St. Paul, Minn. — It's a decent summer day, but about 15 kids are passing the morning inside a gym on the eastern edge of St. Paul. The kids are attending a week-long climbing day camp at Vertical Endeavors, the only gym solely dedicated to climbing in the Twin Cities. They scale a variety of man-made walls dotted with oddly shaped hand and foot holds. The campers clearly love the challenge.
"It's kind of unusual," says Laura Cook, 11. "And you kind of get to trust people more, because they're holding you up and stuff."
Pat Mackin, who is head of instruction and risk management at Vertical Endeavors, says the sport pushes kids to set personal goals and then achieve them.
"Climbing is an awesome problem-solver for kids, because it's really a balance of a mental and physical game," says Mackin.
Most of the young climbers at Vertical Endeavors have never climbed outside. Mackin says with a little extra training, the campers could take their skills to climbing hot spots nearby at Taylors Falls and Red Wing, but not many will.
Mackin helped open the gym in the early 1990s for other outdoor climbers, like himself, who needed a place to train in the winter. He's been amazed by the indoor-only trend,
"There's a whole subculture of climbers that just aren't interested in outdoor climbing," he says.
Nearly 5 percent of Minnesotans climb on artificial walls each year, according to a 2002 study by the Outdoor Industry Association. The state ranks an eyebrow-raising fifth in the nation for participation in indoor climbing. Minnesota has even more indoor enthusiasts per capita than the climbing havens of Colorado and California.
Stephen Regenold is only 26, but he belongs to an older guard of Midwest climbing enthusiasts. He picked up the sport a decade ago, learning the basics on rock outside his hometown of Winona. Regenold published the Midwest's only climbing journal for four years, but gave up the labor of love in 2002. He says rock climbing has changed dramatically since he started in the sport.
"A lot of people today are introduced to the sport via an indoor setting," Regenold says. "Maybe 10 and for sure 20 years ago, everyone needed to start outdoors on a cliff. Now you can go to Vertical Endeavors gym and be climbing in 10 minutes."
The state's long winters and active population help explain why the indoor version of the sport has thrived here. Regenold says indoor climbing really started taking off about five years ago, and he still marvels at the sport's migration inside.
"This buddy of mine -- you can see he's in shape, and I'm sure he's a pretty good climber," Regenold says. "But he's never touched real rock. His whole climbing existence has been pulling on plastic holds in his friend's basement or in climbing gyms."
While Minnesota isn't likely to sprout any new natural rock, the options for indoor climbers are continually expanding. Vertical Endeavors' CEO Nate Postma is currently doubling the size of his St. Paul gym, and he doesn't predict a slowdown anytime soon.
"There's a lot of indoor climbing walls, you know at REI and Galyans," he says. "Several universities, high schools and middle schools have walls. They're all over the place."
Fitness gyms are catching up with the trend, too. At least three clubs in town have built climbing walls for their members. Postma also says the sport's concentration indoors has even fueled a competition circuit that's popular with young climbers across the country. He has recruited about 100 kids for the Vertical Endeavors' climbing team.
"The climbing team here has grown 300 percent in the last few years," Postma says. "It seems to be a really fun and popular segment of the sport, that I think ultimately will help feed the growth of the sport."
Postma says we're still a few years out from the days when high schools and colleges have indoor climbing teams competing alongside soccer, baseball and other more traditional sports. But he doesn't rule out the possibility.
If that does happen, count 11-year-old day camper David Berman in.
"It's very difficult," he says, in a matter-of-fact tone, "but once you get the hang of it, which I haven't yet, it's going to be pretty easy probably."
Berman quickly munches an energy bar and then heads back to the wall.