They seem incomparable, early climbing and modern, as if ‘progress’ really means ‘change.’ The pinging echo of a hammer driving in a piton has faded away, replaced by the sounds of a drill or the clamor of hexes, but the development of modern gear is only one of the forces propelling climbing forward. Another is made from plastic and wood, concocted in old warehouses.
The First Chemist
Don Robinson, who is often credited for making the first climbing wall, got the idea for an artificial wall after seeing experienced climbers getting injured in the Spring after a winter of not climbing or exercising. Robinson remembered that climbers were ending the climbing season strong in October and then they basically did nothing all winter. At the time, climbers had as sense of superiority and they “wouldn’t be caught dead wearing shorts in a gymnasium,” Robinson said. In the spring climbers rushed back out to the crags and tied in below routes that were the same difficulty they had been climbing the fall before. Because most climbers were out of shape and out of practice the Springs during the 1960s were riddled with accidents.
Robinson sought out a way to prevent these injuries, and what he made changed climbing forever. Realizing the best practice for climbing is climbing itself, he made a list of all of the different types of climbing moves, and in 1964, replicated them on a brick wall in a hallway at Leeds University. The climbers who practiced on the wall at first stuck to the traverse Robinson had made, but quickly became stronger and started inventing new routes and games, such as climbing with one arm or with a heavy backpack. Robinson watched experienced climbers get stronger and stay in shape over the winter and also new climbers entering the sport.
One year, freshman, John Syrett was drawn into the sport after passing the wall and watching people climb it. Syrett was instantly hooked. He started climbing almost daily and was soon climbing harder than everyone else. Because of his ability to climb well indoors, his climbing partners doubted Syrett as a good climber and took him to a local crag to see how he did on natural rock. At the crag he asked which route was the hardest and his friends pointed to a rarely climbed line. Syrett climbed the route with ease and news of it quickly spread. Robinson recalled people believing there were “magical properties” to the wall. He eventually went on to start a company that manufactures climbing walls, and other people started opening gyms all over Europe.
In 1987, Europe’s indoor climbing fascination spread to the U.S. and an old Seattle factory was opened and turned into the U.S.’s first commercial gym, Vertical World, which is still in operation today. Metolius began making the U.S.’s first plastic holds in the 1980s and since then gyms have opened all over the U.S. and are visited by 1,000 new climbers every day.
Robinson’s goal in making a climbing wall was to help climbers stay in shape but gyms, and home gyms, are not just a training ground. They are a social area, a place for competitions, movie screenings and a place for climbers to learn. We reviewed one of the ingredients of gyms, the pieces of plastic that are responsible for blisters and frustration, as well as success and excitement.