Real Journalism by Leeds Hacks

Reaching New Heights: Indoor bouldering on the rise in the UK

climbing wall
Sam Brooke-Wilkinson
Niche sport or fun hobby? Climbing centres are shaking off their "grotty" reputation to expand their clientele

The Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC) has found that, over a 12 month period, 1.5 million people climbed independently indoors, while an estimated eight million visits were made to climbing centres in one year.

“Over the last two, three years there’s been a huge spike in climbers,” said Ben Meeks, managing director of City Bloc climbing wall in Leeds.

“20 years ago when I started climbers were very few and far between, but now I can be walking through Leeds city centre and see 10 people I know from the wall.”

“The more people that do it the more they bring their mates with them and they realise how good it is.”

The number of indoor rock climbers increased 40-50% between 2017 and 2019, according to ABC.

As climbing centres become more popular the clientele that visit them is going to become increasingly varied from the hardcore climbers that wear their blisters with pride. 

Gregor Tubb is the co-founder of the latest addition to Leeds’ choice of climbing walls, The Last Sun Dance, where things are done slightly differently.

When designing The Last Sun Dance “we knew we wanted to leave a huge area for a gym, for our customers to come to one facility and get everything they needed”

“I was sick of having to pay for two memberships, I was paying for a gym membership and a climbing wall membership.”

Tubb set up the business with long-time friend and freelance route setter, Joe Swales, who “brought this wealth of experience in setting” up climbing problems.

“Most climbing gyms don’t have a setter of his calibre on staff” so “that allows us to set really, really great problems.”

What sets The Last Sun Dance apart is the way they code their climbs, the most interesting and challenging-looking grips are not set aside for the expert climbers.

This means new learners or sporadic visitors can experience solving a variety of problems without diluting the difficulty of the competitive side of the sport.

“We despise the elitist attitude that some gyms have. Climbing gym owners tend to be very good climbers and historically they set in coloured circuits.”

Tubb says their walls are “way more varied for everyone whether you’ve just started or never been climbing before or whether you’re the world champion you get to climb on a way more varied hold selection.”

Climbing centres can appear “cold”, “grotty” and “intimidating” to novices which may put people off regular trips to their local climbing wall. “Hardcore climbers don’t really tend to care about those things, they will come in and climb regardless. For people who aren’t into climbing they maybe arent so friendly.”

Things are starting to change, however, as more centres are brightening up their spaces and providing a calm place to chill out with a hot drink and a slice of cake.

“We have a really nice cafe that sells amazing coffee” and “we’re getting a bar licence,” said Tubb.

City Bloc has expanded over the last year which Meeks says has made them “more competitive with the other centres that are in Leeds”.

“It was quite small, there wasn’t really anywhere for people to sit and hang out. Now there’s more space, more seating areas. It’s a bit more relaxed.”

With one in five UK climbing centres being only a couple of years old, this new breed of climbing walls may bring the influx of new climbers to stay.

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