Kevin Jorgeson spent the better part of a month swaddled in Gore-Tex in a tent suspended twelve hundred feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, eating dry salami sandwiches and bathing with baby wipes. It’s no wonder, then, that he didn’t own a suit until recently. But on a cold night in late January, two weeks after completing his historic nineteen-day ascent up the sheer rock face of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, Jorgeson was ensconced in the cluttered back room of the Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym, discussing the finer points of men’s tailoring. “I’m thirty and I didn’t own a suit until last night,” he said, grinning. “I’m gonna rock that shit.” The suit in question—a blue Ralph Lauren number from Barneys—was a sign of how much Jorgeson’s life had changed since he and his partner, Tommy Caldwell, completed perhaps the most difficult climb in the world. It was a coming-of-age moment for the sport of climbing as well, and many in the outdoor industry are hoping that the pair’s feat proves to be the moment the sport breaks out of its crunchy bubble and into the broader consciousness. The Dawn Wall project, after all, had been a national sensation, with interactive graphics tracking Jorgeson and Caldwell’s progress and Anderson Cooper inquiring about the particulars of their mountainside bathroom routine on live television.
Once the province of adventurers living out of their cars, climbing has experienced something of a transformation in the past few years. Gyms with rock walls, formerly clustered in places like Boulder, the Bay Area, and the Seattle region, have proliferated nationwide. Climbing has turned into the new squash or tennis for a certain young professional set, projecting an air of health-conscious cool less frenetic than Crossfit and grittier than SoulCycle.
A recent study by the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that this urban demographic now accounts for thirty-three per cent of spending in the outdoor market, even if many in that number have yet to venture onto a real rock face. (The O.I.A. tracks sales trends in apparel and equipment for activities that run the gamut from trail running to indoor climbing, though does not make the break-out numbers for individual markets public.) By way of comparison, what the study calls “outdoor natives”—people who wear Tevas year-round, for example, or go on jaunts to Annapurna—make up only seventeen per cent of spending on gear and clothing. Which means there’s plenty of money to be made from climbing’s drift into the mainstream.