Permanently Closed: The Story Behind One Gym Hit Hard By The Pandemic
Climbing gyms were particularly hard hit by Covid-19. Rock City, among, others, didn't make it.
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Think about the last time you jumped while climbing. You wind up, pull, push and snap your body through the air and arrive at the weightless moment—the deadpoint—the moment before gravity remembers your existence and pulls you back towards the earth. You want to catch the hold and control the swing. You do? Then all is well, and you will continue upwards to the chains. But if you don’t catch it at the moment of suspension? Good luck fighting the force that keeps you on this planet.
Rock City, located in Anaheim, California, wasn’t always a climbing gym. It used to be Alpine-X, an indoor ski school before a gung-ho climber bought it, flipped the artificial ski slopes upside down, and bolted some plastic to it, turning it into one of the oldest climbing gyms in California. Established over 26 years ago, Rock City has seen it all. Various owners put their mark on the gym before Maurice Cureton, along with his wife, Tasha, bought the gym in 2015.
“You can literally walk through the years of Rock City,” said Maurice. “The first thing you see is beautiful, new walls. Comp-style terrain. Steep. This expansion was built in 2016. The next area you encounter as you walk further into the gym is the rope climbing area, built in 2009. Finally, you get to the oldest part, built in 1997.” Maurice wrinkled his nose, “some of the pads were the original ones from all those years ago.” In the days before the pandemic, a kid dared a friend to put his face on the pads and breath in 26 years of sweat, blood, and tears. The dare was not completed, thankfully.
Since its inception, Rock City had always been a reformation project. Maurice remembers his first day at the gym when a shirtless, hairy, grinning front desk employee greeted him. He had made his rounds through various climbing gyms in Orange County. Unsatisfied with the corporate feel and profit-driven sales approach to gaining new members, Maurice was hesitant. Rock City was the last stop, and all the hesitations about starting a pricey gym membership were wiped clean in an instant. The community knew nothing of Maurice at that point except he wanted to climb, and he was looking for a place to call home. That was enough, and they pulled Maurice in. “You learn to accept hugs, and give hugs the same way,” he said.
Maurice bought the gym eight years later. Their first day of business was March 15, 2015. Their last day, March 15, 2020.
“The pandemic snuck up on us,” said Maurice. “We were just coming around a corner, too.”
When Maurice bought Rock City, they had under 100 members. The Youth Program was struggling, coaching was sparse with a high turnover, and there was no cohesive routesetting team. Everyone in the gym’s leadership knew the stark facts: they had no budget to hire head setters, membership directors, or program coordinators. So they did it all themselves.
Maurice’s first goal was to rebuild the Youth Program. He found budget-friendly ways to add value to it by getting the community involved. The team kids’ parents and various senior staff members with climbing coaching experience formed a board to make decisions. Maurice coached the team, but the board would decide on everything related to training schedule, competition, traveling, and chip in on team expenses occasionally. They all shared Maurice’s vision–a good coach comes down to commitment, consistency, caring, and kindness. This system worked well and taught the kids the value of collective action.
Since announcing Rock City’s permanent closure in January 2021, Maurice keeps the Rock City Team intact by leasing space from other local facilities like SenderOne.
“The kids keep me feeling like Peter Pan,” he said, laughing.
“Wait, so SenderOne was okay with the RC team training there?”
California is a cutthroat arena for climbing gyms. Maurice was never worried about the mega gyms, though. He spoke calmly about the gaps in the marketplace SenderOne and Hangar 18 can’t fill. “The mega gyms bring a lot of folks to the market,” said Maurice, “some of those folks later realize they prefer the tight-knit, neighborhood feel of Rock City. And you know what, there is one good thing that came out of this.”
Prior to the pandemic, gym owners hardly communicated with each other. It was all about fighting for territory in an oversaturated marketplace. After three months of temporary closures, California saw a brief window of reopening businesses in June, only to see it close again a month later. The guidelines governing closures in California categorized climbing gyms in the same transmission risk category as family entertainment, where small spaces and aerosolized droplets could increase transmission risk. What the guidelines failed to take into account is the fact that climbing gyms measure by cubic feet instead of square feet; the tall walls, the naturally socially distant nature of climbing, and powerful air-filtration systems to mitigate clouds of chalk were not considered.
San Francisco’s stringent guidelines were only one of the problems in the growing list of frustrations that banded together several California gym owners to form the California Indoor Climbing Coalition (CICC). “Suddenly, everyone was communicating, strategizing, and the relationship turned from mild tolerance to passionate teamwork,” said Maurice. “A collaborative nature emerged from this. Alice Kao at SenderOne is a friend of mine now.”
The CICC met with California Public Health officials to make their case, gathered scientific data on transmission risks in climbing gyms, and drew up risk-management strategies specific to the industry. They’ve had a few wins so far, such as moving climbing gyms out of family entertainment and into the fitness category to allow wider reopening. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to save Rock City.
“We were losing upwards of $20,000 a month. In a sense, Rock City was a community more than it was a business. Every penny we made went back into the community because so many people saw the real value of this place.”
The Federal government introduced loans like the Paycheck Protection Program, but they dried up within days of the program’s introduction. The money never made it to businesses like Rock City who needed it most. Much of it was guzzled up by businesses that are anything but small. The bigger your company is, the more likely you have the resources, systems, and existing relationships to secure loans quickly, leaving little for small, family-owned businesses like Rock City. Maurice seemed to hold no resentment.
“Are you not mad? Saddened?”
“No. Most people don’t get to live their dream. I’ve been living my dream for more than seven years. I got to spend time with my kids, coached a successful climbing gym, learned to set with amazing people, and run a climbing gym,” he said. “However, I am sad for the members. Everyone pitched in so much.”
Chad Gilbert, now the Senior Setter and Coach at Übergrippen Indoor Climbing Crag in Denver, was a regular guest setter on Rock City’s crew. “He’d come in, put up a lot of good climbs and just quietly waltz back out. Not a lot of words, that man.” Gilbert would smile when the topic of Rock City came up, but when asked about how he felt about Rock City’s closure, Gilbert couldn’t find words for the sorrow. Sarah Richardson, now the Programs Director at Übergrippen, also had roots in Rock City. “The kids there had so much heart,” she said, “and now they’ve lost the safe space they’ve found in Rock City.”
Gilbert and Richardson met each other at Rock City and later became life partners. So did Maurice and his wife Tasha, and so many others.
“Love was always in the air,” said Maurice. He pulled out his phone and put it against the Zoom screen. It was a photo from the early 2000s, made apparent by the California surfer-inspired fashion trend and low-rise jeans. In the picture were Maurice and Tasha, Chad and Sarah, and Heather and Grayson, another life partnership formed at Rock City. “No one was dating each other in this photo yet,” said Maurice airily. “How crazy is this coincidence? Little did we all know!” That was exactly how Rock City was.
Maurice grew up in Compton, so he was familiar with struggling. He describes those early years as what shaped him into who he is. “Even dealing with COVID, I mean, I was stressed, but I never lost a night of sleep.” When you’ve been struggling your whole life, you learn how to navigate it; you worry only about the things you can control and let go of the others.”
For nine pandemic months, Rock City hung in that suspended dimension of a dead point. As vaccines begin to roll out across California, hands finally latched the crucial hold that would make or break this redpoint. But it was too late to control the swing.
Maurice had been feeling tired for a while, the kind that leaves you drained and beaten despite a full night of sleep. It was time to experience a different kind of tired now; he would go to the beach with his family and sit in the sun until drowsiness sets in. He would go on a long road trip with his wife and kids, and let himself melt in the soft radio buzz on the drive to Joshua Tree.