A climb with a view: trying hard on steep terrain at Vital Brooklyn © VÉRONIQUE VANDEGANS

For the love of climbing
Afraid of heights? Quite the opposite! More and more New Yorkers are finding joy in scrambling upwards in the city’s numerous climbing gyms
1 Apr 2024

You’ve probably seen at least one of them while on the move in the city; a large space filled with brightly-colored plastic, thick mats and (in the evenings at least) big crowds. Climbing gyms have multiplied recently in New York and I am one of their many addicts.

I started climbing in 2019 when a couple of friends took me with them for a toprope session (where the climber is tied to another person who stays on the ground for safety and the rope is anchored at the top of a tall wall). I fell in love immediately. Four and a half years and countless bruises later, my passion for the sport is as strong as ever.

If you have been tempted to give climbing a try, go for it, but beware, you may become rapidly hooked! Unlike with other sports, the learning curve in climbing is quite forgiving. It is an instinctual way to move, after all. You don’t really need to be taught anything at first. 

Our ancient ancestors did it all the time! The reward is instantaneous, you feel it hit as soon as you get to the top of your very first beginner climb. Your forearms will burn the following day (it’s not just you, practically no other activity engages these muscles that way) but you will quickly become stronger and understand how to move efficiently up the wall.

If heights scare you, you can choose bouldering instead of rope-climbing, as the walls are not as tall (about 12-15ft high). The moves in bouldering are a bit more acrobatic in nature and a big part of the challenge also lies in figuring out the sequence (or ‘beta’) that will allow you to complete a climb. Fun fact: in the US, bouldering as a stand-alone practice was developed by a mathematician, John Gill, and climbs are called ‘problems’. Gill’s biographer, for his part, called bouldering “the poetry of mountaineering,” which I really like!

Climbing is easy to fit into your schedule. Many gyms are open from 6am to 11pm, and you do not need to sign up in advance or go with someone. Even if you do prefer rope-climbing, most gyms have a section with auto-belays (a system akin to safety belts) that let climbers practice by themselves. It is definitely fun to go with friends though or chat with the people there. As a shy person, I love that the climbing gym is a place where I find it easy to come out of my shell and start a conversation. I may comment on a hard move, cheer others on, complain about my latest aches and pains… On other days though, I will spend two hours in my own bubble, paying attention to the myriad nuances of movement and thoughts, in a perfect state of moving meditation. If, like me, you find yourself thinking about your to-do list in the middle of yoga, believe me: none of that comes into your head when you put a few feet of air between you and the ground. All your worries will fade away, replaced by giddy exhaustion.

Ready to try it for yourself? Grab a comfy outfit (you can rent the shoes and the harness) and head out to the gym! I have tried only about half the places that exist in the city, but here are a few recommendations:

Movement in LIC or Gowanus (formerly known as The Cliffs): This place is especially great for rope-climbing. You can start on the auto-belay, then learn with friends or an instructor how to belay another climber on toprope – that is, to be the person on the ground acting as counterweight. If you like big walls, I bet you will eventually sign up for a class to learn lead climbing, where the rope is not set up at the top of the wall but clipped by the climber in metal loops called quickdraws as she or he progresses upwards. Thrilling! Movement also has a Harlem location that I have yet to visit.

Vital Brooklyn: Big beautiful space for bouldering – especially, when the weather is good on their rooftop, which boasts views of the Manhattan skyline. One for visiting with friends and bringing out-of-towners.

Vital Harlem and Upper East Side: Again, a visit to both of these is long overdue, but friends love these bouldering locations and say that they are way quieter than the famous Brooklyn one and with more of an old-school style of climbs.

GP81: Keep an eye out for their re-opening in 2024. This is the only independent gym in New York City. In a field where competition is getting fierce, a small team of passionate climbers have run their own business in Greenpoint for five and a half years before the building got sold and torn down last year. But they have found a new location and will be back on the scene soon!

Central Park: Want to graduate from plastic to real rocks? It is legal to practice bouldering in the park. You will need a buddy to spot you, a crash-pad (a portable mat to cushion your falls), a guidebook or app to find the rocks and the routes and you are good to go. Just be patient – even the easier climbs there are quite challenging – and careful – you are no longer in a controlled environment. A little bit scarier, for sure, but the excitement is all the greater… and will open the doors to an even bigger universe: one of breath-taking beauty and never-ending travel dreams. Welcome to the fold! 

* Louise Szymoniak is an interpreter at UNHQ
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