Gym to Crag Programs Are Growing

A surge of indoor climbers emphasizes the need for gym-to-crag courses.

Gym-to-crag programs are growing in popularity due to a wave of new rock climbers tieing-in nationwide. “Many more factors exist in the outdoors compared to the controlled environment of a gym,” says Matthew McArthur, a Montrose, Colorado,. based gym climber who recently completed one such clinic led by Peak Mountain Guides at Ouray’s annual OuRock Festival. McArthur was a canyoning guide for 12 years but didn’t gain much technical experience. Now the father of a preteen son, he wants to hone his safety protocols before venturing out onto the rock. 

McArthur is one of the nearly 5.54 million Americans age 6 and up who are flocking to climbing gyms nationwide: Less than half that number engage outdoors in both bouldering and sport climbs, according to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report. Indoor athletes also exceed the population of traditional, ice, and mountaineering climbers combined. In August 2021, the sport’s debut in the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 further fueled the sport. El Cap, one of the nation’s biggest climbing gym networks, with five Colorado facilities, recorded a spike of site visits, gear shop sales, and website traffic following the Olympics this summer. 

“As gyms get bigger and more climbers exist, who is responsible for the education process? Brands, gyms, and media should collaborate: It’s all of our responsibility,” says Ben Yardley, senior manager of sales strategy at Outside, publisher of Gym Climber magazine, which launched in 2018. According to the 2019 Rock & Ice Reader Survey, more than 75% of subscribers rope-up indoors; and, the best way for climbing gyms to improve their offerings is by adding gym-to-crag programs.

Traditional mentorship can be  problematic, says Flash Foxy founder Shelma Jun. “It’s a gatekeeping point. If you don’t know anybody, it’s hard to join.” After teaching indoor gym-to-crag classes in New York City for several years, Jun earned her AMGA Single Pitch Instructor and Apprentice Rock Guide certifications to prepare to the launch the 2021 Flash Foxy Education Courses, which  serve women and genderqueer climbers with an emphasis on safety and sustainable recreation. Flash Foxy’s mission is to promote inclusivity while lowering the sport’s barriers of entry including scholarship funds.

“Hiring guides can be expensive,” says Peak Mountain Guides owner Lance Sullins, who taught the donation-based gym-to-crag workshop that McArthur attended. Sullins says, “Climbing gyms create an awesome avenue for people to get into climbing. Then gym-to-crag programs help provide people with the outdoor basics.”

Cover photo: It’s time to transition from gym to crag. Photo by PC Peak Mountain Guides 

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