As rock gyms climb in popularity, what are the effects on ethics?

Indoor rock climbing showed double-digit year-over-year growth in 2015, though it did wane a bit last year. The overall upward trend is predicted to scale further once climbing makes its debut in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

But Tim Wolsonovich, gym manager of South Boston’s Rock Spot Climbing, says the indoor climbing trend was well on its way before the high-profile inclusion into the Summer Games.

He points to two reasons for the sport’s growth: accessibility and the auto-belay.

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“With the modern climbing-gym experience, the entry point has been lowered a lot,” he told GrindTV. “It used to be that to be a rock climber, you needed to buy an expensive harness and shoes and find an experienced climber to literally show you the ropes. Gyms have brought that down to zero experience; you need no equipment.

“You don’t even have to know how to tie a rope.”

indoor climbing
Indoor rock gyms are making climbing more accessible to more people. Photo: Courtesy of Pete Sancianco/Rock Spot Climbing

Wolsonovich is referring to gyms’ capacity to rent beginners everything they need to succeed, not to mention let them scale faux rock walls “unguided” thanks to the automatic belay system, now an ubiquitous sight at indoor climbing gyms around the country.

“At Rock Spot, we say that anybody can climb — all ages, all abilities,” Wolsonovich says. “It’s a great way to get a workout without having to run on a treadmill, and it can take you to new heights mentally, physically, emotionally.”

The auto-belay, which uses a self-regulating magnetic braking system to suck up slack as a climber ascends or falls, has eliminated the need for a human belayer in the gym.

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“Because the bar has [been] lowered, you get a lot more people coming in,” he says, noting that previously, new climbers had to take a belay class before being allowed to get on the wall.

The auto-belay allows beginners to test out rock climbing inside before they learn the ropes. Photo: Courtesy of Pete Sancianco/Rock Spot Climbing

“Some people come in to get the Instagram shot and don’t come back,” Wolsonovich continues. “Others get addicted and want to move on to bouldering, top roping, lead climbing, trad [traditional] climbing, etc.”

But a lower bar also means that climbing gyms now have a bigger boulder on their shoulders when it comes to two things: etiquette and ethics.

World-class climber Matty Hong puts it plainly.

“Climbing gyms must be held responsible for educating climbers (old and new) on how to act responsibly, whether it’s being safe and respecting one another or maintaining a clean environment outdoors so future generations can share the same experiences that our pioneers once had,” he told GrindTV.

The burden of a boost in beginner climbers is not lost on Wolsonovich, who says old-school climbers are quickly retreating farther into the crags and are willing to take longer approaches to traditional (“trad”) climbing.

Let’s not mince words: They’re trying to get away from the riffraff.

top rope indoor climbing
This kind of traditional top-rope climbing requires a human belayer — a skill climbers need for the outdoors. Photo: Courtesy of Pete Sancianco/Rock Spot Climbing

But in the spirit of recently passed Royal Robbins, who preached the original ethical climbing standards, trad climbers have a lot to teach newbies, too.

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As the sport continues to grow, ethical responsibility is everyone’s to share.

Hong says, “Climbing is a sport that draws people to the outdoors, and if we do not educate people on how to act properly and respect the environment, we may face extreme access issues in the future.”

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