Unpopular Opinion: A Canadian Climber’s Disdain for the World’s Best Climbing Gym

Kletterzentrum Innsbruck may be the greatest climbing gym in the world on paper, but you won't find me there anytime soon.

2023 Innsbruck World Cup Semi Final Round with mountains in the background by Tobias Haller IFSC
2023 Innsbruck World Cup Semi Final Round by Tobias Haller IFSC

Widely hailed as the greatest climbing gym in the world, Kletterzentrum Innsbruck (KI), Austria, is, in this athlete's opinion, a letdown.

Having spent a significant amount of time in climbing gyms as a professional climber, I have a keen sense of what makes a gym suitable or unsuitable for my needs. It's unfortunate and admittedly interesting that although KI was supposedly designed with athletes like me in mind, I have no inclination to climb there. Allow me to explain, starting with the facts:

KI was built ground up in 2017 with financing from the city of Innsbruck, the Austrian state of Tyrol, and the federal government's Ministry of Sport. Together, they invested about 12 million euros in the gym's infrastructure, and it's a very nice gym.

It is specially equipped for the Austrian National team's Olympic training and is thus their National Training Center. They have four-speed walls, indoor lead and bouldering areas, and outdoor lead and bouldering areas, which amounts to nearly 550 routes and 200 boulders at any given time. They have 14 top rope stations, six auto belays, a weight room, two campus and hangboard setups, a backfill room, a kid's area, a pro shop, and a restaurant. The gym sees nearly 250 000 visits a year and has over 50 employees.

The outside of Kletterzentrum Innsbruck
The outside of Kletterzentrum Innsbruck

It sounds incredible, and in general, it is incredible. But unfortunately for me, it's not where it counts.

Zach and I spent a lot of time at KI in the summer of 2022 when I was training for lead IFSC World Cups. Their setting team includes multiple  IFSC setters that consistently put up competition-style lead routes, a rarity in the wild.

I'll say this absolutely before we continue: the lead is exceptional here. It's the best in the world.

Everyone is on the same page about this too. You'll invariably run into professional athletes from around the world who have come to Innsbruck to prepare for their events or train in the off-season.

As a high-performance athlete, I appreciate this about KI. It's like the World Cup Circuit never ends. You can watch some of the best athletes in the world train and perform up close. You're on your toes and can't help but try harder when you know a World Champion could be watching you.

Zach and I briefly considered moving to Innsbruck when I had my eyes on the Olympics and was training both boulder and lead, a requirement for the 2024 Olympics. My lead needed more work than my bouldering, so moving to Innsbruck was a perfect plan.

At the time, however, I had this doubt in the back of my mind about KI. The move would undoubtedly take my lead to the next level, but I wasn't a fan of the gym or the bouldering. For how impressive the lead area is, the bouldering certainly doesn't meet the standard. I wouldn't even say I like it. The gym itself is tedious and rule-oriented. The staff are rude. You're never alone.

When I decided to specialize in bouldering, we reevaluated our plan. We still wanted to move to Europe, but KI was no longer the place to go for us boulderers. I hadn't really vocalized my reservations about KI to Zach, but when we took it off the table, it all came flooding out:

"Thank God."

Customer Service

When I buy a day pass at the front desk, my interaction with the staff member always feels rushed, as if there's a huge line behind me, and they're trying to get our interaction over with so they can move on. It makes sense. A lot of the time, there actually is a line. But line or not, our interaction shouldn't feel trivial or on a timer.

The desk staff also like to assume I don't know what I'm doing or have the wrong information. Once, I checked KI's website to see which walls were closed for my visit since they had an event coming up. I needed clarification, so I asked the front desk again when I got there. Immediately frustrated, the staff member told me it was online, handed me a paper with the same information, and didn't answer my question.

There was another instance where Zach didn't see a sign on the wall and was climbing without a shirt. A manager happened to walk by, and instead of saying, "Hey, we have a shirts-on policy here," he informed him of the rule by berating Zach, saying how disgusting he was and how he didn't want to touch him in this state. I can't think of a harsher way to tell someone to wear a shirt. Zach was in a bad mood for the rest of his session, and I can't blame him.

Zach hasn't made eye contact with that manager to date

I could pull out one or two more examples, but you get the picture. Not every interaction I've had with KI staff has been unpleasant, but enough of them have been that I've come to expect it rather than be caught off guard.

Key Cards

I loathe the key card system at KI. At most gyms, your key card checks you in and sometimes opens and closes a locker for you. KI takes it too far.

Everyone gets a key card at KI. Members, day pass users, and even visitors.

To the left of the front desk is a turnstile. You tap the card on either lead or bouldering, depending on which area you're going to, and it'll let you through. It doesn't matter which one you tap into, though, because you can easily walk to the other area once you're in. You also need to tap your card to walk through the gates for the outdoor space.

Here's the catch - you must exit one area before entering another. This has been extremely frustrating in the past when Zach and I tried to get into the outdoor lead area, and while the outdoor turnstile let Zach in, it didn't let me in. When this happens, it's not always obvious why. In this instance, I checked into the bouldering area, then left the building through the bay doors without checking out. I walked over to the lead section and couldn't enter. Zach had to pass me his card through the fence so I could run back to the turnstile to check into bouldering with his card, then check out of bouldering with both of our cards.

Indoor lead area at Kletterzentrum Innsbruck
The Indoor lead area at Kletterzentrum Innsbruck

Things like this always come up with the cards. Sometimes I'll check into bouldering, walk over to do some lead, and thoughtlessly try to check out of lead like a fool. Silly me. You have to remember which area you checked into. It's frustrating that we have to check out at all.

Once, I was so fed up that I crawled under the gate.

I'm not too fond of the key cards.

Getting Around The Gym 

The gym is huge, which is good and bad. On the one side, they have a wide variety of amenities and wall space, but on the other, getting around takes some work.

Due to the volume of customers, KI likes to maintain a specific traffic flow.

Next to the front desk is the turnstile. You check in here and follow the stairs down to the change rooms. On the opposite end is another set of stairs that take you up to the main gym. To the right of the stairs is the bouldering section, straight ahead is the weight room, to the left is the indoor lead room, and if you take another left and head up more stairs, you'll find the spray wall and hangboards.

If you want to get something to eat from the bisto during your session, it's back down the stairs to the changerooms and up the other stairs to the turnstile, where you have to check out with your key card. It's the same workflow if you want to enter the outdoor lead area when you're in the main gym. Down, up, check out, walk over, check-in. The bathroom is inside too. If you're leading outside, that means check out, walk over, check in, down, use the bathroom, up, check out, walk over, check-in.

It's not the most frustrating thing in the world, but it can be tedious to walk through the changerooms to get in and out of the gym instead of simply walking out the door.

In the indoor lead section, you can actually see the exit door and bistro through the glass wall. When you're done with your session, it would be great to open the (locked) door in the glass wall and exit the gym, but instead, you have the traffic flow: down, up, check-out.

National Team Disruptions

This takes the cake for my least favourite thing about KI.

Without adequate or prominent notice, the Austrian team will commandeer certain areas of the gym, most commonly the upstairs backfill and hangboards.

Now, 90% of KI's clients don't use this particular room, so it isn't a big deal for most. As a proud member of that 10%, though, it really sucks.

I rarely climb on a backfill, but I hangboard. I'd go so far as to say 75% of the time I'm at KI, this whole section will be blocked off, and 90% of the time, I have to hangboard. I'll get my chalk and harness, climb the stairs, and discover that chain hanging outside the entrance.