The Late, Great Outdoors

Artificial environments bring wilderness sports into the city—but at what cost?

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In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, whitewater kayaking competitors bucked through an artificial channel surging with machine-pumped water, then rode conveyor belts back upstream without ever getting out of their boats. In Chamonix, France, gateway to the Alps and a mountaineering mecca, ice climbers in the 2001 Ice World Cup ascended not nearby peaks but an elaborate ice-covered structure erected in the middle of town.

The artificial outdoors isn’t just for world-class competitors, though. At the $130 million Gotcha Glacier sports complex being built in Anaheim, California, everyone will be able to surf faux waves, climb imitation cliffs, "skydive," ski, snowboard, skateboard—and, of course, shop—under one gigantic roof.

Gotcha may be just the tip of the glacier when it comes to the future of recreation. Increasingly, the great outdoors are being brought indoors or altered considerably to produce more accessible venues for adventure seekers. Indoor climbing walls are sprouting everywhere, artificial whitewater courses are on the drawing boards in dozens of cities, and several "snowdomes" are being built in Europe and the United States.

The phenomenon is generating considerable debate within the outdoor sports world. Some feel that something is lost when the rapids are always just right and the view at the top of the climb is the checkout line. Many of these are conservationists who oppose manipulating or re-creating natural environments. But for the "extreme" sports crowd—whose allies include much of the outdoor gear industry—the more places to play, the better.

Witness a recent exchange between paddlers on an Internet message board. "I am opposed to taking a backhoe and cement truck to the river, to supposedly make it more ‘fun.’ It strikes me as obscene," wrote "dancewater."

But "paddlboy" was unapologetic: "Artificial courses are for convenience, not getting in touch with the flow. We don’t eat at McDonald’s because the burgers taste good. Most ‘natural’ rivers aren’t natural. . . . We paddle what’s wet."

Similar differences exist among rock climbers, says Lloyd Athearn, deputy director of the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colorado. "For some people, climbing is about achieving the greatest level of technical difficulty they can achieve. There are people who climb at just obscene levels of difficulty, and they may not care at all about the scenery," he explains. "Others prefer being out on a remote peak someplace where they’ve bushwhacked 10 miles to get to the base of it. To them the inspiration of the environment is as important as the technical difficulties, if not more so."

Artificial environments have caught on for various reasons, says Professor Alan Ewert, who teaches outdoor leadership at Indiana University. For some participants, they are simply places to train for "real" outdoor experiences. Others are seeking a nontraditional athletic workout in a controlled, safe setting. And a growing number of people are using climbing walls and the like as social gathering spots. Says Athearn: "As the whole climbing gym scene evolved, there ended up being some people who like that environment, and they don’t really climb outside."

Proponents of artificial environments, which are usually in metropolitan areas, say it’s all about access, convenience, and a good time. "This is a fun sport. Why should we have to drive 200 miles to participate?" says Damon Peters, an avid kayaker and owner of L’eau Vive Paddlesports, a kayak accessory distributor based in Portland, Maine.

Backers of artificial environments often point out that they’re helping expose urban dwellers to outdoor recreation. Gotcha Glacier’s marketing and operations chief, Mike Gerard, told the Los Angeles Times he’s performing a service. "It costs money to get to the mountains," he said. "Snowboarding is a sport with huge growth potential. We just need to get it to the people. I want to see kids of all ages and ethnic groups have a chance to do this."

Ewert says it’s not yet clear whether artificial environments are instilling a desire for real wilderness experience in city dwellers. "We hope that’s happening, but we’re not really sure," he says. What is happening, he believes, is that indoor adventurers are being connected with organizations that can take them to the next step, and they may be more likely to develop an environmental consciousness.

And the outdoors may need some help in attracting new enthusiasts. Athearn points to a recent study that attempted to determine why younger people weren’t as interested in wilderness experiences as the previous generation. One teen responded, "If I’m in the mountains, I’m out of cell-phone coverage, and I can’t do that."