barely looking up from his climbing rag. Really? This sucked, but whatever… we continued toproping. A few days later, we visited a gym owned by the same company in a nearby city. We bumped into an old friend working there (“Wow, Matt Samet,” was the first thing he said. “You sure got fat!”), filled out our forms, and harnessed up.

“One bummer about your guys’ gyms is the whole not-being-able- to-lead thing,” I told my buddy. “I would even pay a little extra, since we’re not members.”

“What?!” he said. “Of course you can lead—you just need a belay test.” When I told him what had happened, my friend rang the other gym and had Viking Fabio apologize. P-Tailz remained untruthful to the end, denying that he’d refused to let us lead, but at least he’d been called on it… and we got to take the sharp end. In any case, I sent my over-graded Maple projects on the way home, so at least I have that.

2002, MIDDLE AMERICA. Baby-weak and flabby (again…) due to a thesis-deadline winter, I’d landed in yet another rockless city, this time to visit a girlfriend’s parents. We found the obligatory gym in a highway industrial park and headed in. Wise now to the ways of crappy gyms, my first question was, “Can we lead?” No, we were told—we first needed the weekend-long leading clinic ($175).

“But I’ve been leading for 15 years,” I said. It didn’t matter—rules were rules. Once again, we toproped, which would have been fine… except this particular gym didn’t believe in tape. Instead, the setters used colored holds, which would have been fine… except they’d put routes of similar hues (dark blue, purple, and black) atop one another and hadn’t changed the routes in months or perhaps decades. Which meant you spent 90 percent of your time trying to figure out which snot-slick, blackish blob was on which route—actually a pretty good pump, though it’s not so great when 5.10 feels like 5.12.

2003, EAST COAST. Veal-calf-fat (again!) with Christmas cookies, fudge, and yuletide cheer, I begged my then-girlfriend’s parents to drive us into the city so we could hit up the gym. This gym occupied two rooms in a larger recreation center. We did a quick walk-through. One room had an old, woody-type wall and some lackluster toproping, while the other, behind plate-glass windows, offered fun-looking, modern bouldering with swells, roofs, and miniature caves. It was a plastic playground where contented climbers cavorted on miracle boulders—Wheee! We filled out our waivers, paid up, and got ready to boulder. Then….

“One thing,” said the counter girl, a face-pierced, hipper-than-thou barista-type who’d clearly never touched a rock. “You guys can’t go in the members-only room, the one behind the windows.” Thus we found ourselves (untouchables, yet again) consigned to the gym’s skeevy older sector, with its miserly 10 problems taped up during the Reagan era and its bumble-footed toprope denizens resentful of us traversing interlopers. We made do, but when some sallow, pigeon-chested character wearing a wife-beater and looking like a zombie playground rapist took it upon himself to campus the smarmy “V1” I kept failing on, we called it a night. This time, there was no denying it. This time, there was no exit. Finally, this time, we had landed in the ninth circle of plastic hell.

Matt Samet has been a contributor to Climbing since 1996.

5 Things Gyms Should Never Do

  1. Don’t let mealy-mouthed misanthropes with no knowledge of climbing and/or no interpersonal skills work the front desk.

  2. Don’t blast obscene gangster rap during little Sallie’s sixth birthday party.

  3. Don’t segregate members from nonmembers.

  4. Don’t sandbag the routes—being alpha dog at your local gym, on routes you set to your strengths, doesn’t mean shit.

  5. Don’t skimp on the paper towels and hand lotion.

5 Things Gyms Should Always Do

  1. Put more volumes on the walls—those massive blobs are killer.

  2. Make the clips a tad easier, eh?

  3. Climate control, climate control, climate control.

  4. Host fun everyman comps for locals.

  5. Carry Climbing magazine!