Climbing’s Rise, and the Businesses Rising With It

people at a climbing wall against a blue image with the text climbing's rise

In 2019, the Association of British Climbing Walls found that there was a 50% increase in the number of people visiting climbing walls in 2019 compared with 2017, with a 30% increase in regular climbers. Vice called it a “trend for millennial men”, while the Telegraph calls it “a popular high for midlifers”. Back in 2018, the Guardian stated it had gone from niche to a “worldwide sensation”. Over the last 10 years, there’s been a clear relative increase in Google searches for both climbing and bouldering. With the addition of climbing as an Olympic sport and climbing film Free Solo winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary, it’s clear climbing is experiencing a boom.

  • Google search interest in the term climbing
  • Google search interest in the term bouldering

With the increase in climbers heading to the walls, it’s created an opportunity for newer businesses to flourish and fill new niches, while older businesses have been able to take advantage of the newfound popularity.

Routesetting businesses

One newer business is Impact Routesetting, a joint venture between Ben Norman and Cailean Harker set up in early 2019. Both are professional routesetters and headsetters at climbing walls, Ben at Yonder in London and Cailean at the Red Point group in Bristol and Swindon. Impact Routesetting runs routesetting courses, allowing people to learn how to set and design routes at climbing walls.

“We both saw as we came through the industry, there seems to be this pattern of having to know the right people to get your break. There’s no official pathway or easy way to get training if you’re interested, so that’s where the idea was born. It’s a way for people to get some experience and some knowledge in an environment where they can get a really good level of instruction on the things that are important.”

Between 2017 and 2019, 24 new climbing walls have opened in Britain, meaning routesetters are in increased demand. This increase has allowed Impact Routesetting to be viable.

Ben Norman of Impact Routesetting.

“I don’t know whether we would have been [able to do this five years ago]. It definitely would have been a lot more challenging. The numbers of venues are going through the roof so that’s really helped with the interest. A lot of the people who are routesetting have been doing it for years, the sought after guys and girls have been routesetting for up to 20 years in the UK and there’s not been a real clear new generation of people coming through and we’re trying to fill that gap. 

“Our most popular courses are the introduction course where you don’t need any experience in routesetting at all. A lot of those people are just people who have climbed at the wall, seen the routesetters doing some work in the day and then they climb on the problems they set and they’ve just been tempted to find out a lot more. I’m unsure whether we’d have been able to do it five… probably not 10 years ago.”

The rise of climbing YouTube channels has also affected the way they can market themselves. Back in 2017, the most subscribed climbing YouTube channel was EpicTV, with 272,000 subscribers, and they were the only one with over 100,000 subs. Now eight channels have reached the 100,000 subscriber landmark, with Magnus Midtbø’s channel currently sitting at 756,000.

Cailean Harker of Impact Routesetting.

“For us, our marketing is primarily through Instagram and Facebook through use of the events which seems to be a really good way of reaching people,” says Ben. “For YouTube, we did a routesetting specific video with the Bouldering DabRats and also the Bouldering Bobat guys, we’re planning on picking that up again when things open up a bit.”

Shoe repair businesses

Another company noticing the climbing boom are Feet First Resoles, based in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. They’ve been repairing climbing shoes and walking boots for over 30 years, and owners Nigel Rodgers and Chris Lee say climbing has steadily been getting more popular since the 1980s.

“I think it’s probably over the last twenty five years to be fair,” says Chris. “It started becoming a little bit popular in the 80s and has slowly and steadily grown and in the last few years even more so. I think maybe because it’s become an Olympic discipline now.”

Now their most in-demand service is repairing climbing shoes, more so than walking boots. 

Feet First Resoles repair climbing shoes.

“Climbing shoes have gone way above everything else really, they’ve really taken off,” says Nigel. “It’s very difficult keeping up with the demand. These last three years we’ve seen it go from 0-60, it really has sped up so much.”

Climbing product businesses

Rob Napier has two climbing related businesses, Rob Napier Routesetting and Enigma Climbing Products. He started routesetting around 20 years ago, and now creates volumes for climbing walls through Enigma Climbing Products, too.

“I’ve done volumes on a small scale selling them to walls for probably ten years. In the last three years, with the boom in climbing, the changes that have happened around climbing wall products like volumes and holds meant I wanted to step it up a little bit. I started Enigma to try and professionalise my product a bit and make it something that’s comparable to what’s coming out of Germany at the moment.”

The increase in new walls meant Rob wanted to get more involved in the growing market.

“I think I started to see the boom in climbing happening five years ago but in the last few years it’s gone insanely busy with new walls. With that came massive step ups in quality of holds and volumes that were being produced for climbing walls. I thought I had some good ideas and the market was there and it’d be nice for something to be manufactured in the UK. 

“The boom in indoor climbing, until covid, looked like a sustained thing. I feel now maybe I should’ve started sooner and pre-empted the growth.”

Rob Napier climbing in Norwich.

As well as more walls opening, walls have also seen an increase in customers. More money coming into the walls has allowed them to invest more into their products, causing the production of certain products to become more viable.

“Because of the sheer numbers of people going to walls, the revenue stream has gone up. What manufacturers feel the product is valued at has gone up, due to more time in research and development to create things, more complex moulding, looking at different materials, complex paints and other processes.

“It’s a strange thing, really. Some walls have increased their numbers and bought new holds, made these special climbs with funky and special new holds and volumes, and customers have come to expect that. It’s a path they’ve wandered down that they can’t walk back up, they have to keep getting holds and volumes in and successful walls have just kept doing that. 

Would Rob have been able to make the climbing holds at the scale he currently does 10 years ago?

“No. The increase in users of walls has meant more money is coming into walls, and the numbers have grown that revenue stream and it’s all come round in a big circle. Climbing holds have gone up in price now. It’s been a strange increase in it in the last few years, for sure.”

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