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The day Brooke Raboutou returned from Europe last year after being accepted to the Olympics, a group of us drove down to the Denver airport to surprise her. More than a dozen teammates from ABC Climbing came with cheers and balloons. Channel 9 News was there. Her proud mama, Robyn, stood at the gate grinning ear to ear, Brooke’s grandmother Jackie beside her. Rob Candelaria, who had been Robyn’s coach when she was a world champion decades before, joined the rally. The moment united multiple generations of elite climbers with lifetimes of dedication to advancing climbing.
2020 was looking bright for the climbing-gym industry. We at EVO Rock + Fitness were about to open a new bouldering gym in Golden, Colorado, and the Olympic Games were scheduled for this summer, putting our sport on the world stage. An all-time high of 72 gyms, according to the Climbing Business Journal, had planned to open this year. “Free Solo” had won an Academy Award and “The Dawn Wall” was running on Netflix.
On Friday, March 13 (maybe Friday the 13th is not just a superstition after all), everything changed. EVO had an emergency meeting of the owners (of which I am one) and directors in Colorado and made the difficult decision to close temporarily to help protect our members from the pandemic. We closed the gym before it was mandated because we felt it was the right thing to do. Nearly all of the climbing gyms in the United States and worldwide closed soon afterwards. Then the Olympics were postponed. Climbers were urged to stay home and not risk contagion or injury at the crags. Gateway communities fended off visitors. National parks closed.
The pandemic is like being high up a cryptic route: the way unclear, holds breaking, gear dropped, and a storm upon us.
Dealing with our new landscape requires constant risk assessment, strategic thinking and study. I stay up late at night reading about the Great Depression, studying businesses that were born and flourished during that time period. I have been combing through anthropological, psychological and sociological papers trying to understand the functional and emotional drivers of human behavior. How can we in our industry keep our customers engaged? Will they come back if we have to wear masks and social distance? Will our culture change?
Climbing Gyms Are Vulnerable After All
Only months ago, I said I believed that climbing gyms were a form of insurance to combat the dot-com era. As a brick-and-mortar business that could not be replicated digitally, we were safe. The climbing-gym model is about climbing together and sharing. Ironically the very thing that was protecting us from digital devastation is what is harming us now.
Climbing gyms are at risk for spread of disease. In gyms, people share holds, ropes and chalkbags. Many gyms have enclosed yoga spaces and cardiovascular-equipment sections as additional amenities.
The pandemic has limited our interactions with people, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet climbing requires the opposite. Climbing is about community and seshing out with your friends.
We gyms are not in the business of fitness. We are in the business of culture building, and that culture is being redefined. We need to rethink every facet of the business: from renting equipment to sharing lead ropes, from determining the length of stay in the gym to reducing visitor numbers, even to deciding what type of chalk we use. All of these things affect our experience, and our experience is what makes climbing unique.
Venturing Into the Unknown
We gym owners and staff are all grappling with how to connect with climbers and be as safe as possible when we reopen.
Gym owners from around the world are sharing ideas. The conversations flow from how to keep members engaged, to how to make our facilities safe once government-mandated closures lift, to the most sobering quandary of all—how to stay in business if we are forced to social distance for an extended period of time?
As I write, more and more climbing gyms have reopened on a limited basis. The many strategies include utilizing a reservation system, limiting visitor numbers, requiring masks and hand sanitizer, and eliminating options such as lockers, cubbies, showers and rental equipment.
It’s reassuring to hear about the positive responses gyms are getting from members. Many people want to come back, though others are holding off. Their decisions will come down to whether they believe the new safety measures are sufficient.
People ask me regularly what I think the industry is going to look like in the future. Will it survive this pandemic? What will the new normal be? We are collectively hoping that things will go back to how they were. I think about all the climbers and staff people, and about our own staff, their livelihoods and how much they have done to make EVO what it is today. Can I even stay in this career and this industry that I love? I am just living one day at a time.
The reality is that we just don’t know. We don’t know how sound the rock is above us or when the blizzard will abate. Gyms will do anything they can to innovate and be as safe as they can. COVID has strengthened our community and industry. There has been an outpouring of support, collaboration and transparency like never before.
People will still want to climb, wherever they decide to go. The spirit of climbing will always live on.
Feature image photos by Ani Manova/Walltopia, Drew Sulock, Beckett Aizeki