The Way Climbing's Going
Following the 2015 OutDoor Show in Friedrichschafen, Germany, I've written extensively on the new climbing gear that’s set to be hitting the shelves in 2016. I can talk for longer than is healthy about new climbing ropes, shoes, harnesses, protection and even clothing. But what can all of this new climbing gear tell us about the direction of the sport as a whole?
Minor alterations in cam design may not appear to signify much, but trends in climbing gear represent trends in the climbing world at large. Manufacturers rarely do something just because it's possible, they do it because it will be popular. At the simplest level they make gear that responds to what people are doing and how they're doing it.
So, having looked at all of the latest innovations in climbing gear, what can we conclude about the climbing world at large?
We're moving indoors.
Hold on to your tweed jackets and hobnailed boots. This one has been coming for a little while now but it won't make it any more palatable for the purists; climbing walls are the future. It's not just that they're now the way that most people first access the sport, it's that climbers are now spending a greater proportion of their time at indoor walls and some are never leaving at all. People expect a broader experience fom a climbing wall rather than just somewhere to go and train…and they’re getting it.
The indoor climber is as interested in shoes, chalk and ropes as someone who spends five nights a week at the crag and companies are starting to develop products specifically for this demographic. Even brands with an identity that's completely tied up with the outdoors are having to recognise the importance of this market and the most incongruous image of the week came at the Black Diamond stand where a rep in a 'Black Diamond - Equipment for Alpinists' t-shirt stood manning their 'Indoor to Outdoor' section. While this range of clothing and accessories is ostensibly aimed at the transitioning climber in reality, it's a way of making in-roads with the growing indoor climber market.
Edelrid are another brand to have recognised the potential in this area and their 'topper station' (a lower-off for climbing walls that eliminates many of the problems of other systems), is another perfect example of this new generation of indoor-only climbing products.
We're doing more at home.
When we're not heading out to the climbing wall it seems we're bringing the climbing wall to us. Climbers have been training on fingerboards and home-built woodies in their garages and basements for decades, but increasingly we're bringing more, and bigger, training tools into our homes. At the show I came across several stands offering climbing walls, climbing holds or training boards for use at home. It seems that as the popularity of climbing walls increases people are trying to bring that experience home and climbing wall manufacturers are increasingly selling panelling and holds to the individual consumer.
We're heading online.
As usual at these events, the Zlagboard stand boasted a communal, competition element with a dead-hang challenge on their new product the Zlag Up. While it's not that uncommon for people to use fingerboards communally like this, products like the Zlagboard are ultimately a solo piece of equipment to be used at home by the individual. The community aspect comes not in doing the activity with others but later, online, where you can log your training and share your routines with others.
Training is an inherently measurable activity and so unlike other aspects of climbing it has succumbed easily to the trend for mobile-monitoring. However, you only have to look at the popularity of UKC's Logbook feature or 8a.nu to realise the potential for other climbing apps. Guidebooks for your phone are already on their way and it won't be long until there are apps for even more aspects of climbing.
While many climbers might consider themselves traditional outdoorsmen, untethered by and uninterested in technology, the sport can't resist the march of progress indefinitely and for the next generation an online climbing experience will seem, if anything, more natural.
We're going green.
In a sport where one of the core principles is respect for the environment and in which this attitude is diligently upheld by the community on a local level, it's often easy to forget about the wider impact of climbing. At a colossal trade show with hundreds of brands and thousands of products, that impact is harder to forget. Yes, climbing is a smaller sport than many and arguably it's less wasteful than other 'adventure sports,' but it does produce waste and there is an environmental impact to the equipment we all use.
Edelrid's centre-piece release at this year's trade show was their new Parrot Rope, constructed from leftover yarns produced in the manufacture of their other ropes. While ideas like this have been tried previously, (remember the Mammut Transformer?), the fact that brands are putting their green credentials front and centre means it's something that's important to the community. Let's hope Edelrid's faith in the greener leanings of climbers pays off at the checkout so that we can see more, and better, green products in the future.
So, that's where climbing's headed and if you're anything like me it doesn't all sound like an entirely positive change. Then again, I am a natural cynic and as much as I enjoy prophesising doom, I also know that climbing is more about looking back and remembering our traditions than any other sport I've experienced. Every major change in the climbing world has been greated by people eager to proclaim 'climbing is dead,' but the truth is that the central values of climbing continue to persist through its many iterations. We're just finding new ways to play the same old games with increasingly shiny toys.