Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
In the late 1980s I was frustrated by the lack of training facilities, and so I followed the example of my friend and training partner Andy Pollitt and built a training board in the basement of my terraced house in Sheffield, England. My cellar was no more than 10 feet square and 8 feet high, and my training board consisted of a short-angled wall leading up onto the cellar ceiling, which was boarded out. Both boards were covered in homemade wooden holds built from rough cuts of wood. Resin holds barely existed at the time.
We spent most of our time on the roof of the cellar swinging around footless on the pieces of wood. In 1989, after a long winter of training, I emerged from my cellar and set about trying to free climb the start to Andy’s route The Whore of Babylon at Raven Tor. The day after my 23rd birthday, on June 14th, I finally managed to link the six hard moves together, creating a direct line: Hubble. I graded Hubble 8c+ but many have suggested it could be 9a, which would make it the first 9a in the world. My basic training board in the cellar of my house was one of the main factors in the success and opened my eyes to the effectiveness of simple wooden training boards.
In 1993, a large room became available to rent in a disused Victorian school room owned by Sheffield City Council. A small group of friends and I jumped at the opportunity to build a bigger, more ambitious training facility. This facility, known as “The School Room,” became the main training hub for many U.K. climbers, including Jerry Moffatt and Malcolm Smith. It was shamelessly elitist, and unless you could climb a minimum of V6 there was little point in becoming a member. The School Room initially contained three simple wooden training boards, a campus board and a set of weights. Some of the hardest boulder problems in the U.K. were climbed on the infamous 50-degree School Room board, and the holds were permanently fixed, which provided perfect benchmark problems. I believe this was one of the first training boards with intentionally fixed holds.
In 2006, the Sheffield Council closed the original School Room, and we put all the boards in storage in the hope of finding a new training space. In 2014, after my business, Moon Climbing, had outgrown its small warehouse, I rebuilt the School Room and included in the design the old 50-degree School Room board, which even after 25 years is still going strong!
Emergence of The School Room
After my experiences of training in my cellar, then on The School Room boards and then with such success outside, I was convinced that this type of flat-panel training board was the most effective strength-training tool out there.
The style of climbing is very basic, and the focus is on strength as opposed to technique. There are no tricks to climbing the problems. They rely mainly on pure strength. Often the problems involve big dynamic moves between small holds where your feet need to cut loose. The key is having the strength to control the swing and get in position for the next move. Although there is a risk of injury from the high load this places on your fingers, there is potential for incremental strength gains. The problems are normally no more than seven serious moves, but for strength training you can work on just two or three moves at a time, which is what I would define as “limit bouldering.” This style of board is also great for sub-maximal interval training, i.e., strength endurance.
Not only are fixed-hold boards a very effective training tool for outdoor climbing, they are well suited to interval training, where volume and intensity are critical. It’s easy to set basic training problems at a specific intensity with no technical crux section.
The Birth of the MoonBoard
Around 2004 I had the idea of building a standardized training board that could be replicated the world over and allow users to train on the same problems we used in the School Room. I called it the MoonBoard.
Eight feet wide, 12 feet high and initially built at a fixed angle of 40 degrees, the MoonBoard first had sets of holds that were geometric shapes that mimicked the pieces of wood we had trained on in our basements and later in the School Room. These were called the Originals, and like the School Room boards required a minimum ability of around V6. Each hold had a unique number and compass indicator, allowing all users to place the holds in the same grid position and orientation. MoonBoard users around the world could then set their own problems, upload them to our website, and share the problems with other users.
As well as being an effective strength-training tool, the MoonBoard connected climbers and created a training community. Users set their own problems and shared them with others as well as tested themselves on existing MoonBoard problems. Unlike commercial gyms where the problems change, the MoonBoard problems were there forever, allowing users to have long-term training projects and benchmarks.
By 2016, we were ready to launch a new MoonBoard website, app and LED system. The app allowed users to add and search for problems, log ascents and grades, and rate and comment on problems. It also connected to the LED system allowing users to light up problems. This was the perfect time to make a clean break from the existing hold setups and get all MoonBoard users climbing on the same setup. Within weeks the number of MoonBoard problems on the 2016 setup had surpassed the total number of problems across all the five old setups. Within a year there were over 12,000 problems on the 2016 set up.
Technology has played a big part in the evolution of the MoonBoard over the past few years. We are constantly developing the MoonBoard app and building in new features and are currently working on an assessment tool that will allow users to assess their strength and strength endurance and highlight any weak points. Who knows, maybe one day a MoonBoard problem will feature in a World Cup competition, and then MoonBoard users would be able to try the same problem!
I still climb regularly on the MoonBoard, setting new problems, checking users’ problems, and selecting problems for the “Benchmark” list. The board remains a big part of my training … but above all it’s great fun.
This article appeared in Gym Climber 1