Once regarded as an extreme sport for “mountain men,” the popularity of rock climbing has skyrocketed – especially at indoor centers – with more facilities opening in the East Valley to cater to climbers.
Hundreds of colorful plastic holds are methodically set on several-story climbing walls to challenge people of all skill levels. For climbers, the sky’s the limit – or, in this case, the limit stretches to the top of a 30-foot wall.
There are 478 indoor climbing gyms around the U.S. and the trend is far from tapering off: 2017 saw a record-breaking 43 facilities open, the most in a single year, according to data from the Climbing Business Journal.
In or near the East Valley, there are four major climbing facilities: Phoenix Rock Gym (PRG) and Climbmax Climbing Gym, both in Tempe, Focus Climbing Center in Mesa and Black Rock Bouldering Gym in East Phoenix. Each one is different in the specialties and services they offer.
Phoenix Rock Gym, Arizona’s oldest climbing gym, opened in 1992, when indoor climbing was still a relatively new sport.
Paul Diefenderfer, founder and owner of the gym, said he’s been climbing since 1975 and was skeptical of climbing indoors at first.
But in 1992, he and a friend each put in $10,000 to create Arizona’s first indoor rock gym.
“We’ve kept it pretty much the same,” Diefenderfer said, since it opened 27 years ago. “It’s always been an easy-going atmosphere. We try to make it as safe as humanly possible, yet still keep the thrill of climbing in there.”
Since 2016, the gym has brought in approximately 20,000 visitors annually, he estimates, despite growing competition. He said they have enjoyed an increase of 1,200 new members in the first quarter of this year.
“When I started, PRG was the first gym in the state and we had the whole market to ourselves,” Diefenderfer said. “We’re busier than ever so the market’s growing. Indoor climbing makes it easy and accessible for people to do.”
While much of indoor climbing’s success can be attributed to the accessibility of the sport, Diefenderfer said the trend has also grown by attracting climbers who aren’t interested in the more traditional outdoor rock climbing.
“When it first started, it was mostly just climbers looking for a place to work out so they could be that much better on weekend trips,” Diefenderfer said. “Now there’s a large majority of people that climb indoors who never go outside. This is their sport in and of itself.”
There are still some outdoors climbers who use the gym as training grounds, however.
Angela Foley, founder and president of Sun Devil Climbing at Arizona State University (ASU), still prefers climbing in the great outdoors.
Foley, who’s been climbing for eight years, initially got into the sport for the competition aspect of it. Now, she climbs for fun.
“When I first started climbing, I was a total gym rat,” Foley said. “As I started climbing outside, climbing inside became more of just a playground. My motivation for climbing inside is to just get better for climbing outdoors.”
Cassie Rezac, an ASU senior who got into the sport eight months ago, climbs specifically for the exercise.
“A lot of people use climbing as a form of exercise,” Rezac said. “I don’t like going to the gym because I get bored, but going to the rock gym is so much more fun.”
Rezac began climbing after seeing the Oscar-winning film “Free Solo:” a documentary highlighting rock climber Alex Honnold’s 3,000-foot climb to the top of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope.
After his climb made headlines in June 2017, many considered this to be the greatest feat in rock climbing history, if not the greatest sports achievement of all time.
“The media coverage of climbing recently has attracted an audience that may not have paid attention to the sport in the past,” Rezac said. “Honnold showed people that rock climbing is a lot of fun.”
The attention is not going away. It was just recently announced that climbing would be included in the 2020 Olympics for the first time – a major milestone for the sport.
Joe Czerwinski, founder and owner of Mesa’s Focus Climbing Center, has gained a wealth of knowledge about competition climbing since he began 26 years ago.
Before opening the gym in 2013, Czerwinski was a rock-climbing route setter and worked for the X Games in the U.S. and Asia. He competed with the U.S. National team as a climber, and then progressed to a coaching position.
Despite having a speciality in competition climbing, Czerwinski’s motivation for climbing is still the outdoors.
“The appeal of the indoors comes from wanting more from the outdoors,” Czerwinski said.
Focus is unlike PRG in that it emphasizes bouldering, a form of climbing on smaller rock formations without a rope and harness, but from no more than 20 feet off the ground.
The gym attracts climbers more interested in this particular form of climbing, which is what Czerwinski was hoping to achieve with this more specialized gym.
“I was tired of the Phoenix model of a climbing gym—lots of vertical top ropes and a small bouldering area,” Czerwinski said. “I wanted to create a training area where the gym and wall design unites the community, not splitting them into different areas.”
One climber who specializes in bouldering is David Caparon, an ASU sophomore who started rock climbing 12 years ago. Caparon climbs at both PRG and Focus, depending on the type of climbing he wants to practice.
“I really look for what has the multifaceted activities for me,” Caparon said. “I need a gym that offers various types of climbing.”
Although Caparon has had experience climbing outdoors, he feels the appeal of indoor climbing comes from a combination of accessibility and safety.
“Indoors, you’re pulling on perfectly formed pieces of plastic that are well-made with no chance of it breaking,” Caparon said. “Outside, you always have to worry about rocks breaking, how sharp the rocks are, how risky the actual situation is.”
Caparon also attributed the rise in popularity to the changing nature of the sport as a whole.
“It’s a lot more approachable nowadays. The old narrative of climbing was hardcore mountain men trying to overcome these intense rock walls,” Caparon said. “Now, you have kids flashing really hard routes. It’s a normal and totally acceptable thing in the sports community now.”