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In the last year, the climbing community has seen a massive surge of incredible inclusivity and diversity initiatives, trying to make climbing more accessible for people from all walks of life. A more inclusive and diverse climbing community is, of course, something we all would benefit from and something we all would like to see. The trick is getting there, and it’s a tough road.
There are dozens of barriers to access for beginner climbers, but perhaps none is as omnipresent and difficult to overcome as the financial barrier. Whether you’re black or white, gay or pansexual, Hindu or Buddhist, or anything else…
Money is money, and getting into climbing is extremely expensive.
In some ways, we’re making progress. Climbing gyms are making it easier than ever before to learn to climb. You don’t have to head out into the wilderness, you don’t have to find a crusty old mentor to train you, you don’t have to buy a rack and rope and shoes and helmet and all this other expensive gear. You can just head over to your local gym, sign up for a membership (most include gear rental), and practice your climbing skills every day of the week. Gyms also make it much easier to meet partners and join the community of fellow climbers. Even if you’re climbing alone, you can almost always find a belayer at your local gym.
A handful of gyms, such as Memphis Rox and Brooklyn Boulders, are beginning to offer “pay as you can” membership plans to lower financial barriers to entry, in addition to scholarships and grants aimed at minority climbers.
That said, while climbing gyms are making it easier than ever to learn to climb, most gyms are hard pressed to make it cheaper to climb.
On the contrary, gym memberships are becoming more and more expensive every year. When I first started climbing as a teenager, I was paying $15 a month out of my lifeguarding paycheck to be a member of my local climbing gym. A couple years later, that gym had bumped prices to $30 a month. I moved out to southern California for college, and I started paying $50 a month in San Diego. Nowadays, I’m hard pressed to find a gym membership under $70, and most are much more expensive than that.
No one should fault gyms for getting more expensive, because they offer a ton more now than they used to. That $15/monthly climbing gym I mentioned earlier? It was a 15 x 15 plywood cave in the back of a fitness center. In 2021, even small town gyms often offer yoga classes, free gear rental, weightlifting areas, treadmills, dedicated gear shops, snack bars, and MoonBoards, not to mention thousands of square feet of climbing walls.
As a member of the average American climbing gym, the benefits you have access to are tenfold what they were 20 years ago. So it makes sense that prices have gone up.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help poorer folks around the country who would love to try our sport. Let’s take that $70, the amount charged by the new climbing gym in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and crunch a few numbers. The average household income in Alabama is around $41,000 after taxes. Meanwhile, that $70 monthly membership equates to $840 a year. That means spending about 2% of your household income on a climbing gym membership for just one person. Family memberships are $100 monthly ($1,200 annually) so you’re in that case you’re spending 3% of your annual income.
It might not sound like a whole lot, but for beginners, that’s a hefty sum compared to a sport like basketball or soccer, particularly if you aren’t able to go to the gym all that often. Furthermore, that money doesn’t even include buying your own gear (no one wants to use rental shoes forever). Besides, that’s accounting for the average household income. Many families are making much, much less. Until we can figure out a way to make climbing more affordable, we’ll likely never reach the level of diversity and inclusivity we’d like to get to.
Luckily, there is one partial workaround: The guest pass.
The majority of climbing gyms offer some guest pass stipulation, where members are allotted a handful of free or discounted guest passes each month to bring a non-member to the gym for a day of climbing. Every gym is different, of course, but a common model is for members to get two free guest passes per month, which renew every single month.
Unfortunately, most of us let these go to waste.
Sure, you might take someone on a date here and there, or take a buddy or relative from out of town, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of you haven’t used 75% of your guest passes in the last year.
I don’t want to do too much more math, but if you price each of those two guest passes per month at the average day pass price, let’s say $20, that’s $480 per year worth of free access, which we as gym members are entitled to hand out to whomever we want! Each of us could put that money towards making our gym more accessible.
If we want to make climbing more inclusive, both socially and economically, we have to start thinking outside the box. Take a break from zoning in on your project every single day. Give out your guest passes and take random people climbing for free!
COVID-19 makes this stuff difficult, of course, but case rates are falling, vaccination rates are going up, and we’re coming out of that whole mess (…hopefully), so if you feel comfortable, ask around. Find people and invite them to come to the climbing gym with you. Ask the guy bagging your groceries. Ask the girl delivering your packages. Ask the plumber, the carpenter, or the person you always see on the street corner begging for a few bucks.
“Would you like to learn to rock climb with me? It’s free.”
They may decide it’s not for them, but at the very least they’ll get the chance to experience our awesome sport for a day, free of charge.
So bring ‘em in. Hell, you might just find a lifelong climbing partner.
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.