I’d never joined a climbing gym. Yes, you could get a great workout there in a couple of hours, but that’s what it felt like—a workout. And grabbing plastic holds while rap music blared from the sound system seemed a poor substitute for caressing the quartz conglomerate knobs of the Shawangunks, with birdsong wafting from the pines.

But when Central Rock Gym in Watertown, MA, only 1.8 miles from my house, opened in May 2013, I headed over to check out the newest and largest indoor climbing compound in New England. Before the afternoon was out, I’d signed up for a year’s membership. CRG Watertown, I realized at once, embodied a whole new climbing game. To my surprise, it was enjoyable.

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For the past 20 years, off and on (more off than on), during the dreary Boston months from November through April, I’d hauled myself to the Mount Auburn Club to serve my time on the treadmill, elliptical, and weight machines. There I was surrounded by graybeards and gray ladies, all locked in their hermetic bubbles, pounding out the miles as they read the Wall Street Journal or, earphones in place, stared at Judge Judy or Oprah on the overhead screen. Fun was not in the ether—only the endless, guilty campaign to stay in shape.

I never met an endorphin in the Mount Auburn Club. My encounters with those joyous neural gremlins have been mostly confined to the touch football field and the unclimbed walls of Alaskan mountains. But at CRG Watertown that afternoon in May, I was transfixed by the sight of 8-year-olds whooping with delight as they thrashed their way up their first 5.6 routes. (No kids ever cavorted at the Mount Auburn Club, since liability issues somehow decreed a minimum age of 16.) And when I tied in myself, I forgot about the mandate to exercise the various “muscle groups” equally, as I poured all my energy, just as I had for decades at the Gunks, into figuring out how to get from one shaky stance to the next higher one. “Take!” I chortled at the top of the wall, commanding my belayer to lower me gently to the cushioned floor from which I had set out four minutes earlier.

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What was so different here from the gyms I had dubiously visited during the previous two decades? Start with the light. Most climbing gyms are built in derelict warehouses, which didn’t waste much architectural effort on windows. No matter how cheery the staff in such a place, it’s hard to cut the Stygian gloom of an old red-brick cavern designed to stack auto parts or sacks of fertilizer up to the high ceiling. CRG, on the other hand, built its gym from the ground up. Instead of a boxy square, the building forms an irregular pentagon with a slightly peaked roof. The windows on all five walls are huge, and even in murky December, sunlight floods the place, reminding you that rock climbing, after all, was invented in the outdoors.

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Liberated to shape their structure as they pleased, the CRG designers festooned the interior with freestanding pillars, angles and corners, slabs and overhangs, so that the whole complex has the feel of an outdoor crag, with all its geologic twists and turns. The surfaces of the walls themselves are made of concrete, molded and speckle painted to mimic the rough, wrinkled texture of real rock. (Other gyms go cheapo with plywood.) With 142 separate “stations” from which to hang ropes, CRG never suffers, no matter how thronged, from the overcrowding that often forces indoor climbers to wait in line for their favorite routes. Old-style gyms tended to cater to the hardcore, tossing in a token 5.6 or 5.7 route to appease the novices. But while its 50-foot-high overhanging lead wall, with lines up to 5.14 in difficulty, could challenge an Alex Honnold, CRG Watertown remains thoroughly beginner-friendly. An entire 30-foot-high pillar upstairs is devoted to no fewer than 16 easy routes, rated at 5.5 or 5.6.

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Recently I sat down with Kevin Pickren, general manager of CRG Watertown, to get his take on how the best new gyms have transformed the ambiance of indoor climbing. “Traditional gyms,” he ventured, “tended to be exclusively about climbing, whereas we’re developing a well-rounded fitness center with a focus on climbing. There will always be cliques of climbers who hang out together, but they dominated the older gyms, as they don’t ours.” Indeed, CRG offers a rich menu of yoga, spinning, and Pilates classes, all of them free with membership. “It’s great that kids love our place,” added Pickren, “and yes, we regularly host birthday parties for them. But we’re not trying to be a kids’ gym. We’re trying to push gyms toward a broader audience. We aim at working professionals who are fitness conscious. We get a lot of people who come here for the yoga and end up climbing.”

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To be sure, there’a hardcore side to CRG Watertown. Competitions have attracted such superstars as Daniel Woods and Sasha DiGiulian. Under the tutelage of climbing coach Shane Messer, an elite group of teenagers trains to compete from local to national and even international levels. On my most recent visit, I watched Adrian, a shy boy from central Mexico who had come to Watertown to work with Messer, “on-sight” a V7 boulder problem (a very stiff proposition even for experts) with utter nonchalance. At age 17, Adrian is already the eight-time national champion in his age group in Mexico.

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Yet at the same time, the mood of CRG Watertown remains thoroughly uncliquish, as strangers offer to belay each other, or share the “beta” (”Match feet and go for the sloper!”) on any given route.

“We want to get across the idea that climbing doesn’t have to be scary,” Pickren insisted. “And it’s not as demanding as people think. We’ve had 3-year-olds get up routes here, and 85-year-olds.”

Pickren didn’t need to lay his sales pitch on me. I’m hooked. By climbing two or three times a week at CRG through the winter and spring, I might just be in my best shape in years when our Old Gang congregates next June for our annual outing, to climb in the Colorado Rockies on real rock and spend our tipsy evenings telling old tales and making up new ones. And—who woulda thunk it?—in the meantime, I’m having fun.    

Don't live anywhere near Central Rock Gym? Check out these seven equally impressive alterna-gyms:

Sender One (Santa Ana, CA)
EarthTreks (Rockville, MD and Golden, CO)
Movement Climbing + Fitness (Boulder, CO)
Brooklyn Boulders (Somerville, MA)
Momentum Climbing (Sandy, UT)
Planet Granite (throughout CA and coming soon to Portland, OR)
Stone Summit (Atlanta, GA)

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