Feature Article - March 2002
Find a printable version here

Boulder Dash

Climbing Wall facilities race for the next level

By Stacy St. Clair

Climbing in cornfield country

Year-round business, however, does not mean every climbing gym needs to become a full-service fitness center. Sometimes, offering a unique climbing opportunity is enough to keep patrons coming back. When Chris and Pam Schmick borrowed money to start their own facility in 1994, they purchased a small climbing gym that had been converted from an old racquetball court in Peru, Illinois.

Photo Courtesy of Upper Limits Rock Gym & Pro Shop
Upper Limits in Bloomington, Ill.,
offers an ice climbing wall that
was once a silo.

A few years later, they began looking for a new facility. When they came across an abandoned silo in Bloomington, they knew they had found the perfect space. With a 100-page proposal in hand, they began lobbying local banks for a loan. Most lenders rejected their applications, believing pancake-flat Bloomington was unfit for indoor climbing and the Schmicks were certifiably insane.

Chris Schmick quit his job as a boilermaker and began gutting the grain-storage facility, which has been vacant for nearly 15 years. It took three months alone to clean out the tons of rotten soybeans and scrap metal. After that, he spent another three months constructing walls and drilling thousands of holes into concrete.

The couple held the grand opening of their silo-turned-climbing gym in September 1995. The building alone was a testament to creative use of space, but the Schmicks had a few daring visions left in them. Three months after Upper Limits debut, Chris Schmick tried a little experiment with the facility's sprinkler system.

He created a waterfall, which dropped 65-feet down a silo's wall. The water froze in Illinois' frigid winter, making the country's first man-made ice wall.

The Schmicks never anticipated the attention the ice wall would attract. The local newspaper wrote about the gym, and the Associated Press picked up story. Other media outlets soon followed, with the Chicago Tribune, Paul Harvey, The National Examiner, "CBS This Morning" and "Good Morning America" all doing features on the gym.

The media clamor also led to mentions in Sports Illustrated, Shape and Fitness magazines. It also caught the eyes of the Discovery and Travel channels, both of which named Upper Limit's the No. 1 climbing gym in the world.

The ice wall, however, is an extremely labor-intensive project, given it depends wholly upon the weather and can melt without notice. Still, the expense is made up in repeat business and curious newcomers.

"It's been a definite benefit," says Upper Limits manager Shawn Watson. "It brings in a lot of people out and has given us a lot of attention."

The attention continues to fill the gym with climbers from neighboring states. The gym's best business come from Chicago, where climbing enthusiasts regularly make the three-hour trek from the Windy City to the cornfields of Bloomington.

The gym's popularity allowed the Schmicks to open a second gym in St. Louis, meeting what they believed to be an overwhelming need in the area. The facility opened in February 2001, though their lease and northeast Missouri's warmer climate prevented them from crafting an ice wall.

The eight-year journey from a converted racquetball court to the world's No. 1 gym have been a testament to what creativity—and few bank loans—can do.

"We don't do have to do a lot of advertising," Watson says. "It's all word of mouth for us."