By Kayla Ebner
Hana Skirkey says that, increasingly, individuals young and old are looking for outlets that are both mentally and physically challenging — a tough combination to come by.
Perhaps that difficult search for such an activity is why more people are turning to indoor rock climbing as either a fun activity or a competitive sport. It could also be because climbing offers individuals an opportunity to see some incredible places around the world. Or maybe, it’s because of the truly welcoming people that belong to the climbing community.
Skirkey, general manager of Central Rock Gym in Hadley, believes the the answer is, well, all of the above.
“Indoor climbing is great because you can do it in any type of weather, and the community here is amazing,” said Skirkey, who told BusinessWest that the Hadley location is ideally situated in many respects.
For starters, it’s within a few hours — or even a few minutes — of some challenging and thus popular climbing spots. Meanwhile, it’s situated in the middle of the Five College area — and perhaps 40,000 college students, who make up a large percentage of the growing climbing community.
Actually, Hadley is the second location for Central Rock Gym, or CRG, as it’s called. The company was founded by brothers Ed and Joe Hardy, who decided to bring their love for climbing to their hometown of Worcester, and opened their first location there in 2009. Hadley followed just two years later.
Today, there are nine CRG locations spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, and four more locations are set to open very soon. According to CRG’s website, a location in Manhattan will be opening this summer; another Bay State location, in Stoneham, will open in September; and two facilities, in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. will be debuting in November. In less than a decade, this business has grown from one facility to 13.
This profound growth reflects the steadily rising popularity of rock climbing — again, as both a recreational activity and competitive sport — in Western Mass. and across the country, for that matter.
And the Hadley facility is, in essence, a microcosm of this phenomenon, said Skirkey, referencing everything from the wide age disparity of CRG members — they range from 3 to 90 or so — to the way families are embracing the sport as a unit.
For this issue and its focus on sports and recreation, BusinessWest talked with Skirkey at length about rock climbing, CRG and its Hadley facility, and why the climbing community continues its torrid pace of growth.
Scaling Up the Business
Located at 165 Russell St., CRG’s Hadley facility is a short drive from some of the top climbing destinations in this region, including the White Mountains, making it the perfect spot for outdoor adventurers to train and have fun. There are also many local crags in the Western Mass. area, including Chapel Ledge in Ashfield, Mormon Hollow in Wendell State Forest, and the Skinner area in Hadley.
“There’s a lot of outdoor climbing specifically in Western Mass. compared to other parts of the state,” said Skirkey, who has enjoyed climbing for most of her life.
She graduated from UMass Amherst in 2010 and was the president of the UMass Outing Club (UMOC) where she enjoyed “fun — what some people call crazy — activities” with friends who had the same interest and excitement as she did for various outdoor hobbies. UMOC is a UMass Amherst registered student organization that organizes outdoor trips to both local and distant areas, taking part in activities such as hiking, rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and everything in between. Aside from being the president, Skirkey was also a hiking/backpacking and whitewater kayaking leader for UMOC.
Although she never imagined herself being a climbing-gym manager, Skirkey knew she wanted to be somewhere with like-minded individuals who enjoy being active as much as she does. And CRG is the perfect fit.
“It’s not a normal office job,” she said. “Being a part of the community is great here.”
A passion for those ‘crazy’ activities is one of the things Skirkey loves about the outdoor community. Making friends is easy, she explained, when everyone in a community loves to do a specific thing together — in this case, indoor rock climbing.
After graduation, Skirkey heard the gym was opening a location in Hadley, so she applied. She got a job as a desk staff member, and a year later moved on to assistant manager. She continued to climb — literally and figuratively — and eventually became general manager at Central Rock’s Hadley location.
As noted earlier, Skirkey is not the only college student drawn to the gym’s facilities. Students from the Five Colleges — UMass Amherst, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College — and many more schools in the Western Mass. area visit CRG to climb. Skirkey said she also sees students from Springfield College visiting the facility.
She noted that people who enjoy outdoor climbing come to CRG to train indoors on days and seasons when outdoor climbing is not feasible because the rocks get wet, or it’s just too cold outside.
“We’re between two and three-ish hours from other, bigger destinations, and then we also have a bunch of local crags people can go out to,” she explained.
CRG upgraded its Hadley location in December 2017. The original 12,400-square-foot facility was expanded to 26,000 square feet. This expansion added 8,000 square feet of climbing surface, 200 linear feet of new bouldering walls, and 24 top-rope stations on a new climbing-wall product. An additional 80 parking spaces were also created. The project expanded the fitness room to 2,100 square feet and nearly tripled the size of the yoga room, extending it to 900 square feet.
CRG holds daily fitness and yoga classes, Skirkey explained, adding that the expansion has brought a new level of service to the membership and guests they bring — and helped increase the ranks of both.
“We just felt like we were in this bubble that we needed to help grow,” she said. “People love bringing their friends here; it’s really nice to be able to accommodate that just a little bit better now.”
When planning the expansion, CRG looked at the busiest areas of the gym, as well as what needed to be improved in terms of spacing. Bouldering is a popular climbing activity that needs a quicker turnover rate, said Skirkey. There are several other types of climbing that a person at any skill level can do when visiting CRG.
Skirkey described CRG as a very welcoming and community-oriented company, and noted that one of the most common things she hears in reviews is how friendly the staff is. No matter what age or skill level, anyone who walks through the doors is welcomed with open arms.
“It’s really easy to get into it and feel welcomed,” said Skirkey. “I don’t think you get that with most gyms.”
This welcoming effect has contributed to the growth of membership and the wide diversity within it, she noted, adding that the gym’s youngest climbing club ranges from ages 3 to 6 years old. Skirkey also noted that families often come in to enjoy climbing together, a much different family activity than most experiences.
Aside from the standard membership, which costs $85 a month, CRG also has a family plan for these families who love climbing together. The membership includes two people who are engaged or married, or two parents and their dependent children, for $125 a month. Those who want to add additional family members can do so for $30 a month.
Skirkey believes that climbing can help family members bond with each other.
“It’s nice for parents, too, because they can do something active with their kids,” she noted. “Especially for young kids, it’s critical to get into something that makes them feel strong. I think that’s really important for development.”
Climbers have two main options at CRG: bouldering and what’s known as top roping. Bouldering is climbing that a person can undertake after a brief orientation given by a staff member. This specific type of climbing is a free climb on a wall about 15 feet tall.
The other climb, top roping, is highly recommended for those who are new to the sport. Here, the climber is tied onto one end of the rope, and a supporting climber, known as a belayer, is connected to the other side, making sure the rope stays tight so the climber does not fall.
In order to start top roping at CRG, climbers must take a one-hour introductory class to learn how to belay properly. If a person is not interested in learning how to belay, they can schedule a staff belay in which the staff member belays while the customer climbs. In order to belay, a climber must be 13 years or older.
The intro belay class is $20 per person but free for members, and typically lasts between an hour and 90 minutes. During this class, the climber will learn knots, the belay process, and safety procedures practiced at CRG. The staff belay costs $30 an hour per climber. Both the intro belay class and the staff belay require reservations and are only offered at certain times during the week.
“I would say that roped climbing is a bit more beginner-friendly than bouldering is,” said Skirkey. “You’ve got a staff person when you do staff belay, and you’ve got a rope to catch you when you fall. The way that bouldering is … the type of movements are usually a bit more power-oriented.”
There are, of course, varying skill levels of climbing, and some people coming in are going to be far more advanced than others. CRG offers many options for beginners to help them adjust and start their climbing journey, and also has state-of-the-art facilities for more advanced climbers. Aside from the intro and staff belay classes, customers can also schedule a private lesson with a staff member to help them learn the ins and outs of climbing one-on-one. In the “Technique 101” class, climbers who are interested in learning some basic tips can sign up to improve their climbing skills.
Members ages 6 to 18 at Central Rock Gym may also form both competitive and non-competitive climbing teams to help gear up for competitions, or just for fun. In the past, CRG has sent several members to the Nationals run by USA Climbing. Skirkey says members have done exceptionally well at these competitions, and have even placed in third and sixth place. This year, the gym has six kids going to Nationals.
CRG offers plenty of options for climbers of different skill levels. The gym also offers day passes and discounted memberships for climbers 22 and under or 65 and older, and active military members.
Another characteristic that helps CRG stand out from other climbing gyms is the cleanliness and openness of the building itself, Skirkey said. Climbers will use chalk on their hands to help their grip as they climb the walls, and things can get dirty quickly.
“We dedicate a lot of our time to cleaning and making sure the facility has clean air to breathe and nice lighting,” she said. “A lot of climbing gyms can feel like dungeons.”
But not Central Rock Gym. Each facility, including the one in Hadley, has large glass windows that let in plenty of natural light, making the experience for climbers even more enjoyable.
She noted that CRG even connects people who do different outdoor activities. Sometimes, people who enjoy mountain biking or hiking will come in wanting to try climbing, and end up expanding their circle of friends. CRG is definitely a place that attracts the outdoorsy type, she added.
Due to the rising popularity, Skirkey recommends making a reservation, especially if a person lives far away from the gym.
Reaching New Heights
Summing up the many rewards offered by climbing, Skirkey said that, for those dedicated to this sport, it’s not all about getting to the top, although that’s a big part of it.
It’s also about the journey. Indeed, figuring out how to make your way to the top, step by step, is the best part, she told BusinessWest.
“I love it because it’s fun to try to figure out how to finish a climb and challenge yourself both mentally and physically,” she added.
From her perspective, those twin challenges go a long way toward explaining the growing popularity of climbing and the upward trajectory of CRG and especially its Hadley location.
And the best part is, they can both go much higher still.