Full Circle: The NYC gym aiming to take climbing back to its roots

Full Circle: The NYC gym aiming to take climbing back to its roots
 All Photos Evelyn Jeong

All Photos Evelyn Jeong

There was a time when training only occurred in small cellars, and steep boards and small holds were the norm. Sessions were powerful, hard and designed purely to deliver gains on rock. Over the past thirty years indoor climbing has changed dramatically. As the sport has exploded in popularity, training facilities have morphed into large corporate-style gyms. Many have begun to focus on movement, fun and getting new people through the doors over providing facilities to develop climbers to succeed on rock.

Nowhere has this shift been felt more than on the U.S. East Coast. Culturally NYC has rightly earned a reputation for exporting trends across the globe, and when it comes to climbing, it is no different. Many of the city’s gyms have shifted from training for climbing to training for fitness. Entry prices have reflected that change; a day pass at one of the city’s most popular gyms will now set you back $38. For that price you’ll be greeted with boulder problems guaranteed to stroke the ego, you’ll likely move quickly through the grades and have access to substantial amounts of cross training equipment. This is great if your goal is fitness, but if you want to train for projects on rock, you’ll struggle.

This style of gym has steadily popped up across the city, with each borough having at least one, if not two or more in a similar vein. It is a model that is being mirrored across the country and further afield. For many new to the sport, indoor climbing is the new CrossFit—a competitive way to stay fit, a community to join. This focus has its downsides for the climbing community as a whole—from the effect it has had on the way people are educated on the ethics of the sport to the rising costs, which severely limit access for those on lower incomes. However as more gyms shift to prioritising mass appeal and ultimately profits over the sport itself, there is one upside: They have left behind a distinct gap in the market.

In NYC, that gap has recently been filled by a new gym, GP-81. It’s the first true gym of its kind in the city, designed solely to appeal to those who are training for climbing. Based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the 6500 square foot venue features an entire wall of 35, 45 and 60 degrees, another of 40 degrees and all the climbing training apparatus you would expect of a high-end training venue. "We wanted to create a space that was focused on training and just climbing" says co-founder Cliff Simanski. "Most climbing gyms seem to be getting bigger, fancier, and more expensive but all we really wanted was a few simple angles and some quality route setting to session on".

GP-81 is a departure from the larger, mass-market-appeal gyms in more ways than one. As soon as you walk through the doors you’re greeted by an industrial feel that in many ways pays homage to those cellars of old. Stickers cover the bathroom walls and the building resonates with music that would not have felt out of place during an early 90s School Room session. Fortunately, there is just a little less lycra. Simanski makes it clear that they found inspiration from some of those classic venues. "A few of the design ideas came from other gyms and the School Room was certainly a key point of reference. Most of my inspiration, however, came from a small co-op style gym called The El Dojo. I really admire the folks who started that spot and liked the whole vibe of it."

The El Dojo climbing gym is a co-operatively owned training facility in Northampton, Western Massachusetts. Founded in 2007, it took inspiration from the School Room and was built to deliver a true climbing training facility for local climbers. Facilities like The School and El Dojo were not built on the premise of maximizing financial gains. It's obvious profits are not the sole focus for Simanski: "None of us got into this expecting to make much. We wanted to create an environment for the NYC climbing community that felt like a home woody and had more of the terrain we all like to climb on. We funded the whole project ourselves, so as long as we can get out of debt I think we'd be pretty happy."

Just like any good training venue, rather than massage the ego, GP-81 is designed to keep it well and truly in check. Problems are powerful and grades are anything but soft. Success here is duly earned. This can only be made possible by those in charge accepting that they may lose some customers looking to progress quickly up the grades.

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In many ways, GP-81 is a commercial version of a model first developed in Sheffield in the infamous School Room. The School Room, originally built in 1993, in could be considered the first high-end training venue of its kind. The venue, more a private members club than open gym, played host to a 'who’s who' of British climbing including Ben Moon, Jerry Moffatt and Malcolm Smith. Gav Ellis, co-founder of The School Room, explains their motivation for building the facility "The main reason was that the walls were not good for training. We all had our own little cellars but they had limitations. The Foundry Climbing Center had just opened but it was expensive for the majority of us on [unemployment benefit] and didn’t have steep boards. It was never really planned, it just kind of happened. A bunch of people wanting the same thing I guess. Lots of time but little money. Having our own place also gave us control and flexibility to change or add stuff as required. I think the big difference between the School and a commercial wall is that it’s for training where as the big venues are for climbing."

Training venues such as The School Room develop communities steeped in history. Test piece problems emerge, stripes are earned and legends are made. Many of the world’s best still make a pilgrimage to try problems on its infamous 50 degree board, such as the legendary Font 8b problem Perky Pinky. Martin Smith, a long time School Room member knows better than most what it means to follow in the footsteps of others who have trained at the School Room: "It meant as much to climb Perky Pinky as any problem I've done outside". 

If what’s happening in NYC is a precursor to a wider trend, then its likely we’ll see development of more similar, smaller training venues in areas where mass-market gyms have been built. This diversification can only be good for the sport and in many ways it takes it back to its roots.    

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You can visit GP-81 here

 

Editor