Climbing Gyms and the Power of Plastic

Brock bouldering at Vertical Adventures in Columbus, OH
Brock climbing with a mind of play. Vertical Adventures, Columbus, Ohio.

This weekend I brought my nephew, Brock, to Vertical Adventures, a climbing gym in Columbus, Ohio. Brock is seven, and Vertical Adventures — Vert, as some regulars know it — is one of the first places I ever climbed. It’s also one of the first places I worked, where I met many good friends I keep in touch with to this day, where I learned how to set a route, smack talk, belay, use proper footwork, train… . It’s also where I first developed that love of the vertical that binds a motley subset of humans into a strangely vibrant community.

Brock is still new to climbing, but he clearly has the bug. At Vert, He climbed with a mind of play, not much interested in following the specific routes or problems. He grabbed whatever holds looked good, cutting his feet dramatically every couple of moves and then dropping to the pads and rolling around. He watched the other climbers, tried out some new moves, and even brushed chalk off the holds for his aunt Kristin. When I asked if I could get a dip of the white stuff, he offered generously, “You can use my chalk; I don’t mind!” Kristin and I left after a few hours, but Brock and his dad stayed on to climb until dinner.

Alexis and Carrie Roccos opened Vertical Adventures in January 1994. At that time, gyms were just starting to sprout up around the country and were especially novel in the heartland. (Vertical World, widely regarded as America’s first commercial gym, opened in Seattle in 1987.) Together with a friend, Alexis constructed the gym’s walls out of plywood and two-by-fours, paint and elbow grease. It was a leap of faith for the couple, who moved to Columbus from the East Coast.

I started climbing at Vert as soon as it opened. I was so excited to have a real climbing gym in town, I shadowed Alexis for my freshman year career day. I helped him pound T-nuts in the sawdusty warehouse space near the Anheuser Busch brewery. Later, in the summers when I returned from college, Carrie and Alexis kindly hired me on as a temp worker, which helped pay for gas, food, and CDs.

Vert and the people I met there over the years played an important role in my development as a human being. Not long before the gym opened, I’d gotten in some trouble hanging out with what you’d call bad seeds — kids who used drugs, huffed paint, stole, fought, basically did whatever they could to numb or lash out against the pain of their broken, abusive households or emotionally absent parents. In great contrast, my parents, loving and supportive, helped me through my own poor decisions in those angst-filled years. Meanwhile, the community that gathered on the walls of a small Midwestern climbing gym offered examples of what healthy friendships were like, what it meant to live a life centered on something you love rather than reacting to things you fear, hate, or resent.

Community is the best word I can conjure for the group of regulars that developed at Vert during the years I climbed there. We not only climbed, but socialized together, watched the Super Bowl together, attended each other’s weddings. When one of our own, a strong young climber named Jeremy, was injured in a car accident one night on the way home from the gym, a group of his friends organized a fundraiser at Vert to help offset some of his heavy medical costs. When Jeremy needed a wheelchair ramp, the crew from Vert, among others, came together and built one.

“I think that people will meet in a variety of settings. Church, on a bike, at a climbing wall, in a pub, at work, etc.,” Alexis wrote to me in an email, but added, “The gym does make that process easier. (Kind of like lube.)” Personally, I felt Vert was more than just lube: it was a hub, a catalyst. But perhaps that was due in part to its location far from natural crags. Still, there are many, many towns similarly situated, and for them, gyms really can create a community of climbers that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

A lot of climbers talk trash about gyms. For some reason, they like to remind others and themselves that climbing outside is real climbing, and climbing in gyms is practice, for gumbies or for kids. Now, I’d be hard pressed to trade time on the rocks for time on plastic, but the truth is, gyms are the biggest thing to happen to climbing in decades. Gyms are the wide end of a funnel through which people of all backgrounds and walks of life can access the climbing life, not just those lucky enough to grow up close to Yosemite, the Gunks, Southeast’s bouldering goldmine.

I started climbing in a gym, but I’m not alone. So did Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden, Sasha DiGiulian and Chris Sharma, and many other climbing heroes today held up as exemplary in the media. Plenty of kids escape the frustrations and pressures of adolescence at their local rock gym. A lot of folks make lifelong friends in the gym, not to mention partners who one day will accompany them up big walls or high peaks. Plenty of busy working parents find the time to keep climbing thanks to the convenience of gyms. Without gyms as training centers, few of today’s hardest climbs would have seen their first ascents. Gyms and the competitions held in them may well be the key to climbing’s future inclusion in the Olympics. The list goes on…

Brock is young yet; there’s no way to tell if he’ll be a lifer or if he’ll move on to other pursuits and forget about climbing. Either way, he has already found a rich new activity through which he can bond with his dad and other kids his age. Lately, he’s been learning to tie knots with a strand of cordelette he bought at Vert, and has plans to come visit Kristin and me in Utah, where I hope to take him out onto the beautiful sandstone in the south of the state — an experience he probably wouldn’t have been so excited about if it hadn’t been for the humble climbing gym.



Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

17 thoughts on “Climbing Gyms and the Power of Plastic”

  1. I couldn’t have written the piece better, as I was there. Most of the good friends I still connect with are from Vertical Adventures. I could intertwine this post with your ‘friends’ blog, but with climbing in mind, yes, gyms are playing a bigger role than ever in exposing a larger audience to the sport. I visit this ridiculous and totally irreverent climbing forum (to be unnamed) where folks used to rip on gyms. I remember posting something about the focus on movement… the dance you practice where and when you can, so that you can perform the dance on stone. Puzzles formed by centuries of erosion, gifted to us to solve with the expression of movement. Some places offer beautiful, picturesque settings (ie. buttermilks, yosemite). Most great areas offer amazing movement.

    One thing that I have noticed, particularly here in Boulder, is an over-emphasis on ability. I’ll be sitting there trying to suss out a problem, and all I hear are numbers and names associated with them. The same thing is happening with skiing. People are becoming so good at what they do, that it takes some of the fun out of the activity. Maybe it’s time to start a climbing version of G.N.A.R.

    1. Great piece. Lots of great places to meet and greet for climbing in Columbus and grow as an individual. Don’t forget Kinetic climbing near the university! Great place to boulder and learn some more advanced moves. I know Tony (the owner of Kinetic) helped out loads with Jeremy too.

      Since moving from Minnesota the combination of the two gyms has provided a wealth of socialization, exercise, and camaraderie.

      1. Thanks Robert! Yes, I have known Tony for some time, but I never got to climb at Kinetic, unfortunately. Moved to Boulder before he opened it and haven’t been back much since. Glad you’re enjoying Cbus! If it were in the mountains, I’d live there for sure :)

    2. Thanks, Keith! I agree: the Cap City Climbing scene had a great, mellow attitude, but that didn’t stop it from producing some strong and stoked mofos (yourself, Kenny & Julie, Lowther, Greenwell, Jeremy, etc.!). Thanks for taking me out to the Red for the first time :) I’ll always cherish the time we spent together. Heh.

  2. I have family in Columbus and was looking to move there for a few months to join a startup incubator that I had been accepted to. My first act in researching my potential move was to locate the nearest climbing gym. And this is the one I found.

    I love that you defended climbing gyms. While I actually am one of the (seemingly) few who now start their climbing careers outdoors, I know that indoor climbing has played a big part for me in my development. It kept me practicing during the winter months after long ski days, it gave me a place to confidently try out lead climbing, and it introduced me to my climbing partner on The Most Epic Trip.

    Needless to say, I’m pretty grateful for those plastic-pulling meccas. Great post. :)

    1. Truth is, doesn’t matter where you start. What’s important is your attitude and your willingness to learn. What you take from the experience is really up to you, I’d argue! Well, if you do move to Cbus, let me know. I have many great places to recommend. Believe it or not, the food, drink, and cultural scene is pretty hoppin’ there. Definitely a more lively town than SLC (though that’s not saying much :)).

  3. Ah, sweet memories. Thanks for introducing me to climbing and Vertical Adventures! I guess I didn’t become a lifer (I’m too much of a dabbler, just bought a skateboard this weekend of all things), but I did form great memories and it was a great activity to do with you.

  4. great piece, justin! makes me feel a bit nostalgic. there’s always new friendships to be made and new adventures to take, but i can say that the crew from columbus is unmatched-i have yet to find a place that routinely attracts such solid, awesome people. looking back, it’s sad to think i felt like i couldn’t wait to get out-those were the days that really molded me into a CLIMBER :).
    it’s funny to hear kenny talk about VA too, since he was but a baby when he started climbing ;). when i ask him why he feels like he ended up okay (stayed out of trouble, that sort of thing), he always says it was because of climbing-this, of course, born out of his experiences in the gym.
    a visit to columbus is not complete without at least one day at the gym-it never will be!

    1. Nice, Julie! Totally agree :) Who woulda thunk it? From the flatlands of Ohio, now you two are teaching the Germans how to climb!

  5. Absolutely LOVED this Justin. Growing up and learning to climb in the midwest truly reinforces how important gyms are in creating communities. Ours has benefited more than most over the past few years and the friends I’ve made are some of the best I could hope for. Thanks again for sharing.

  6. I really loved reading this – and agree with you 100%. There’s too much trash talking about gyms, and not enough celebration for what they offer us. I’m part of a very strong community of climbers, all of whom happen to reside in Florida. Let me tell you, there ain’t no climbing around here. Our closest outdoor crag is seven hours north to either Alabama or Georgia – so our rock gyms are our lifelines. Without it, we’d never get strong, we’d never connect with our fellow climbing community, and we’d lose so much of this lifestyle we’ve adopted. Without Tally Rock Gym, I’d never have started climbing – and now I’m gearing up to leave on a yearlong climbing trip living out of a van. So rock gyms, you rock.

  7. Seriously – thanks for writing this. I try to just drown out the trash talking about climbing on plastic, but it’s tough. It’s like the same way people trash talk snowboarding in New England versus snowboarding out West. I live where I live (NH – 1.5 hours away from Rumney). I can either cry and sit in a corner and do nothing, or I can love what I have. I’ve decided to love it. I climb at BOTH of my local gyms (owned by the same guy with the same staff) 3-4 times a week, and I’ve developed awesome friendships with the staff and other climbers. It’s also given my boyfriend and I the confidence to get outside and climb knowing we wouldn’t be hurting ourselves or others, so that seems like a win all around.

    I wonder if a lot of the negative feelings towards plastic climbers are towards the gym rats we’re all starting to see kind of pop up. I’m lucky that both of my gyms really cater to the outdoor loving, slacklining, dirtbag minded type of people – but I’ve been to gyms that are aimed at the muscle builders, grunters, and morons. Like there’s a gym opening up near me in November that’s already marketing itself as a fitness place… not a rock climbing gym even though it’s going to have 10,000+ sq ft of climbing wall. I see that one attracting all the wrong people.

    1. I like this quote, Jillian: “I can either cry and sit in a corner and do nothing, or I can love what I have. I’ve decided to love it.” Thanks for commenting!

  8. Great post. To add, even for the people who started climbing outdoors they have most likely gotten better climbing indoors. It’s just an elitist view to think that indoors isn’t “real” climbing. Yes outdoors is tougher (IMO) but who cares. It’s all about having fun.

    When I saw the photo, I was like, “That looks so familiar…oh shit it’s the Vert!” I went to college in Columbus (not OSU) before moving to SLC and that’s where I learned to climb/lead from one of the staff, can’t remember his name for the life of me now. I wouldn’t be where I’m at with my climbing without that place. Anyway, keep it up in Cbus, I will be visiting sometime soon.

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