Florida is known for its tropical beaches, temperate climate, and swampy, flat landscape. It should also be recognized for its growing climbing scene. In the past few years, climbing in Florida has gone from a fringe activity, to a full-blown scene, producing great competition crushers, alpinists, and a dedicated, passionate group of climbers who are as hard and experienced as anyone who grew up near the mountains. What makes climbers from Florida remarkably unique is that with the lack of mountains and cliffs, they are forced to travel farther and dedicate themselves to the sport. This is a look at the Florida climbing culture.
It’s Friday night at X-Treme Rock Gym in Miami, and the floor is bustling with energy. The jangle of rattling draws emanates from the lead wall. Grunts and hollers are heard on the boulder wall, as fine grain powder explodes into the air and the top ropes are all occupied. The regulars are all here, not only coming for the climbing, but here for the community spirit, each one bringing back stories of a recent trip to Kentucky and West Virginia, or a recent excursion out to Boulder. Although they don’t get to see the cliffs every weekend, sometimes for months at a time, these climbers are frequently competing and feel as natural and controlled as one from any other state.
The Florida climbing scene is almost entirely a gym culture, but one that has bonded tightly together. Ask a climber from Miami if they know the scene in Tallahassee, and they share tight bonds with the people, the gym, and even the routes. If one gym falls under hard times, Florida climbers will band together to keep it going. Every Florida climber knows their geographical limitations, and they understand what it takes to keep others inspired and continuing to advance the sport.
Climbing in Florida is relatively young. The first gym, Vertical Ventures in Tampa, opened in 1995, and by the time that Aiguille Rock Climbing Center in Orlando had opened three years later, seven more gyms across the state had been established. Initially, climbing was seen as an alternative gym activity, a way to avoid typical gyms and weights to pursue a dynamic and novel activity. But over time, groups of regulars began to develop, and gyms started offering programs that pushed exploring the outdoors. Florida climbers were heading to crush at Horse Pens 40 in Alabama and Hueco Tanks in Texas. They were well trained and experienced. With the help of the Southeast Climbers Coalition, Florida climbers were given a voice, and the gyms started hosting events and competitions.
Ultimately, one of the proudest moments for Florida climbing came in 2014, when Kynan Waggoner, who had been the head route-setter at X-Treme, was elected the CEO of USA Climbing, the main body of competition climbing. It was a victory for the advancement of Florida climbing and a benchmark for how far it had come.
There’s a bright future for climbing in Florida. While the landscape may never change, those who are consistently dedicating themselves to the sport can no longer be seen as outsiders or a fringe element to the sport. From the flatlands they are advancing and bringing climbing into the mainstream, not being the ones who are running the show. If you’re a climber in Florida, then this is the moment to be proud.