Amidst all the talk about climbing hitting the big time is a topic that few are commenting on, namely the environmental impact of the materials we are using and especially absent is the subject of climbing holds, their manufacture and toxicity and their afterlife. With a new gym popping up every week somewhere and the high use-rate of holds in gyms and resultant wear and tear, increasing numbers of holds are going to wind up, well somewhere. As far as I can tell they are not recyclable so, while they are relatively inert once made and hence not terribly damaging to the environment, they are going to start piling up like used tires, albeit thankfully on a much smaller scale. The toxicity of their manufacture is a whole different level of ick, one that the industry is apparently not anxious to discuss.
Furthermore, honestly, I am growing less and less fond of the feel of plastic holds especially over time as once tacky slopers become slippery gray blobs. Even newer holds overemphasize texture with rough, abrasive surfaces that shred hands and fingers and tear through expensive boot rubber. And the trend towards bigger more volume oriented shapes means even more plastic is being produced and eventually discarded. There has to be a better way, especially for home gyms, training walls and system boards.
Back in the day, climbers made climbing walls with wood with very effective results (see also the short film Splinter) and it's great to see more sophisticated versions of wood holds being marketed. Especially high-quality are the products of Tension Climbing, an outfit here in Colorado with the widest assortment and best looking (and feeling) shapes in this format that I have seen. Photos below are from my wall.
Tension founder Ben Spannuth, who is a friend of mine, dropped off a box of holds to try out which I put up on my home wall. The angles on my wall sit around 35-45 degrees which is perfectly suited to these holds. The finish is perfect, sanded smooth but not polished, with a hand that promises comfortable use even on sore skin. The shapes themselves are ideal for serious training, being neither sharp nor irregular and lending themselves to hard moves and dynamic catches. The shapes would translate well to plastic but the texture is the real bonus with a slightly rough dry feel that no plastic surface could hope to emulate.
I really think it's time that the climbing industry seriously consider the widespread adoption of wood holds. It's a no-brainer for home wall builders to adopt wood as the standard. Wood holds have no toxic off-gassing, can be easily sanded or modified with a non-toxic result (i.e. only sawdust) and if they break or wear out, they can be added to the kindling pile or chipped (remember to pop out the washer!) again with no toxicity and 100% biodegradability. They would work very well with volumes, which themselves should be made of simple non-toxic materials, helping to make the recent fad of gargantuan blobs a lot less harmful to the environment.
Naturally this applies to other training holds such as hangboards and campus rungs. Tension makes excellent campus rungs from wood along with balls and pinches as well as nice-looking hangboard options that deserve a look. Molded hangboards abound on Craigslist and no wonder, they are hard on the skin and joints. Wood should be the standard on hangboards for all the environmental reasons above as well the critical element of providing the best surface for effective high-stress training. Nothing equals it.
I highly recommend checking out the website for a preview of Tension Climbing's products and philosophy. Ben and Will Anglin, Tension's other half and head coach at Earth Treks gym in Golden, are high-end climbers in their own right who take the idea of creating superior training equipment very seriously. I guarantee you will find something you like there. If you want to support high-quality, earth-friendly climbing gear, all made in the USA from sustainable materials, go order some holds. When you do, you know you're doing your part to keep one more last-years-style-neon-pink-blob out of a landfill.