your favorite gym sucks

26 04 2008

ten reasons why all the other gyms have gotten it wrong…how to capitalize where others have failed…the best $100k investment you’ll ever make…understanding what makes bouldering fun…why i’m an infinitely better setter than you…a blueprint for a new paradigm

allow me to begin this tirade and verbal abuse against all that is holy by presenting my credentials. my name is the architect; that should be enough. but if it isn’t, consider this: i have been climbing for approximately six years. i have been setting for approximately five and a half years. i have been employed at two different gyms. i have set for more comps than i can count. i have designed and built one garage wall. i have designed and built half of another. i am experienced in designing and manufacturing modular features also know as volumes. i have tried my hand at shaping. oh, and i’m a recently accredited mechanical engineer with a little over a year of experience working in a manufacturing environment.

you could say that i know my shit.

while far from as globetrotting as the pros, i’ve experienced my fair share of bouldering destinations as well. these include, in no particular order: morehead, little rock city, rumbling bald, horse pens 40, rocktown, lilly, boone, hound ears, sandrock, little cotton wood canyon, ibex, joe’s valley, and big bend. you will agree that these destinations have exposed me not only to diametrically different styles but also the near full gamut of rock types. i have climbed on the unforgiving sandstone of the south and the quixotic quartz monzonite of the west.

in addition to these most admirable destinations, i have also experienced my fair share of climbing gyms, although the list is apt to be less impressive or as long. the only one worth mentioning however, would be the front in salt lake city, which i have proclaimed as the best gym in the u.s., full aware of other such destinations like the spot. but while this gym came the absolute closest to getting it right, it failed to capitalize on a few things that could put it on par with what i will soon describe in great detail. but before i get into that, now is the appropriate time to discuss what makes a gym fun and ultimately, successful. so we have to examine what it is that pulls people to the gym in the first place.

almost everyone i have ever talked to, has expressed to me the idea that gym climbing is merely training for real bouldering outside. you might notice a parallel in this kind of thinking to the general idea back in Gill’s era that bouldering was merely training for routes. further still, you could make an interesting argument as to why some indoor routes don’t have names or appropriate designation, as it relates to what tissue tendons wrote here. the point is this: climbers have resigned themselves to automatically viewing the indoor gym as flawed. the question we should be asking ourselves is why?

anyone who has ever been a setter for any length of time at a dysfunctional gym knows the answer to this question. i will define a dysfunctional gym as follows:

  1. any gym managed by an “old school” climber who resents these “fucking young strong kids.”
  2. any gym that contains less than 200 ft² of steep terrain 30° or greater.
  3. any gym that refuses to buy new holds.
  4. any gym that refuses to embrace the usage of volumes, or modular features.
  5. any gym that does not wash their holds regularly.
  6. any gym that does not have good setters.
  7. any gym that has good setters, but only resets twice a year.
  8. any gym that uses bullshit paint on the wall to simulate real rock so that screw ons cannot be used.
  9. any gym that caters to the gumbie exclusively in an effort to draw more revenue.
  10. any gym with a dysfunctional climate control system.

but if you are fortunate enough to work at one of the few and mythical non-dysfunctional gyms, the answer is more elusive. even with all of the aforementioned issues covered, the gym climbing experience is relegated still to a position of mediocrity and inherent flawedness. what this undoubtedly shows us, is that the outdoor bouldering experience is far harder to quantify than previously assessed.

therefore, i propose to you that that allure of outdoor bouldering can be attributed to a few underlying intangibles, that although elusive and hard to describe, are the fundamental draw to the outdoors. these archetypes can most easily be described as variety, negative space, exposure, and geometry.

variety: i hardly feel the need to dive into the philosophical or behavioral psychological discussion to prove that, as a species, we need variety in our lives. this truism hardly needs justification. so it enters quite logically and naturally into a discussion about what we seek out for (climbing) gratification. there is a reason i have traveled across the country to salt lake city over the christmas holidays the past two years to boulder, instead of climbing at my local boulderfields in the south, with their infinitely more accessible problems. i seek new problems and new rock. i seek new movement. i seek variety.

negative space: this is far harder for me to discuss, and i’m sure any artist would laugh at my attempts to put into words what they already know so well. so instead, i would direct you to the wikipedia explanations of the Japanese concept of ma. it explains how the usefulness of a thing comes from it’s negative space. it also relates to the buddhists concept of drawing attention to a thing by its placement in its surroundings. relating this to bouldering, i would speak of how the red monster boulder at ibex exhibits this quality as opposed to how the flamein hueco doesn’t.

exposure: this can mean or allude to any number of things. i posit however, that exposure in bouldering most commonly refers to a precarious, and scary high position. you often hear people speak of exposure while describing climbing el cap, or in describing evilution. it is related to and intimately connected to negative space. exposure is, how kevin jorgeson puts it, “the first time that my subconscious thoughts were silenced completely while climbing outside.” referring to his super high-balls/freesolos. ugh. i just quoted a major publication. someone sucker punch me in the kidneys.

geometry: this term refers to the form factor any particular boulder will exhibit. the geometry speaks of the facets and fractures. it is this quality that is oh so elusive at the indoor climbing wall. because no matter how many volumes are used, or how many behemoth holds are placed on the wall, you will never be able to mimic the simple flowing beauty of a boulder outside. the geometry is the line.

it is easy to see now why all the gyms got it wrong. because unless you design to these aforementioned ideals, you are just going to fall short. the pusillanimous person, content to just build another garden variety wall, will think in terms of ease of fabrication rather than thinking to themselves how to create a really enjoyable experience. and this is also why i think the front is the best gym in the u.s. because instead of using the same manufacturing techniques that everyone else has used for the past twenty years, they ribbed the entire gym with gradually bent, large radius-ed steel tube. they then skinned the wall in a flowing plywood. and wouldn’t you know it, they have a huge steep section and a headwall that really makes you feel exposed, since the rest of the gym is open and airy. does any of this sound familiar?

the front

however, there is one caveat. while it is my understanding that the front is exceptionally good about changing up the routes and rotating holds, using volumes and screw-ons, they failed to reach nirvana in one regard, and it is here that i can claim and present my one and only, truly original concept to the sport of bouldering.

the change must come in the way we think about our indoor climbing walls. the manufacturing techniques exist, and there is no reason we cannot construct modular climbing walls.

now before you balk, or, skim over that line without realizing what i was proposing, allow me to elaborate.

the entire wall cannot be modular. there must be a base, for structural safety reasons, and for practicality. it can be constructed any number of ways, but i would suggest trying to adhere to the principles i just highlighted, or try to copy how the front did it right. there will be large sections however, that can be removed and replaced. and i’m talking large. on the scale of 100 ft² of climbing surface. all these modular sections will have a common mounting base of a certain geometry, so that they are all interchangeable throughout. they will be fastened through the use of bolts. no screws like we use on the volumes here. these things are going to be heavy, and if they malfunctioned, somebody is going to die.

the changing of these modular sections is going to be an ordeal, but, it is not infeasible. there will be multiple lifting lugs on the top of the modular feature, and they will be rigged to a overhead support structure, like a sliding i-beam or something similar so that they can be unbolted and moved. i have no illusions that this is an involved process, so apathetic gyms need not apply. you need a devoted setting team, and a psyched crew. the reward? only the best gym in the country, and the ability to change the topout of a particular section of wall from a sloping, southern slapfest, to an overhanging headwall. where once you had a sedan sized hueco on you wall, you now have a bulbous, cancerous protrusion. where once you had a dihedral, you know have a laser arete.

this is simply the next logical step in the evolution of climbing walls. if you can step back and look at the trends like i have, with the prevalence of volumes now, there is only one direction that indoor climbing can take. especially with people finally realizing that indoor climbing can be an end in of itself. don’t get me wrong, i still like to wrestle my pebbles outside, but i also enjoy my plastic.

but now i have to write a warning here. if you are seriously entertaining this idea. make sure you know what the hell you’re doing. if, when i talk about the shear forces and moments exerted on the mounting bolts, you don’t really know what i’m talking about, i suggest you speak to somebody that does- maybe an engineer like me. in fact, employ me. i kind of need a job. i can design for you the next best wall in the country. i’ll work cheap too. as long as you build it in the south where i can use it, and give me a life time membership. i’m just a phone call message board away.

-the architect.

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4 responses

29 04 2008
tissuetendons

http://planetgranite.com/Presidio/sf_bouldering.html

not what you’re talking about, but this seemed like as good a place as any to post the link.

29 04 2008
thearchitecturality

they’re doing a good job towards getting it ‘right’, sort of. regardless, i’d climb there…

9 05 2008
townn

the japanese concept of YOUR MOM!

4 06 2008
what the south does when it gets warm: i’m building climbing walls again « It Came from the Garage

[…] in fact, if you actually follow this blog, and i wouldn’t advise that, you might recall this post i wrote earlier in the year touting my skills to recognize and advise on those most crucial aspects […]

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