How This Industry Was Born – History of Climbing Walls in the U.S.

Posted on February 11, 2014

Dan and I were huddled in a tent at about 16,000 ft on Aconcagua in January of 1987 waiting out a rest day to advance higher to next camp.  When hanging out on a mountain with not much to do and nowhere to go, the mind tends to wander, and wander it did.  I remember sitting in the small tent waiting for the next blast of the notorious viento blanco (white wind).  You could hear the next blast coming from far up the mountain as it thrust itself through a narrow slot between two peaks.  We could actually count out the time as to when the wind would hit our tent and flatten it with a force that I had never experienced.  The sound was amazing as we held on to the sides of the tent hoping that the technical info in the NorthFace tent brochure was actually true.  It seemed at times as though God was tapping on my shoulder saying “hey western civilized compulsive white guy with fancy Gortex, best you go home to your cubicle before you get spanked”.  But then my ego got the better of me.  I actually had second thoughts from the moment we got to base camp at over 14,000 ft.  When we arrived in base camp a member of the Spanish team was gasping his last breath of life.  He fell victim to pulmonary edema, and he was the Doctor on the expedition.  That gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.  While we were trying to set up our tent and settle in, the Spanish crew was stuffing the Doctor into a bivy sack.  Kind of distracting, I would say.  I came to learn that there were many shallow graves of past anxious summit conquerors on the mountain.  One problem with Aconcagua is that it is the tallest mountain in the western hemisphere, and also very accessible.  In other words, it invites many fools without experience and knowledge to destroy themselves during a too- quick-of-an-ascent.  While we were there, an Argentine went to the summit without acclimating, he sat down at the summit and starting disrobing until he died of cerebral edema.


Let me get back to Dan and I being huddled up in the tent. As I mentioned, the mind does wander with hours on end of waiting for the next move.  I new that Dan was a rock climber, and I had no knowledge of the sport, so I was curious about what rock climbers did with their time during the off season, when the weather turns to crap?  How do they stay in shape?  He didn’t have much of an answer other than “hang out in the basement, drink beer and do pull-ups”.  That is when the infamous moment hit me and I asked, “what about an indoor rock climbing gym?  Has any one ever built one of those?”   Dan gave a pause and said, “never heard of that”.  The conversation did go any further, but for some reason I couldn’t get that concept out of my head.  I didn’t know squat about the industry but it really intrigued me.


After Dan and I returned from our climb, I settled into my cubicle at the office.  I still couldn’t get the idea of a rock climbing gym out of my mind.  I started to do research on the industry by getting subscription numbers from magazines, sales numbers of rock shoes at the local outdoor stores and just talking with people in the rock climbing scene.  Little was to be learned.  Back then when you went into a store selling climbing gear you would see maybe two ropes, a pair of Boreals and a pair Sportivas, a few biners and Chouinard bod harness.  I got myself a pair of rock shoes and started to hang out at the UW rock.  That was the place to hang out and get to know people.  In mid summer of ’87 I still couldn’t shake the idea of creating a place for people to climb after work and during the winter.  I called Dan up and asked to have breakfast with him at the Shanty down on Elliot Ave.  That is where I popped the question to Dan, asking him to get involved with building an indoor rock gym.  I told him that I would give him 15% of the company if he signed on and headed up the project.  That is like offering someone part ownership in a hound dog that can’t smell.  That dog probably won’t hunt.  Dan was intrigued enough to take on the challenge.  He had nothing to lose and it definitely had a taste of adventure.


There it is.  That is where the grand idea of an indoor rock climbing gym came from.  I think I am going to avoid hanging out in a tent with lack of oxygen.  I can’t take any more ventures based on wacky ideas.

Rich Johnston, President, Vertical World & Elevate Climbing Walls