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This article originally appeared in Climbing’s print magazine in 2018.
It began in the early 1990s in Sheffield, England, in the “School Room,” a 30-by-30-foot classroom in the Anns Grove School where the Sheffield City Council had been renting space to artists. In Sheffield, the climbing center of rainy England, climbers had either been holding “Board Meetings,” in which they’d climb on each other’s small, rudimentary garage and basement walls, or climbing at Sheffield’s lone rock gym, The Foundry. They needed another option.
In 1993, the artist/climber Alan Williams turned UK legend Ben Moon onto the idea of renting the space. “Straightaway,” recalls Moon, “between 10 and 20 people were keen.” Led by Gavin Ellis, the climbers erected three walls: a 50-degree board; a 30-degree board; and the Cressbrook Board, a 10-degree undercut overhang. For grips, the climbers supplemented resin holds with wood “offcuts” (remnants) and pieces of bannister from “skips” (dumpsters). They screwed it all together by hand, adding a campus board, free weights, and boom box.
UK luminaries including Moon, Jerry Moffatt, Malcolm Smith, and Stuart Cameron made ever-larger moves off the smallest holds—producing some of the UK’s (and the world’s) hardest problems. Smith, who’d honed his strength on his own board back in Scotland, established Perky Pinky and Milk It, Font 8b (V13) testpieces, repeating the former with a 10-pound weight belt. (The holds on Perky Pinky are flat and only 20 or 25 millimeters wide—on the 50-degree board.)
“What made the School so special was the fixed holds and the number of good climbers who trained there,” recalls Smith. “It became a legit climbing venue, and doing something there scaled you against some of the best climbers (e.g., Ben and Jerry).”
With the benefit of the School Room, the climbers pushed 5.14 and V-double-digits outdoors, with Moon establishing Sea of Tranquility (5.14c) at Pen Trywn in 1993 and then trying a project at Kilnsey for the next three years—what would become Steve McClure’s Northern Lights (5.14d) in 2000. “An 8b at the School Room would be 8b+ elsewhere,” says Moon, adding that the climbers aimed to have “big” grades on the boards—e.g., easy, hard, and middling 8a’s. Climbers tracked the problems with a guidebook, still updated to this day.
A final advent from the School Room has been the MoonBoard, first erected in the old facility when Ellis suggested that Moon devise a standardized training wall. In 2005, Moon and Rich Simpson created the MoonBoard. Soon, there were 10 or so MoonBoards across the globe, each using different kits of holds they could rotate in; users could add to a PDF-driven guidebook online, creating an ever-expanding library of problems.
The “old” School Room closed in 2006 when the council boarded up the building. And so, the boards went into storage and the original MoonBoard was scrapped. In 2014, Moon repurposed warehouse space he’d been using for his business, MoonClimbing; here, he remounted the boards, linking them with framing, and built a new MoonBoard with an adjustable angle. In 2016, Moon launched a MoonBoard app and revamped website, and the MoonBoard has taken off, with three different iterations and countless thousands of active users.
“The problems are getting harder,” Moon jokes of the School Room boards. “But I have surprised myself.” With a redpoint of Rainshadow (5.14d) at Malham Cove at age 48 and a recent tick of the School Room 8a Stuey 5 Bellies, Moon, 50, has shown just what a training touchstone the facility remains.