Boulder Dash

Climbing Wall facilities race for the next level

By Stacy St. Clair


Seven months ago, the Professional Climbers Association of America did the unthinkable: It charged spectators to watch an indoor climbing competition.

The move sent shockwaves through the sport, which until that time had never dared to ask fans to pay like spectators at other pro events do.

In the weeks prior to the competition, climbing enthusiasts were convinced few people would show. Some predicted the contest would be the first, and possibly last, event with an admittance fee.

The real shock, however, came the day of the first contest.

The fans paid the fee without blinking—no complaints, no rolled eyes nor heavy sighs. In fact, the debut event sold out, leaving the roughly 100 people without tickets to peer through the host gym's front windows. The next competition, which like the inaugural event boasted a $20,000 purse, attracted fewer people but still surpassed expectations.

The attendance trumpeted a clear message: Indoor climbing has hit the mainstream. It can no longer be dismissed as a daredevil's pastime or hidden in cold, damp warehouses.

"It has been an interesting year," says Marc Russo, editor of ClimbX Media, an online magazine dedicated to the sport. "The competitions were both big successes. It shows how popular the sport has become."

Climbing experts believe the professional circuit's success is the result of what they call a "trickle-up effect." Unlike sports such as basketball and figure skating where the pro athletes' fame and charisma filter down to the lowest amateur levels, indoor climbing's popularity was built from the ground up. The recreational climbers' passion for the sport has grown so much in the past decade, the creation of a professional circuit—complete with big purses and paid attendance—was a natural evolution.

"It's just pushed its way up," Russo says.

The sport was elevated on the shoulders of the 650,000 Americans who consider themselves technical climbers, according to the Climbing Wall Industry Association. The pastime has become so popular there are now more than 375 indoor facilities nationwide and at least one gym in every state.

Popularity, however, comes at a cost. As the sport becomes more common, so do its athletes. And the newcomers have high expectations, both literally and figuratively.

Sticking a giant wall in a dingy warehouse will not satisfy the masses. Even the novices are expecting their climbing gyms to be as hip and offbeat as the sport.

"The warehouse is the rock gym of the '90s," says Jay Powers, co-owner of The Front climbing gym in Salt Lake City. "It has gone its course."

Sport or religion?
Once the Deutsche Evangelical Reform Church,
Urban Krag gym is now a sanctuary for climbers
in Dayton, Ohio.

Opening a climbing gym of the 21st century, however, is no easy task. It requires a lot of money and even more creativity.

When Karl Williamson started scouting locations for his climbing gym in Dayton, Ohio, five years ago, the pickings appeared slim. Conventional wisdom suggested he look at warehouse space in unattractive areas of town. The thought made him shutter.

"I couldn't see myself putting up one in an industrial park," he says. "I thought it was too blah."

Then Williamson saw the 140-year-old Deutsche Evangelical Reform Church while taking a walk in Dayton's Oregon District, a historical neighborhood known for its trendy stores, restaurants and homes. Most of the abandoned churches in the neighborhood had been converted into condominiums, but potential developers believed the Deutsche Evangelical to be beyond salvation.

The building, which had been vacant for 20 years, had no utilities and was a month away from the wrecking ball. But where others saw decay, Williamson spotted potential. When naysayers cringed at the huge holes in the floors and ceiling, Williamson envisioned an 8,000-square-foot wall of textured and sculpted vertical terrain.

With the proper renovation, he believed it could become a climbers' sanctuary. It would be a placed that not only stimulated climbers physically, but aesthetically and, perhaps, spiritually too.

Urban Krag gym in Dayton, Ohio.

Such crusades, however, come at a steep price. The building's resurrection required a few years, three architects, two engineers and a pair of contractors.

"It was pretty much just a giant check," Williamson says. "It was expensive to save a building."

The result is a magnificent facility that pays homage to its religious roots with wooden arches and restored stained glass windows. Of course, superficial looks alone cannot keep a gym's budget in the black. Williams also sunk money into a superior climbing wall that could meet even the most experienced climber's expectations. The wall, which shoots 56 feet into the facility's vaulted ceiling, has 60 routes ranging from grade 5.4 to an exceedingly difficult 13.

The creativity and money netted the desired results: climbers' awe and repeat business. The facility is so popular that Williamson has plans to build an observation area so people can watch the entire spectacle of climbing at Urban Krag.

"People are pretty amazed when they come inside," Williamson says. "We're not rolling in money. But we're doing OK."

Be cool

The Front climbing gym in Salt Lake City wanted that same jaw-dropping reaction when it opened its doors in November. The owners designed their new facility with aspirations of bringing indoor climbing to the next level. The business partners, who were all raised on East Coast, wanted to bring a hip, metropolitan freshness to the gym. At the same time, they knew a chic atmosphere could not come at the expense of wall quality.

Salt Lake City climbers, considered by many to be the sport's most passionate and knowledgeable athletes, would not frequent a facility that it didn't challenge their skills. In addition, most members are also outdoor climbers accustomed to Utah's breathtaking vistas—an aesthetic obstacle many Rocky Mountain gyms must hurdle.

In order to open their dream facility, the owners decided to find a different location. The gym previously had been housed in warehouse-type building in nearby Sandy, with the climbing wall installed straight across the back wall. It was a bare-bones facility that attracted only die-hard climbers.

The Front climbing gym in Salt Lake City

"That was all fine and dandy," Powers says. "But climbing gyms are a business, and now we have a great one."

After selecting the new location, The Front's owners purchased a top-of-the-line climbing wall made of furniture-grade wood. The decision was an expensive one, but Powers says it gives the gym the unique feel owners desired. A laminate or plywood wall would have given the facility the exact cookie-cutter feel they wanted to avoid.

"We didn't try to make a mountain indoors," Powers says. "We made a sculpture indoors."

The Front owners also bucked convention and installed the wall in a U-shape to encourage spectator viewing and give climbers more room. The design won rave reviews from participants in the two Professional Climbers Associations events held there last year.

"That design has proven to be the smartest thing we ever did," Powers says.

Having met the experienced climber's demands, the owners turned their attention toward potential converts. They provided ample space for bouldering, a newcomer-friendly type of climbing in which participants grasp supports instead of ropes to scale the wall.

Though rope climbers often scoff at bouldering, novices are drawn to it for several reasons. It can be done without a partner and seems less intimidating than rope climbing. Those who boulder also have the thrill of freefalling onto a heavily cushioned area when they slip; rope climbers just hang there.

The nature of bouldering—plummeting to the ground after every mistake—also allows for more socialization at the wall's base.

"With ropes, that's a more serious endeavor," Russo says. "In bouldering when you fall, your friends are there heckling you at the bottom."

While The Front made a great effort to ensure the ultimate climbing experience, the owners also designed the facility to appeal to climbers who don't always feel like climbing. The gym boasts weight and yoga rooms to rival any local fitness center. Dance music pumps through the sound system as it would at any other club.

Their effort has produced a boom in the gym's female membership. Women long have been considered an untapped resource for climbing gyms. For years, gym owners insisted women avoided indoor climbing because it was too risky and required too much strength.

In fact, it was just the opposite. Several studies have found women to be more natural climbers because of their balance and flexibility. They tended to avoid the earliest gyms not out of fear for their safety but more out of disdain for the location.

"It's difficult to get women into a warehouse," Powers says. "They just don't want to be there."

Warehouse-haters, however, have embraced the Front's trendy décor and ample natural light. Those who don't climb often join to take yoga lessons while their husbands boulder.

"We can compete against any of the 24-hour fitness centers," Powers says.

The Front's diverse programming is an example of how climbing gyms must adapt in the 21st century, experts say.

"The gyms are trying to make it so you want to be there even when you're not climbing," Russo says. "No more day passes. You want to have their business year-round."

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."

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