Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The largest outdoor bouldering facility in North America is open for business—and part of a national trend of fusing recreation and public health.
In recent months, intrepid tourists have been reprimanded for trying to scale the Brooklyn Bridge in pursuit of an epic selfie. For the record: You’re not supposed to sneak up and dangle off of the bridge. But there’s no rule against climbing under it. Now, a sprawling outdoor bouldering facility sandwiched beneath the bridge invites visitors to clamber right on up.
The facility, DUMBO Boulders, opened last weekend. It’s a partnership between Brooklyn Bridge Park and The Cliffs, a company that operates two indoor climbing gyms in Long Island City and Westchester. Unlike other forms of climbing, bouldering does away with harnesses and pulleys. After an orientation and safety lesson, you just jump on the wall. “There’s no real learning curve,” says Mike Wolfert, owner of The Cliffs. “You don’t have to learn the ropes.”
The 12-foot-tall wall—the largest outdoor bouldering structure in North America—was fashioned from stainless steel and fiberglass. Wolfert estimates that the wall can accommodate 50 climbers at a time, with as many as 300 waiting below, plotting their moves.
The installation will be a permanent amenity, but a seasonal one, Wolfert says. They plan to close for the season in November, when it’s “too cold to have your fingers in climbing holes.”
In recent years, a number of cities—Detroit, London, St. Petersburg, Florida—have installed exercise spaces in parks and playgrounds to marry recreation with public health. Wolfert says the new wall does the same thing. “You’re engaging all of your major muscle groups,” he says. Climbing’s not just about using your arms to haul yourself skyward. Instead, Wolfert says, “a good climber uses their legs to hold their body close to the wall.” The $9 entry fee is likely cheaper than a yoga class, but Wolfert says it can confer some of the same benefits. “There’s a lot of crossover with the flexibility and stretched positions,” he says.
And as for those tourists tromping around no-access areas searching for dizzying skyscraper views? The wall is flanked by the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges; the Financial District is right across the water. “I don’t think you can get a much better view than that,” Wolfert says. But don’t look so hard that you lose your bearings. “Every time you let go of the wall,” he adds, “you fall and hit the ground.”