Brendan leaned back to stick his hand into his chalk bag, looking down for the next foothold on the wall, and then burst into laughter. The most obvious spot to move next had an arrow painted toward it and a sign saying, “Not a hold.” It was, in fact, a fire alarm.
We were bouldering at Thrillseekers, a rock gym on South Broadway in Denver, and it’s certainly no gleaming, stylish new athletic center. It’s a dimly lit converted theater, with a floor of loose recycled rubber chunks, the padding feeling quite thin in spots. The short walls are nearly texture-less, which makes smearing extra spicy. The holds look like they haven’t been cleaned or moved for years, so it’s a little like climbing at that super popular crag where the holds are so buffed and greased that all the route grades feel sandbagged. It’s dingy. Scrappy. Why do we like places like this?
I think it’s because I fantasize about being the underdog. Don’t we all love watching Rocky running through the rough part of town and doing pullups at the playground? Or pulling a sled through the snow and chopping wood while Soviet golden boy Ivan Drago is in a high-tech gym? I think lots of us like to imagine we’re tough enough that we don’t need all that fancy training equipment. Give us a pull-up bar, a set of stairs, a giant log to do squats with, and we’ll kick their fancy-gym asses any day.
Maybe it started for me as a teenage track and cross country runner. Our small high school didn’t have much money, so the track out back was still the same dirt oval—400 yards instead of meters—that it was when my dad was a student there. Prone to mud puddles, ruts and giant dust clouds, it made us work just a little harder for each lap. I’m sure we griped about it during windy, cold early-season practices, when it seemed to make training even more miserable. But we also thought maybe it was making us a little tougher. And when it came to lining up at the starting line of a big race on a fancy, cushy track, those days on the rough, extra long dirt track felt like a secret weapon in our pocket.
After college, my intro to indoor bouldering came in the dodgy old “rock cave” at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. One of my coworkers on station led me out of the face-searing cold, up the tight wooden staircase to the second floor of the oldest Quonset hut on station. Tucked away upstairs from an old-school weight room was a small, dusty room lined with plywood and covered in plastic holds. Janky, stained twin mattresses were stacked on the floor. Immediately, I was hooked. The cave became a haven—a place to unwind after a long day of work. It was a sad feeling when you got too pumped to keep climbing, because it was such a gross place to sit and chill, you felt strange hanging out there if you weren’t climbing. I think sometimes we would hold on just a little longer on a problem just because we didn’t want to fall into the gross mattresses.
I recently got to climb with some friends at the glamorous brand-new Earth Treks in Golden, Colo. The walls and roofs are architectural works of art, and the restrooms look like something out of a fancy spa—foot baths included. All sorts of climbing-specific training machines fill the weight room and hip new music pumps through the speakers. It all made me feel like a cool kid for a minute. It was awesome. But something inside me missed the character, the scrappy underdog feeling of the dodgy old gyms —the feeling that when you walk in, you just might see Rocky Balboa doing pullups with Mickey yelling at him.