Sunday, November 29, 2009


Boulders Climbing Gym
3964 Commercial Ave
Madison, WI 53714-1216
(608) 244-8100

Cost to Climb:
Clip in with harness $16 (without belay certification) $12 day use (without equipment rental and with belay certification), $10 late day use

Equipment Rentals: harness ($4), chalk bag ($4), shoes ($4), belay device ($4) each, or any three for $10.

RATING: Three Chalk Balls out of Five

When I was a kid, roller skating and disco melded together in an unholy alliance. In the late 1970s and early 1980s a teenager, caught in the pointless years between thirteen and driving age, could have an exciting Friday night at the local roller rink. While holding the sweaty hand of a pimply beau, skating to the Bee Gee’s “How Deep Is Your Love?” awkward romances bloomed.

Oh yeah, it was hot stuff.

When I first arrived at Boulders Climbing Gym in Madison, Wisconsin I was reminded of a 1980s roller rink in Fairfield, California. Bold colors and manufactured “street art” graffiti marked the welcome area that included a sales and registration counter, changing area with storage cubbies, restrooms, hold storage and class rooms, manager’s office and equipment sales area.

I emailed the gym last week, describing my project and concerns. I was given very little information in response to my requests, but welcomed all the same. As I prepared for the review, I couldn’t decide whether to bring my own gear or to arrive as one off the streets intrigued with climbing would. I decided on the latter, hoping to offer something to those trying to follow in my footholds.

Despite my “newb” status, I think I can offer a fair review for new and experienced climbers. Though Boulders gym has hosted the largest climbing comp in Wisconsin and hosts local comps regularly, such as the Halloween comp earlier this year (and was still selling t-shirts for both), it has an ambience that affirms a separation of clientele in ways that could limit one’s climbing experience. All the same, on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving it was far busier than I expected it to be, something that could be attributed to both the sport’s popularity as well as the gym’s support of its climbing clientele.

(PHOTO: EFR topping out her second on-sight of the day)


There were climbers of all ages when I was there, ranging in age from about five to seventy. The older clientele wasn’t limited to tie-in climbing, and one ambitious grey-haired old guy spent the hours we were there traversing the entire gym. Music choices were tame, mostly ‘70s rock. Children were well supervised for the most part, though a group of girls were left to clip in together in pairs as a frantic mom tried to keep her eye on those there for a birthday party.

Boulders Gym promotes itself as a parent-and-me climbing gym and a “great place for birthday parties.” It also supports women climbers by offering a women’s climbing club and by featuring area women climbers and supporting their comps.

But there were eight clip-in routes, and the majority of the top-climbs were for those with belay certification. I had all of those routes 'scented within an hour, all but one on-sight. Even with my "newb" status with just three months of climbing under my harness, I grew bored quickly. A boulder in the back of the gym was also reserved for those with belay certification and was stationed near a workout area with free weights, pegboards, fingerboards, and a punching bag.

Route difficulty was labeled labeled clearly, and they seemed designed to encourage climbers more than to frustrate them. There were many bouldering routes and bouldering areas - including a “problem cove” that was a busy center of activity.

For the belay certified, this gym would be a great place to spend an afternoon. As I walked the route areas and inspected the bouldering areas, I thought of my friends back in Boulder and how they would have laid waste to the place (figuratively speaking). It’s that “belay certified” thing that would, in the end, prove to be a fatal flaw in my climbing experience at Boulders, however.

(PHOTO: EFR standing on a penis)


Customer service at the gym was a bit of an oxymoron. Counter staff, despite my references to P’UP and a gym review, failed to answer basic questions. My requests for belay certification – all four of them – were met with doe-eyed stares and a repeating explanation of the auto-belay devices and how to clip into them.

The young woman at the counter took one look at me and immediately began to loosen the harness at all points. She seemed confused, and despite my assurances that I could adjust my own harness, she replied with, “I hope it’s big enough.” I thought of other women my age carrying a bit of extra weight wanting to try climbing, and then wondered if that harness moment alone would scare them off.

The Petzl rental harnesses left a lot to be desired. They did not adjust easily, and tended to cinch up in all the wrong places. My climbing partner for the day, Brad, is very thin. Together we represented the opposing ends of the fitness spectrum, but he too found the harness unreasonably uncomfortable, difficult to adjust, and too short between the waist and legs.

We both struggled with that aspect of the fit – something I don’t have to worry about at my home climbing base at the UNL Rec center. Those harnesses can be adjusted to accommodate larger people. Since the clerk made it clear she was giving me the largest harness they had, it seemed reasonable to assume it couldn’t accommodate even a fit, 225-pound football player, either. The necessary room just wasn’t there, and the strapping was unreasonably narrow.

The gym’s selection in harnesses alone could be limiting its access to possible clientele. Those seeking to explore indoor climbing to assist their fitness and weight loss goals need to buy their own harnesses in advance – something difficult to do without previous climbing experience. I’m classifying this gym as one for those considered at “normal” weight or “slightly overweight.”

The rental chalk bag was a deep IV bag, and too deep as far as I was concerned. Accessing chalk while on the rock required yoga-like stretching and coordination (both of which I have, but that’s not the point). Shallower bags were for sale, but not for rent.

Though the gym’s website and posted policies indicated all I had to do was ask to be belay certified, when I asked I was denied in the typical Midwestern way: with silence or diversion. The clerk seemed to think that clipping in was “my best option,” but each time she said that she would look me up and down. I explained that I had attended a belay certification course in Nebraska, that I climb four days a week, and belay far more experienced climbers than myself. I even reminded her three times that I was writing a review of the facilities.

Unfortunately, she just repeated herself without asking for assistance from the manager or even taking me over to the belay certification area to let me pass (or fail). I found this really interesting as a rhetoric theorist, but really frustrating as a customer. I’m sure that if I had opened a can of E.F.R. rhetorical fury, I could have had my way. However, that isn’t the point, really.

The point: Without belay certification, the climbing experience was limited to the kind a kid could get at a birthday party. Two-thirds of the gym was off-limits to me. The bouldering boulder was for only those with belay certification, as were the more exciting (and interesting to me) top-rope routes.

When I asked the final time for belay certification, I was told that Brad would have to be certified too – even though I didn’t want him to be my belay on top rope. I learned my “new guy belay” lesson last week, and had hoped to meet some Boulders regulars.

(PHOTO: Brad, my future son-in-law, on his first ascent)

All I could do was clip in, climb around, and traverse (though no one explained that option – that I learned from another customer). I wandered around the climbing areas forbidden to me, though, to note the route-setting and difficulty levels.

Overall, their top rope routes were rather short compared to those I’ve seen at the Boulder Rock Club in Boulder, Colo and those at the UNL Rec Center. Ratings were tied closer to holds than to anything else, such as hold distance and moves: The higher the rating, the smaller the holds. However, that isn’t to say routes weren’t challenging.


First of all, the customer service needs work. There weren’t staffers on the floor to assist those with belay certification who came alone. Considering how large the gym is, and how it has many nooks, it seemed reasonable to expect some assistance/observation by staff. Also, the price is a bit steep considering a day-pass at Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul runs a chill $13, just a nickel more than a Stone Age Gym pass in Albuquerque, NM. Though Vertical Endeavors in Warrenville, IL will set you back $15, it makes up for the cost with amenities Boulders Climbing Gym doesn't have, like locker rooms and showers. All three of the cheaper alternatives, by the way, have significantly larger climbing surfaces and square footage.

Within the bouldering area, it seemed that there wasn’t enough space between the wall and the ledge of the entry. If you fell, you had few places to go. Though the climbing arena was outfitted with exceptionally deep foam flooring, even that was problematic at the steps leading to it. The riser distance between the step and the foam floor was taller than expected, and the floor gave a good inch.

(PHOTO: It turns out this is what a left calcaneal fracture looks like)

It was this design flaw that ended my climbing time at the gym. While stepping down from the step to the foam, I fell, and suffered a calcaneal fracture of my left foot. Though I face-planted within sight of the staff, no one came to my assistance or to protect the interest of the gym. I suppose this has something to do with the contract one signs in order to climb, the one that says, “Climbing is inherently dangerous.” That may be true, but steps within the facility should at least be to standard construction code. I find it hilarious that I climbed for nearly two hours without incident, but biffed trying to get a sip of water. I had hoped to traverse so I could get my $16 worth, but in the end just hobbled to the car, grinning.

(PHOTO: Have I mentioned how much I love climbing?)

Just as well, really. I think Christina was bored out of her mind. Don’t get me wrong: Despite “the good, the bad, and the ugly” I had a good day of climbing, probably my best. I reached the top of all but one route (one with a freakin’ crag). I knew the skills I had gained at my home gym were paying off, and I was confident in my climbing. I made the best of it, but there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t feel as though I should have brought my own harness and just give up on the review.

I’d still recommend the Boulders Climbing Gym to anyone with some time to spend in Madison, Wisc., but I wouldn’t make a special trip from out of state to go there. I wouldn’t bother with a trip from Milwaukee, either. There are a couple of gyms in the Milwaukee metro area that can deliver at least what Boulders offers. And hey, Vertical Endeavors in Warrenville (Chicago metro) is just about as close to Milwaukee as Boulders is.

But you know, I’m sure Boulders is a great place to throw a birthday party.


  1. Erica- There's still hope- Check out this video..

  2. Thanks, Eli! I thought I was crazy earlier today, looking down at The Boot of Doom, thinking it could be a wedge ... this video made my day!


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