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When my wife and I moved into our current home in 2012, I installed a garage climbing wall. I was on dad duty half the week with our six-month-old son, and our meager budget excluded gym memberships—I foresaw many home sessions. While the woodie/igloo that took up the back half of the garage was fun for the first couple years, I quickly realized that to keep things interesting I’d need to constantly reset the grips. When our second son was born in 2015, the setters (read: me) got lazy, and the wall fell into disuse.
This, I believe, is a common story among those who’ve built home walls, especially climbers who often train alone. At a certain point, it’s easier to buy a gym membership. And so, there you are, back at the gym—defeating the whole point of the home wall! However, app-driven hold setups like the MoonBoard, Tension Board, and Kilter Board have changed all that, fueled by databases of thousands of problems and the opportunity to create and curate problems and training lists of your own. “Setting” a new problem is as easy as swiping right on your phone—no more excuses.
Yet those holds need to screw into something. And as I’ve learned from both putting in a standard woodie and a prefabricated, adjustable wall like one from Grasshopper Industries, your time and money are much better spent on the latter. The payoff in terms of ease of installation and long-term versatility more than offsets the cost differential between that unruly stack of lumber, bolts, and screws you have to somehow turn into a climbing surface versus a modular frame and pre-drilled panels, with T-nuts and LED holes in situ, that you need only minimal tools to assemble.
The benefits of a home wall
First of all, if you’re on the fence about whether to put in a home wall, let me preach. I’ve noticed five main benefits:
It’s not always easy to get to the gym, especially if you’re fighting rush-hour traffic. With a home wall, the training facility is steps away—always. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but the easier it is to bring the training to you, the more likely you are to train. Moreover, with a set-up like the MoonBoard, whose 2017 grid has 198 holds, you essentially have a spray wall—the number of possible problems is infinite.
As I get older and crustier, I’ve noticed myself timing my gym sessions around when the facilities are emptiest—when you’re time limited, waiting in the lineup or getting caught in social hour will nuke your session. However, this usually means training at 6 a.m. when my muscles are barely firing, much less my brain. With a home wall, you can easily pitch a session whenever—the wall’s always empty because it’s at your house.
3. Warm-up, cool-down, polish-off
On days when I go straight to a local project, bouldering on a home wall then blitzing to the rock while my muscles are warm has yielded huge benefits. It’s also nice to have somewhere to finish off your day, either with cool-down problems or a proper training session, or to have a handy dojo for when bad weather or a flaky partner cuts your climbing short. Again, the gym can work, though you’re still at the whims of the crowds (see No. 2).
Having a fixed set of holds on your wall or an app-driven setup lets you set and/or select problems that address your weaknesses, areas of training interest, etc. You can work them whenever and for however long you want, without an expiration date. I’ve also found it motivating to have projects I can return to—instead of just the diffuse goal of “getting stronger,” it’s, “I want to send Fede 2, and so I’m going into project mode.” (See our article on using the MoonBoard to cultivate power via limit bouldering. See also When Hate Became Love: How the Moonboard Helped Me Send a Long-Term Project—and Became a Lifelong Obsession for an in-depth article on how this author used a MoonBoard and home wall to get fit for—and ultimately realize—a long-term project.)
Finally, whether the problems are ones you’ve set yourself or are app benchmarks (problems universally agreed upon to represent the grade), having them there “permanently” makes them perfect measuring sticks. Not sure if you’re really in shape for the proj? Just like that crimpy face problem at the local boulders that only succumbs when you’re in fighting form, those tiny yellow holds on that benchmark MoonBoard V5 won’t lie about your fitness.
How we got here
Today’s light-up, app-driven walls emerged from a concept that emerged three decades ago in rainy Sheffield, England. There, in the UK’s climbing center (OK, “centre”), the old homes come standard with cellars, and it was here that the strong-mos (“wads”) of the day first mounted plywood sheets with screw-on wooden holds to train on during the winter months. The concept spread to America in the early 1990s, and home and garage woodies became fairly common—especially since rock gyms were rare at the time.
The first woodie I climbed on was in my friend Pete’s garage, and we got strong pulling on cabinet handles, little shims of wood, and a few early plastic holds. Like most woodies of the time, the holds had names, and we kept an oral logbook of problems. At other woodies, such as the one that cropped up at Jonathan Knight and Mike Call’s garage in Salt Lake City around 1990, climbers kept a binder of problems—like a MoonBoard but with paper. How artisanal!
“That’s when the big names started appearing,” recalls the pioneering climber and industry creative Boone Speed, a co-founder, with the climber and industrial designer Jeremy Huckins, of Grasshopper Industries. Visitors like Sean Myles, Martin Joisten, and other World Cup climbers would stop in at the garage, adding testpieces. When the Wasatch Front added their own woodie in the mid-1990s, there was a similar evolution, thanks to local and visiting talent like Speed, Steven Jeffrey, Chris Sharma, Klem Loskot, Dave Graham, Jared Roth, Garth Miller, Dale Goddard, and others.
As Speed recalls, one day he told Jeffrey, “It would be cool to standardize these things and have the same walls around the world”—the idea has been in the ether for some time. Ben Moon, who’d prepped for the world’s first 9a, Hubble (FA: 1990), by training on a wood wall, had a similar notion, and the first MoonBoard came out in 2004. It had, wrote Moon, a standardized hold set of “geometric shapes that mimicked the pieces of wood we had trained on in our basements and later in the School Room [a training co-op in Sheffield].” In 2016, MoonClimbing released their app, LED kit, and updated website, and the rest is history, with light-up boards appearing in gyms, homes, and co-ops all over the world, creating a digitally connected international bouldering/training community.
Why use a prefabricated build?
From what I’ve learned with my own home setup, there are three key reasons to install a prefab wall.
1. Ease of installation (and tear-down)
When a carpenter buddy and I put in my first garage wall in 2012, it took us a solid four days—and endless trips to Home Depot—to figure out how to build and fit the wall into the space. However, with a prefabricated wall like the Grasshopper, the frame is a universal size, which streamlines installation. As Speed puts it, if you’re going to install a home wall, you first need to answer two big questions: Where does it go?—i.e., Where is there enough room? And, How does it go in?, which your contractor can help solve by examining your home’s structure. “The thing we made easy is building the wall itself,” says Speed. “If you factor in all the holes that need to be drilled for T-nuts and LEDs, etc., this is a huge time-saver.” As I learned, with just a few basic tools, two people can have a pre-fab frame assembled in about a day, depending on how familiar you are with construction (add another day for hoisting and hold and LED installation). Finally, if you ever move, the Grasshopper’s panels unscrew easily and the frame comes apart into three segments—no need to trash your beloved dojo.
2. Adjustable angle
Almost all of the app-driven walls allow for different degrees of overhang, letting you select your desired training angle or try projects at a lesser angle than prescribed, then slowly work up by steepening the wall. Emily Harrington, who has a Grasshopper frame with a MoonBoard setup is, says Speed, working problems “one chain link at a time,” starting at 25 or 30 degrees then going by increments toward 40. The Grasshopper is good from 20 degrees to 65 or 70, giving you all the range you need. (There are other adjustable frames on the market as well, many of which work via hydraulics, or you can buy a Freestanding MoonBoard that can be set at either 25 or 40 degrees.)
3. Groundwork for the future
A standardized T-nut coordinate grid, such as the one on the Grasshopper, lets you do more than just have a light-up board; it also lets you compare notes with other climbers as you come up with creative route-setting ideas. In other words, competition setters or any climber who’s passionate about setting could establish problems using the grid, then share the holds, coordinates, and wall angle with their fellow setters or on social media to hone problems to perfection via crowdsourcing. This same idea could be used for remote coaching, with a coach using video conferencing to help her student work a shared problem. “What you’re going to start seeing is an evolution,” says Speed. “We’ve engineered our system to be compatible with our wildest imagination of what the future could be.”