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Something’s Gone Wrong! The Problems With Modern Climbing Gyms

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Last February, I was getting ready to belay a surfer friend of mine, a beginner, on a top-rope, and I was demonstrating how to tie a figure-eight when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

“Umm, you’re not teaching, are you?” someone said.

“I was just showing them how to tie-in,” I responded.

This staff guy, Yerba Mate in one hand, scratched a sparse beard. He pointed to a small white sign on the far wall, at least 50 feet away, that none of us could have possibly read.

“We don’t allow any instruction unless it’s done by gym staff.”

He explained that, as I had my belay card, I could tie them in and belay, but not explain how. They needed to take a free top-rope course to get instruction.

It wasn’t a big inconvenience. My friends were pumped after a few routes and they didn’t really need to know how to tie-in. If they wanted to start climbing, they’d come back and take a belay test and get a membership.

Our sport is changing, we all know that. It’s changed dramatically in the last five years. The Tokyo Olympics. Free Solo. Ondra. The gym explosion. A monthly gym membership has gone from $20 bucks (spitballing here) 10 years ago to $90. Sure, now you get free yoga classes on Thursday and they sell chalk at the front desk, but what the hell happened?

Something has gone wrong when you can’t go to a climbing gym and teach your friend how to climb.

Nowadays, I’ll go into two gyms in the same city and feel like I’m walking into two different worlds. There are different grading systems, different rules, different belay tests. It’s ok to spot someone bouldering in one gym, in another gym you can’t. Some of it is just capitalism, and I get it—gyms have to stand out to get business, particularly in large cities, where there’s a lot of competition. Gyms want to offer a unique experience. At the end of the day, however, climbing is climbing. If you learn to climb in a gym, you should learn the same basics and follow the same rules that anyone else is learning in any other gym in the country.

Arbitrary Grading Systems

One problem I see is with grading systems. I went into a gym the other day and the boulder problems were marked with shapes. Triangles, circles, squares. There was a key on the wall, explaining that a circle equated to V0-V3, a square to a V4-6, and so on.

Why can’t a V0-V3 be marked V0-V3? Is the Hueco scale really that difficult?

As a new generation of climbers are bred in our nation’s gyms, many of whom may never climb outside, why teach them different languages? If someone talks about crushing a “triangle” or a “red problem,” how is anyone outside of their gym supposed to know what they’re talking about? At one gym I visited recently, red problems equated to V5-V7. Another gym a few miles away had red problems marked at V7-V9. I know of one gym that has changed its rating system no less than three times in a single year.

Climbing grades are complicated enough already. We have different scales for different disciplines, auxiliary grades for danger; Americans grade differently from Brits, who grade differently from other Euros, who grade differently from Australians. Do gyms really need their own grading systems, too?

Caroliine Minvielle instructs Elena Girard and Julien Le Neve Pinto on the proper way to tie in. Many, if not most, gyms prohibit climbing instruction except by a staff member. Photo: Jan Novak

Arbitrary Belay Tests

Another issue is with gym rules, particularly belay tests. What does one need to know to belay safely? Commands? How to feed or take while keeping your brake hand on the rope?

I once visited a college climbing wall and took a belay test. I tied in, doubled back my harness straps, said my commands, and demonstrated proper PBUS (pull brake under slide) belaying.

I failed my test.

“Why?” I asked the staff member, who was casually spinning a quickdraw around on one fingertip like a gunslinger.

“You didn’t tie into the floor,” he said. “All belayers need to tie into a floor strap for safety.”

I couldn’t retake the test that day, and the day fee I paid was nonrefundable, so I was exiled to the bouldering cave.

I’ve been climbing for 12 years, weigh 170 pounds, and have never needed to anchor into anything to belay in my life. This isn’t the only time I’ve encountered the arbitrary belay test. Like grades, gyms like to make their own individual belay tests in response to their own circumstances. I get it, it absolves liability. Maybe this gym had a 90-pound belayer fly up and hit their head on the ceiling.

Still, a belay test should cover the basics. Tie in properly, double back, say your commands, keep your brake hand on the rope, catch a fall. Anything else is situational and can be explained as gym policy. This way, no matter which gym you go to, if you’re a veteran climber, you’ll know how to belay and can pass the standard belay test.

The variety in our gyms is great, but when all is said and done we’re all part of the same team. Change is good, but we’d do well to keep a few standards common among our nation’s gyms.