Artificial Climbing Walls 101: More Mountain Than Mountain?

GymRock.jpg

Unlike running or cycling, rock climbing is a sport that can’t be easily simulated. In the old days, you’d get in your car and drive to a mountain to “practice.” These days, more and more options abound. Eurpeans are starting to experiment with “rockmills,” giant vertical treadmills that provide various hand- and footholds as you move (hat tip: TJ S).

Of course, indoor climbing facilities are popping up all over the world. And, most interesting to me, regular gyms are also starting to get in on the action. But how do you squeeze a mountain into a gym that’s already been constructed? Easy. You convert the racquetball court.

While the dimensions (i.e. height) aren’t ideal, according to Cort Gariepy of climbing wall manufacturer Rockwerx, the racquetball-climbing wall is becoming a popular option among gyms trying to compete with the growing number of climbing-specific facilities that might charge around $25 per session.

However, not all rock walls are created equal. Duh.

As the CEO of Rockwerx, Gariepy has spent the last 16 years constructing about 1 million square feet of climbing space (100,000 sq. ft. every year). We asked him to walk us through the three main options for wall-building.

panel collage.jpg

Modular Panels
What it is: 4’x8′ pieces of plywood mounted to a 2D wall. Each panel is coated with different substances, including 1) a thin, textured paint that’s cheap and feels lightly sanded like a tennis court; 2) liquid acrylic which provides more texture, friction; 3) 3D which is also acrylic, but with much more texture, “in-cut cracks” and bulging shapes (it’s also pricier). Note: modular panels are also available in Gym Rock (pictured at top, described below) and Summit Rock (a blend of acrylic and fiberglass).
Benefits: Quick, easy to install; might only take a few hours to bolt in and can be handled by a local contractor or maintenance staff, not a hardcore rock wall builder; relatively cheap ($375 – $1,295 per panel, depending on material); great for rooms that don’t have exceptionally high ceilings (above, left), because panels can be arranged horizontally to maximize climbing space; thus, great for kids/beginners.
Drawbacks: Doesn’t come close to the real thing, unless you go with a higher-end panel material like Gym Rock; tends to look like a jungle gym or childrens’ playground, not a serious mountain.
Price: $

SRG-Panoramic-Shotr(1).jpg

Gym Rock
What it is: A free-standing, steel-framed geodesic structure covered in ¾-inch CDX plywood panels coated with a combination of blended polymers and cement textured to look and feel like Yosemite granite. The structure itself creates various “natural” formations like arches, caves, spires and stalactites (this is also true of Natural Rock).
Benefits: Realistic look and feel, but still relatively lightweight, especially compared to Natural Rock; also half as expensive as Natural Rock (below). Provides more traction than cheaper modular panels.
Drawbacks: Takes 2-3 weeks install, depending on the dimensions/specs.
Price: $$ (cost of racquetball conversion: ~$100,000)

natural collage.jpg

Natural Rock
What it is: A similar steel-framed, free-standing structure covered in panels covered in glass-reinforced concrete molded from actual rock; like free-standing Gym Rock, very easy to replicate “natural” formations, described above.
Benefits: Incredibly realistic look and feel; very durable and rigid; no seems between panels, giving wall a more natural, sculptural appearance.
Drawbacks: Heavier than a Slayer concert; more expensive than front row tickets to a Metallica concert (five of them). Also takes 2-3 weeks install, depending on the dimensions/specs.
Price: $$$$ (cost of racquetball conversion: ~$200,000)

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8 Responses to Artificial Climbing Walls 101: More Mountain Than Mountain?

  1. TJ S says:

    OhGizmo! had a thing about a “rockmill” a few weeks back…

    http://www.ohgizmo.com/2009/07/16/climbstation-portable-intelligent-climbing-wall/

    Costs about €30,000, and only available in Europe right now (it seems), but you can climb all day and never get more than a couple feet off the ground. You can even hook it up to a truck and drive it somewhere else when you’re done.

  2. TJ S says:

    Tag close FAIL. I’m ashamed :(

  3. Steven Leckart says:

    Great find! I’ve added this above. And fixed your link. :)

  4. Joe says:

    Umm, the gym I went to back in 1995 had a “rockmill.” It was a giant motorized series of wooden slats with rock grips attached to them.

    Why is this being treated like a neat new idea?

  5. bazzargh says:

    Back in 2005, BoingBoing covered the Alaskan Alpine Club’s homegrown ice wall:
    http://www.boingboing.net/2005/02/23/building-an-ice-towe.html

    This post reminded me of it, so I went to have another look; boingboing should too – its got much, much bigger since then!

    http://www.alaskaalpineclub.org/IceTower/IceTowers.html

  6. toxonix says:

    I’ve used one of those rockmills before. They’re ok for strength and endurance training, but not very interesting to climb.

  7. Ev says:

    I used to work in the first rock climbing gym in America, The Vertical Club in Seattle, WA (now Vertical World). The walls were only 12′ high, mostly vertical cinder block walls with little pockets drilled out or rocks glued to them. The steepest wall was only 15 degrees overhanging. Things have sure changed.

    And there have been versions of the rockmill available in the states for years now (http://www.traversewall.com/products/treadwalls.shtml).

  8. Ev says:

    I used to work in the first rock climbing gym in America, The Vertical Club in Seattle, WA (now Vertical World). It opened in 1987. The walls were only 12′ high, mostly vertical cinder block walls with little pockets drilled out or rocks glued to them. The steepest wall was only 15 degrees overhanging. Things have sure changed.

    And there have been versions of the rockmill available in the states for years now (http://www.traversewall.com/products/treadwalls.shtml).

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