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Trends and Innovations
Rock Holds Get Real
Jay Chapman

Climbing indoors using artificial holds is a relatively new phenomenon. In Europe in the mid-1980s, “people were trying to find new ways to train,” says Matt Stanley, equipment editor for Climbing magazine. Climbers were finding more and more difficult climbing routes and needed to physically prepare before attempting the real thing. “There was a new focus on gymnastic movement and power and endurance,” Stanley says, so people began to fashion climbing holds out of wood, ladder rungs and other everyday objects to train at home.

The new Flowstone holds, made by Metolius, were inspired by the limestone in the Verdon Gorge in France. The holds imitate many limestone features like weathering by dissolution. Image courtesy of Brooke Sandahl, Metolius Climbing.

The invention of artificial holds paved the way for indoor climbing gyms, and by the early 1990s, gyms were ubiquitous in the United States. Vertical World in Seattle was the first indoor facility to open in America and has witnessed the rapid evolution of climbing holds. “Early on, we simply epoxied rocks onto the wall,” says Andy Seaver, director of route setting at Vertical World. “Holds have really come a long way since then.”

First, people started to create artificial holds out of stronger, lighter and more malleable materials, such as polyester resin. Metolius Climbing in Bend, Ore., was the first American company to produce holds and, like many startup companies, grew out of someone’s garage. “Originally we were just looking for something we could train on in the winter,” says Brooke Sandahl, vice president of Metolius. “We wanted something to bring indoors to lengthen the climbing season.”

Although the first synthetic holds were simply geometric shapes, they quickly evolved to imitate shapes and holds found in nature. “In the last two to three years, holds really began to start looking and feeling like rock,” Seaver says. The fundamental shape of a hold is somewhat limited by the mobility of the human hand; however, the appearance, texture and thematic variations are limitless. “Limestone, granite and sandstone are most commonly associated with hand holds,” Stanley says, “and to a lesser extent basalt and conglomerate.”

Different types of rocks weather and fracture in distinct ways, and climbers often prefer one rock type over another because of the type of climbing it provides. For example, limestone is usually very blocky with more of a 3-D surface, Stanley says. “Things project out and there are more pockets and cavities to climb on.” In contrast, granite frequently has a smoother, more 2-D surface with flakes and vertical jointing, he says.

Seaver says that companies have begun marketing holds that imitate rocks from a specific area or region. After a quick flip through his catalog, he rattles off a series of product names, including Tokyo sandstone, Denver granite and tropical limestone (meant to imitate the limestone towers in Southeast Asia). “I’ve even seen sets of holds that simulate a famous climb,” Seaver says, “where each hold is molded to the exact specifications of that climb.”

Sandahl, who has a background in geology, says that many of Metolius’ products were inspired by specific locations. “I’ll be out hiking in the flood basalts,” he says, “and find an interesting form and bring a sample back to the shop.” One of the newest series of holds, called Flowstone, is modeled after the Verdon Gorge in France. The holds are based on the drip features and specific type of solution weathering present in the gorge, Sandahl says.

It is not just holds that are imitating specific locations. Entre Prises USA produces an entire rock climbing wall that imitates the Verdon Gorge. “We get lots of people who want a rock to fit a specific locale,” says Adam Koberna, the company’s director of marketing and sales. “We’ll even paint the wall on-site to match the natural colors.” Koberna’s company has created many famous climbing walls, including a wall at Niagara Falls State Park, which simulates the limestone and dolostone in the Niagara Gorge, and a wall at the Timberland headquarters in Stratham, N.H., that looks like the Old Man of the Mountain, before it crumbled in 2003 (see Geotimes, June 2004).

As the gap between artificial and real rock closes, geologists and rock climbers are uncovering some mutual interests. Sandahl says that he was drawn to geology by an interest in rocks, landforms and morphology, and he now uses that experience in the production of climbing holds.

Seaver adds that some climbers begin to absorb the geologic information of a region. “Climbers who climb a lot in an area began to get a feel for the rock,” he says. “They know what sort of features they can expect on a climb and start to understand how it weathers and fractures.”

With a better understanding of geology, companies are designing products just as good as real climbs — if not better. Koberna says that one of the unique advantages of artificial rock walls is the ability to create great routes that might never occur naturally. “In most climbs, there are only 15 to 20 feet of the really good stuff,” he says. “We’re trying to extend that for the entire wall.”

Climbing holds also seek to improve on real rock. “We try to remove any sharp, painful edges from our holds,” Sandahl says. Except for a few products which imitate rough textures like granite, he says that most holds are made to be comfortable to hold on to. If the texture is too rough, Sandahl says, some rocks can rub your fingers raw and rip off the skin.

“I’m hesitant to say it,” Koberna says, “but in some ways we’re trying to improve on Mother Nature.”

Chapman is a Geotimes contributing writer based in Virginia Beach, Va.

"Revisiting the Fall of the Old Man of the Mountain," Geotimes, June 2004

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