Artificial climbing walls will never replace the real thing in the hearts of climbers. Nevertheless, many of the world’s artificial climbing walls are dazzling spectacles of ingenuity and engineering. Here are five of the world’s coolest.
Where: Reno, NV
What: The World’s Tallest Artificial Rock Wall
Of course the world’s tallest artificial rock wall is in Reno, that ersatz oasis of sin. Engulfing one entire side of the CommRow building in downtown Reno, Basecamp’s outdoor wall is 164 feet tall. From the top, you’ll have a unique perspective on one of America’s most unique city’s — you’ll be 200 feet above city’s world famous Welcome to Reno sign.
Inside, Basecamp also has 7,000 square feet of bouldering space.
Where: Kinlochleven, Scotland
What: The World’s Biggest Indoor Ice Climbing Wall
Rock climbing is easy to simulate in a gym. Ice climbing — using the sharp ends of ice tools and crampons to ascend walls of ice — is more difficult. Plastic can’t withstand hacks from sharpened axes.
Ice is difficult to simulate, which is why gyms like Ice Factor in Scotland use the real thing. Over 50 tons of ice and snow are used to construct their walls, which are kept cold with a cooling system running inside of them. Route setters mold the shape of the snow and ice to create routes of varying difficulty.
Masters Series I Psicobloc Wall
Where: Bilboa, Spain
What: Artificial Deep Water Solo Wall
Deep water soloing — the act of climbing above deep bodies of water to protect yourself from falling — is becoming increasingly popular. In 2010, the world’s first deep water solo competition, won by Chris Sharma, was held in Spain. A 50 foot tall wall was constructed over the Bilboa Estuary, into which the contestants fell if they could not climb the entire wall.
The wall was dismantled after the competition ended, but the idea of a permanent deep water solo wall continues to percolate through the climbing community. Whoever can figure out the logistics and liability issues of housing a pool inside a rock gym will attract all sorts of climbers, including this writer.
Where: Edmond, OK
What: Free Solo Rock Climbing Wall
Holdistic had the novel idea of simulating the thrill of free solo rock climbing in the safe environment of a gym. Climbers would ascend as high as they could on an overhanging 30 foot wall, and safely fall into a foam pit below if they got tired. No ropes needed.
Unfortunately, Holdistic appears to be closed now.
The University of Washington Rock
Where: Seattle, WA
What: One of the First Artificial Outdoor Walls
Unlike the other walls on this list, the Rock, as its popularly called, was NOT created to make money. The University of Washington administration created it to forestall crime.
In the 1970′s, about when climbing began its first massive surge in popularity, the outlaw ethos of climbing intersected with the counter-culture. The new climbing bums didn’t care about traditional societal bounds or authority, like the university administration. In Seattle, these people treated the buildings on the University of Washington’s campus like a climber training ground. They even wrote a guide to climbing the buildings on campus (which you can check out at the UW library.)
The university administration was fed up with these climbers, so they built a concrete escarpment for them to climb instead. Real rocks were placed into its five different walls, providing holds for climbers, in a structure that looks like an abstract sculpture. Climbers continue to flock to the Rock, as it is particularly well regarded as a place to hone crack climbing technique.