Climbing has seen an unbelievable evolution and increase in popularity since the iconic days of Wolfgang Gullich or Lynn Hill. Not only have the legends and styles of climbing changed, so has the technology and standards around climbing evolved, most notably Safety Matting. In this article, we will take a quick trip down memory lane and explore the evolution of climbing mats in Part 1. In Part 2, we will discover how ICP is pioneering the future of safe indoor climbing with ICP’s revolutionary new matting System.

A brief history of Climbing Matting

We asked Rob Parer (CEO of ICP), a long time climber and part-time dirtbag, on the evolution of climbing mats:

“So when I was growing up climbing in the early 90’s most outdoor bouldering was supported by a spotter and the occasional bed mattress under any steep crags. By mid 90’s boulder pads were becoming more common but were too expensive for most dirtbag climbers. We would commonly raid the local thrift store in Horsham to find large couch cushions and wrapped them in cheap blue tarps. After a while they would get all busted up and which was not ideal for multiple reasons. I still remember hearing about Metolius coming out with a revolutionary pad that could fold in half but had an angled gutter system making it safer for falling on. At that time this was big news for outdoor boulders.

More importantly was the evolution in commercial matting. Rope walls were pretty quick to adapt and find opportunities from other markets. Starting out with karate matting, vinyl bags stuffed with open cell foam often placed under the starting points of climbs. Quickly matting was upgraded to a more robust and higher performing rubber tile often made from recycled car tyres (commonly known as soft pore). Sadly the matting would have some pitfalls such as its high price point and the inability to support EWP machinery on the rubber for route setting or maintenance. More commonly today we are seeing climbing centres capitalising on closed cell foam’s lightweight properties and its ability to be custom cut on site for a perfect fit.

Bouldering was a lot slower on the uptake and was originally bed mattresses or if you were lucky high jump/gymnastic matting. Many venue operators were reluctant to invest heavily in boulder matting as it use to be a very small portion of their market and cost way too much. However as we have seen climbing evolve and bouldering coming into the limelight so too has the resources and necessity to boost up the performance of impact attenuation systems. Some great examples have been the switch from a soft top mat that causes entrapments of limbs to a firmer top that allows a climber to rotate and pivot when coming in contact with the surface. Other areas of development have been focused on the space between the mat and a boulder wall. Originally a forgotten section of impact it has been evolved and pulled in a variety of ways to reduce entrapment for a climbers limb.

Sadly only a few countries around the world have an actual standard focused on artificial climbing wall matting. Many facilities satisfied with hard flooring surfaces for rope walls and safety fall zones for bouldering are open to interpretation. The countries that have chosen to adopt standards will often look at other countries standards, pull what works and contribute an evolution of ideas to the next generation. This helps create a turn door effect of improvements and development. Next time you are at your local climbing hall pay attention to the hundreds of impacts a single piece of mat takes every day from a person walking, to a controlled fall or an out of control/unintentional fall. Remember it has come a long way from a used mattress.”

Content references:

Image 1: Climbing above old-school tire flooring at a 1999 comp—one of many held at ’90s gyms before the modern gym era—at Philadelphia Rock Gym’s first location in Oaks, Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of Scott Rennak),

Image2: Big Rock Climbing Gym (Image: Jordan T)

Video: Exert from: