Expert Interview Series: Daniel Poggi of Climb Base5 About Indoor Climbing, One of the Fitness Industry Trends That's Attracting "Upwardly-Mobile" Athletes

By Aaron Eisberg

Daniel Poggi is a longstanding member of the Vancouver climbing community and the owner of Climb Base5, which is dedicated to creating community through social and physical interactions. We had a chance to speak with Daniel about indoor climbing and learn how gyms and fitness centers can successfully integrate this activity into their facility.

Tell us a little about yourself. Why did you decide to operate an indoor climbing gym?

I was introduced to climbing through a high school friend.  This would be the beginning of a great journey that continues today.  Climbing became an instant obsession. All of my time was devoted to developing myself both mentally and physically.  The challenge of climbing rock faces at my limit physically and yet remaining mentally composed was extremely challenging and scary.  The reward of success was exhilarating.  

By 2002 when I opened my first gym, I was able to attribute climbing to pretty much everything I had.  It consisted of my livelihood, my wife and first child, and my association with an awesome community whom I regarded as my group of close friends.  It was the start of my vision of giving back to the community that had provided so much for me.  I wanted to create an inspiring space to help grow the community.  Climbing was my passion, and it was clear to me this was my next challenge.

Why has indoor climbing become so popular in recent years?

Climbing has become increasingly more popular because of social media and the accessibility to the activity.  Social media gives climbers the opportunity to share what it means for them.  Often, that message is about personal growth, fitness, and community.  These are topics that resonate strongly with this generation and they want to be a part of it.  Climbing still has an element of danger associated with it, and because of that it may always be considered a fringe or extreme sport; but climbing gyms provide the experience in a controlled environment for the mainstream to enjoy.  And larger facilities will often have a social calendar to help promote and develop a community in a relaxed, fun, and inclusive environment - which in my opinion plays a large role in the development of the activity.

To what extent is indoor climbing a "bad weather only" activity? Do many of your climbers stay away when the weather is nice outside?

Indoor climbing was traditionally created for training in the offseason.  Climbers could maintain a sport-specific fitness program when the rock was wet or frozen without having to travel to warmer destinations for extended periods of time.  Now, the community is very diverse and has varying objectives and goals.  There is a growing group of climbers that do not have aspirations to climb or boulder outdoors.  This group has limited time due to family/work obligations that don't facilitate climbing outdoors.  With this limited time, the gym provides a great social and athletic experience.  In contrast, the climbers' goals are aligned specifically with what the climbing gym has to offer and require a full-service facility to meet their specific needs which the outdoors cannot provide.  

How labor intensive is it to operate an indoor climbing gym? Do you always need paid belayers working with guests, or is that the responsibility of the climbers?

Operating a climbing gym is surprisingly labor intensive. There are many moving parts, and the organization required to make it work seamlessly requires great staff and a great leader.  Our focus is to develop and support our community, and our operations reflect that. Our belay instructors make up only one small division of our total operations.  Due to the element of heights in climbing and safety being our primary concern, our belay staff offers beginners a guided experience.  We have a strong focus on integrating new climbers and helping them to become self-sufficient and develop their own experiences, and our programming reflects that goal.  To develop a community, one needs to look at what those needs are.  To achieve that, we have to continuously tweak our operations and programming to meet the needs of our always-evolving community.  And our community consists of beginners and elite athletes in all age ranges.  It's complicated to balance the needs of all our community

If someone were to say to you, "I've mastered indoor rock climbing, so now I'm ready to climb a real mountain!" how would you respond?

All forms of climbing are unique and require a specialized skill set.  Some skills are transferable, but the skills that ensure safety are often not the same or not required for an indoor application.  For outdoor applications,  there will be added elements required to learn to climb safely outside.  There is never a substitute for instruction from a certified professional guide (like one from the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides).  These individuals are professionals trained to teach all required elements of safety in climbing applications.  The consequences of making an error outside are unforgiving. Don't risk it!

Tell us about your gym's Open Performance Team. What kind of specialized training do you give these individuals?

Our Open Performance Team is comprised of a select group of 10 men and women that are ambassadors of the sport and who train to compete at the highest levels in the discipline of the sport of climbing and bouldering locally, provincially, nationally and internationally.  Our head coach Andrew Wilson and assistant coach and physiotherapist Len Chong have masterfully developed a cohesive and supportive environment for these athletes to develop themselves physically and mentally.  Andrew and Len have broken down key elements that contribute to an athlete's potential.  

With climbing introduced into the Olympics, the level of competition has improved dramatically.  All competitors are strong, but unlike many sports that focus primarily on strength or endurance, climbing has an element of risk (not a risk of death, but a risk of failure in competition).  The route-setters (the team of people that attach the holds on the artificial wall) position the holds in such a way to make the progression of the route very insecure.  To the climber/competitor, it can feel like you're going to fall at any moment or the move to the next hold is highly improbable.  There are so many strong competitors today, and often the difference between winning and losing is having the support of your team, which enables the athletes to approach every challenge with complete confidence and support.  It has been the difference for both our adult performance team and junior level competitors, who have taken podiums in every category at nationals this year.  

How has technology impacted the way that competitive climbers train and perform?

One of the innovative ways we have supported our athletes is through specialized monitoring of 10 different variables.  The athletes input data for each variable daily, and Johann Windt (M.Sc, CSCS) compiles the information and provides monthly reviews for each athlete based on research for his Ph.D. thesis.  

What advice would you give to the owner of a fitness center or gym who is thinking about adding a climbing wall to his or her facility?

There are plenty of examples of underutilizing climbing walls in fitness centers and community centers.  They are most often the result of poor programming or a lack of vision and/or expertise.  Start by assessing why you want to provide climbing for your members and ask yourself whether your target market connects with climbing and its core values. 

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