America’s First Climbing Gym Turns 30

Man, how old do you feel right now?

Thirty years ago, in a rundown warehouse, the year was 1987 to be exact, on Elliott Ave. in Seattle, two ordinary climbers made history when they decided to glue some chunks of rock onto sheets of plywood. With not much more than a vague concept and a shoestring budget, Richard Johnston and Dan Cauthorn laid the foundation for what is now the indoor climbing gym industry, and opened Vertical World, the first indoor climbing gym in the country.

The local climbing community initially declared that the concept was doomed to fail. The two put together the first gym with 2″ plywood, epoxy paint and literally rocks glued to various surfaces in the warehouse. That first year in business brought in just $68,000.00 — less than what it takes to cover two weeks of payroll in some of the current gyms.

“When we launched in the fall of 1987, it was just Dan Cauthorn and myself running the business. Today we have over 80 employees, with another 15 coming on line with our new gym in Lynnwood, Washington, this summer,” said Rich Johnston.

As is true of many outdoor landmark brands, the founders started with ingenuity, sweat, hope and naivety and little else.

“It is amazing to think that the industry started in such a bootstrap way with us barely getting by with gluing rocks on walls, cleaning the bathrooms every day, scraping enough money to buy another can of paint (every once in a while), and enjoying all the challenges thrown our way, and there were plenty of them,” said Dan Cauthorn.

There are now climbing gyms in every major city, handhold companies throughout the world, wall building companies flourish, mobile walls and gym facilities also make their not-insignificant financial mark in the outdoor industry. To wit, the 2020 summer Tokyo Olympic Games will feature sport climbing for the first time.

Currently Vertical World has two operating locations with a third opening this summer: Seattle, Redmond, and Lynnwood. Their Everett location was recently sold to prepare for a new 100,000 square foot gym in Lynnwood, Tacoma. Today, memberships account for about 60% of the business. The other 40% is from classes, camps, youth programs and fitness.

Community and education are a big part of Vertical World’s mission, and the youth programs and climbing team are essential to the core business. Vertical World has changed lives and created a community of young climbers who embrace climbing as part of their lives. It has affected families by encouraging parents to climb with their kids.

The youth climbing team is an area of special pride. Vertical World’s climbing team has been around for 20 years, dominating the national scene early on. Today the team is still a major force in the USAC system. Recently two team members took 1st and 2nd at the Open Nationals. The team places in the top three at USAC Nationals and team members often take 1st in individual events.

“We have a philosophy that touches on the heritage and history of climbing,” Rich says. “We are not a day care, or amusement park set up. We teach kids the risks and responsibilities of climbing. We educate youth on the importance of how they interface with the environment, out on trail work days and we teach the impact that climbing has on the outdoors.”

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