After Hurricane Maria struck in September, 2017, the already suffering economy of Puerto Rico underwent a steep decline. Workers lost their jobs and businesses closed. Despite tax incentives encouraging businesses to open in Puerto Rico, the latest Census Bureau data suggests more than 120,000 people have left the island since 2017, nearly 4% of the population.
Amidst the closing of businesses and unprecedented migration of Puerto Ricans to the States, local climber Bryant Huffman, 40, saw the climbing community continue to grow. Prior to Maria, Huffman had been giving donation-based workshops since 2011 to teach the community about climbing. In 2014 Huffman started Climbing PR, a company that provides climbing courses and guided climbing trips around the island.
But Huffman’s real dream was to build a climbing gym.
“After Maria,” said Huffman, “a lot of people were looking for a change in way of life and there weren’t a lot of options where you can get together with the community and hang out in a healthy environment, it’s a good lifestyle.”
Immediately following the hurricane, Huffman, along with a group of fellow climbers, put their climbing skills to use removing felled trees, clearing debris, and climbing into tough spots to help people in need. Community groups took steps towards self-sufficiency by building microgrids. Entrepreneurs began popping up and communities worked together to rebuild.
Meanwhile, Huffman kept getting messages about climbing from the community. Once the basic needs–communication and electricity–were back up, Huffman decided it was time to realize his own dream and support his community in his own way. While Maria had been a big hit to his savings, Huffman managed to get a few more movies, where he worked as an onset dresser, and work as a tree climber, removing debris from roads, which gave him enough funds to go all in on building the island’s only climbing gym.
It’s been seven years since Huffman started building his gym. “Every year, I worked a little on the dream, only to be shut down by the immensity of the project,” he said. In March, 2018 he attended the Climbing Wall Association summit in Colorado, and that helped seal the deal. “I was all by myself, and all the conversations were about millions of dollars. I felt like a guppy in a shark tank and almost quit. I came back and realized that our reality is different, and that if I was going to do it, it would have to be the ‘grass roots’ way.”
Huffman found the space in August 2018, and the rest is history. He had a soft opening in February before the mattresses were installed and over 100 people came out. “There was no desk, no floors, no seats, no stage, no nothing, and they were psyched!” says Jorge Lassus, Huffman’s right-hand and co-owner of Climbing PR. “We sold the El Bloque t-shirts for the pre-opening. It was so weird that day,” said Huffman. “There were people with the shirts on, climbing, and we were like, wtf is going on? People I had never seen before! And normally I thought that the climbers were just my friends and that’s it, but it was a lot of people who had never climbed before, and they came to see what it was all about, and their eyes were like WIDE!”
But getting there wasn’t easy. Finding a good location was the first challenge. “A lot of places you’d find were full of concrete columns, didn’t have the height, or the location didn’t work. It was a challenge to find all the needs for the space at the right price.” Even once they found the perfect spot, in Hato Rey, near the business district, a metro stop, and two universities, they had to clean it, paint the ceilings, seal the roof and remove steel bars from the windows. “It’s been a labor of love,” said Huffman. All of the wooden holds are home made. The hang boards. The bathroom walls. The benches and shelves on the walls. They ordered foam padding from the Dominican Republic and had to figure out how to stick it all together.
“This will take the Puerto Rican climbing community to a whole new level, which is something we needed a long time ago. El Bloque will be like a school for a lot of people in Puerto Rico that will go off and get into the sport. And now the weekend warriors can add a little to their regimen.”
The gym offers 5,000 square feet of climbing and training, including yoga and physical training classes, a space for weightlifting, hang boards, a community area that can double as a stage for concerts and talks, a lounge, and over 2,000 square feet of bouldering space, set up in five sections which they’ll rotate monthly. The ‘natural’ routes, made of wooden holds, will not be rated, to give the climber the sense of climbing outdoors, work their visualization, test their abilities, and let them learn how rating systems work. The big garage door opens up to the outside where they’ll host food trucks for events. It’s a real bouldering gym, made by real climbers. And it’s going to satiate the thirst of the hundreds (and growing) of climbers on the island.
“Knowing that I put in the work, built a hub for the community, a place where people can gather, exchange ideas, learn to climb, and have fun … it feels like a dream to have achieved it,” said Huffman, smiling at his work.
El Bloque officially opened its doors to the public on Saturday July 27th, making it the first bouldering gym in the Caribbean!
Feature Image by Manuel Velez