Sections Sports & Leisure

On a Grand Scale

Indoor Rock Climbing Is Gaining a Foothold in the Region

By KEVIN FLANDERS

massive rock walls

Interest is growing locally in climbing massive rock walls like these, which, depending on the facility, can stretch up 40 feet or higher.

Hana Skirkey cites a number of reasons why a growing number of people are trying out — and usually staying with — the emerging sport of indoor rock climbing.

“For some it’s a way to conquer their fear of heights,” said Skirkey, an instructor and manager at Central Rock Gym (CRG) in Hadley. “Others just like the freedom. Personally, I think it’s a really fun form of exercise — every step is like a puzzle you’re trying to figure out with your own body. It’s all about finding ways to get to that next hold.”

Whatever the reason or reasons, this activity is certainly gaining traction — literally and figuratively — across the nation and in Western Mass.

Indeed, the region now boasts two indoor rock-climbing facilities — CRG-Hadley, one of four locations operated by Central Rock Gym across the state, and the Northampton Athletic Club (NAC).

The former features the region’s highest rock wall, at 45 feet, and 17,000 square feet of space, while the latter boasts a 40-foot wall, use of which is included in a club membership.

And many people, of all ages and with a host of motivations, are finding and challenging these walls.

“Interest in indoor climbing has definitely grown over the past few years,” said Andy Goddeau, the general manager of the NAC. “It offers something different that a lot of people have never tried before. Many kids start off when they’re really young, and they keep coming back as they get older to learn different techniques and training styles.”

Rigged with hundreds of colored grips and footholds, the wall provides several climbing routes that correspond to different ability levels to ensure everyone from beginners to experts have a fun experience at the appropriate degree of difficulty. Each route features arrows that guide climbers in specific directions, the most challenging of which require the use of advanced techniques. But before anyone can test their skills on the wall, they must first pass an introductory safety course.

“The course teaches people all about the harnesses, carabiners, and other equipment they’ll be using on the wall,” added Goddeau. “We want to make sure people are proficient with belaying and how to climb safely before they go off on their own.”

The NAC and CRG-Hadley now host everything from competitions for people of all skill levels to team-building exercises for area companies; from birthday parties to gatherings for area Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. And it appears that all this is not a fad, but rather a recreational activity — and business opportunity — with staying power.

“Business has really exploded over the past year, with college students and families always coming in and looking to try it out,” said Skirkey. “Weekends are usually the busiest for us, but we get new people here every day.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on an activity that’s growing on a grand scale, in every sense of that phrase.

Warmer Climbs

As the only gym in Western Mass. dedicated specifically to indoor climbing, CRG-Hadley hosts many specialized training classes and programs, one of which is designed for advanced climbers who have mastered an array of difficult skills.

Skirkey described the “extreme” 45-foot roof as one of the most challenging obstacles in the facility, keeping high-level climbers on top of their game. But for those who are just starting out and want to stick to the lower walls, the gym holds belaying classes every weeknight to show beginners the ropes.

“There’s something for everyone here, from people new to climbing to experts,” she explained. “The roof definitely gives us an opportunity to create challenging routes for advanced climbers.”

It is this ability to provide challenges for people of all ages and skill levels that has enabled the indoor rock-climbing facilities to enjoy steady growth and attract an array of different audiences, said those we spoke with.

This diversity comes in many forms, including the ability to present plenty of fun options that don’t even require a rope, such as bouldering. This is the act of scaling a wall without a rope, and it allows climbers to envision themselves navigating treacherous terrain without worrying about getting injured, as safety mats dutifully await any missteps. Both Northampton Athletic Club and CRG-Hadley are equipped with bouldering walls for individuals who prefer to climb with nothing to guide them but their arms and legs.

Increasingly, it is young — and even very young — people who are trying out these activities, and then coming back for more.

“Kids really love getting on the wall. I think the youngest person we’ve ever had up there was 3 years old,” said John Maradik, one of three climbing instructors at the NAC, which uses specialized full-body harnesses for children, enabling youngsters to experience the thrill of the climb along with their parents or one of the instructors.

For Goddeau, who’s worked at the club since 2002, it’s rewarding to see children develop a love for climbing. One of the club’s current instructors, he recalled, first climbed the wall as a 12-year-old and never looked back, eventually becoming a skilled climber and returning to the club to share his passion with beginners.

Teaching and reinforcing the proper techniques is an important goal at the club, whose instructors strive to maximize their students’ enjoyment of the activity and also reduce their risk of injury. The facility offers instructional classes for those who want to learn more about belaying and footwork, as well as the Try-a-Climb program, during which instructors provide individual feedback to novice climbers.

Safety and education are also major focal points at CRG, which frequently runs instructional classes to introduce the activity to the new climbers who step through its doors each day.

Sometimes the perception of risk is the most exciting part of the climb, instructors at both businesses agree, even though the safety mats are always there to cushion falls.

And while indoor rock climbing provides year-round business, the colder months are typically the busiest, when snow-covered mountains and frigid temperatures force hikers indoors to find a rock to conquer. It’s also a great activity for athletes in other sports who are looking to keep their muscles and reflexes toned during the off-season.

Regardless of the season, indoor climbing courses provide sustainable business due to their popularity as a choice for birthday parties, family outings, and team-building events. The NAC and CRG-Hadley both offer group specials, discount nights, and promotional events.

“Every few weeks, we do a college night or a guys and girls night. We host a lot of birthday parties and events for the Boy and Girl Scouts,” said Goddeau. “We also had a competition this year with about 25 participants. One thing people really like is that they can come and use the gym, then climb the wall. There is no additional charge to go climbing.”

Skirkey noted that CRG-Hadley also hosts a wide range of events and outings.

“Birthday parties, youth camps, classes — we do it all here,” she said. “We even have a climbing team for kids. One of them was invited to a team that competes at the national level.”

CRG-Hadley also hosts several competitions and tournaments throughout the year. On April 12, the gym will serve as the site of the second event in CRG’s Ring of Fire Competition, a series of three climbing tournaments at CRG locations. The first event took place in Glastonbury, Conn., while the final leg of the series will bring competitors to the chain’s Watertown branch. With major sponsors such as Adidas and cash prizes, the annual competition attracts amateur and professional athletes from across the country, one of many competitions Skirkey describes as integral to CRG’s success.

“The Ring of Fire Competition is really big in terms of sponsorship and exposure,” she said. “We also have speed-climbing competitions, bouldering competitions, and fund-raising competitions throughout the year.”

Social Climbers

Skirkey told BusinessWest that one of the biggest advantages indoor climbing has over most other sports and activities is its ability to combine recreation with adventure, providing climbers with an exhilarating experience without sacrificing safety.

This quality has enabled climbing to gain a strong foothold in the region, one that should enable it to continue to see consistent growth in popularity and a place in the area’s deep portfolio of recreational activities.

You might say the pattern of progress has been rock steady.

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