Over the last decade, the number of climbing gyms in Canada has tripled. With so many new facilities, it can be easy to forget that some of Canada’s most prominent climbing communities have existed for decades.
Since 1995, the Calgary Climbing Centre has been a family owned and family run business. With such long roots, the Calgary Climbing Centre has seen the evolution of the sport in Canada as it has evolved. It has grown with the sport’s increasing popularity. In many ways, this facility represents all of the things indoor climbing has been and has become. It is a classic success of a community in climbing.
Their story begins with a single gym in the mid-90s. According to Calgary Climbing Centre’s Matt Huitema, “The owners, Walson and Rhonda, opened their gym because they weren’t happy with the way the climbing gyms in Canada felt clique. They wanted to create a space that was community oriented and welcoming to new climbers. That was the imperative for their start.”
“They opened up their first location in 1995. In 2007, they added the Stronghold Climbing Centre to the group. Coincidentally, Stronghold had also opened in 1995 as a separate facility. It was bought by the Calgary Climbing Centre when the owners retired.”
“Since then, we have opened up two more locations in Calgary. About five years ago we opened up the Hanger location. Then we opened up the Rocky Mountain location just over two years ago. It’s been spectacular to see that kind of growth in the community here in Calgary.”
Though the Calgary Climbing Centre does operate four gyms in Calgary, these do not represent all of the climbing facilities in the city. This speaks to the current size of the sport. Huitema said, “I think climbing is blowing up. There is definitely growing demand here for indoor climbing gyms. I think having the access to the Bow Valley really helps keep people inspired to climb and this is a really good starting place for them.”
Calgary Climbing Centre has built itself around accessibility for all. Huitema credits the gym’s growth to, “the community-oriented spirit.” This collective positivity “is really inviting, even for those who aren’t inspired to go out to the mountains.”
Like many new climbing gyms, especially those based in cities, not everyone is looking for an intense outdoor experience. Huitema said, “We definitely have people in the gym who have no interest in going outside, but they climb the same walls and exist in the same space as those that go on those huge climbing trips across the continent. I think that is something unique about climbing. It is approachable. It doesn’t feel like exercise even though it is. It resonates with a broad base of people.”
By appealing to so many different types of climbers, a person might expect that the Calgary Climbing Centre could not meet the requirements of both the professional and the recreational. This is not the case. Instead, each of the four locations has their own specialty all while remaining in close proximity to one another. The climber is able to choose.
Though this expansive approach to a climbing centre is incredible, it does come with its own share of risk. So many gyms produce high costs. Huitema admits that lockdown was anxiety-inducing. He said, “It was definitely scary. We closed our doors without an expected date of reopening. It was definitely nerve wracking for our whole team.”
“I think it has been difficult for everybody, but I will say we are very happy to be operating and running and having people in the gym. Are we where we want to be, financially, if COVID-19 hadn’t happened? Definitely not, but it is nice to be able to keep our doors open and serve our community.”
This is important to the Calgary Climbing Centre as their founding principle was one of service: to build a more accessible and accepting climbing space. Closing their doors was tough.
Huitema said, “On one hand it felt like we were letting our community down by being unavailable for them. At the same time, it was about protecting our community. We actually closed down before we were mandated to because we realized that we didn’t have the tools, at that time, to protect our community. A big moment that I’m really proud of is that we took the initiative to close down before we were told to shut down.”
During lockdown, the Calgary Climbing Centre accessed their community through their media platforms. “We did our best to engage online, we ran a couple contests through social media, and we launched an online retail space for those people that wanted to purchase gear to climb outside. In Calgary, the MEC got wiped out right at the beginning so it was really awesome to be able to serve our community and get them the ropes and quick-draws they were looking for so that they could get out to the Bow Valley while the gyms were closed.”
By taking the initiative, and by taking the time to assess the risk of the virus, the Calgary Climbing Centre knew when it felt safe to reopen its doors. Huitema recalled feeling, “comfortable in the measures we were able to put into place. It was really exciting to welcome our community back into our facilities.”
“People were excited that they were able to provide that comfortable space again. I think for a lot of people, climbing is that safe space where you can blow off steam from whatever else is going on in your life. You can come in and focus on just one thing for a little while. Enter that flow state. People really enjoy that, and it is a welcome distraction for them.
By taking the proper measures, it was possible to reopen with motivated and excited staff. “I think because we were taking it seriously, people were happy to come back to work. Our staff enjoy working here in the same way that our members enjoy climbing here. For them, I think it was great that they had this place to come back to, everyone was super psyched to come back to work.”
How did the know when it was okay to open their doors? The Calgary Climbing Centre looked toward their local climb wall and health organizations for guidance. To keep with the times, the preventative measures they put in place, “were constantly updating based on new information, from Alberta Health Services (AHS), the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Climbing Wall Association (CWA). We were looking at what the current best practices were and how to implement them in the gym.”
This required “a multi-pronged approach. The WHO, AHS, and CWA are telling us that the best way to stop the spread of COVID is physical distancing and masks. For physical distancing to be possible at all of our facilities, we have had to severely limit our capacity. We have a booking system so people can book a time for climbing spots and climbing times throughout the day. We have left some space open for drop-ins as well.”
“We’re asking everyone to stick to a two-hour climbing time to make sure that everyone can fairly use the facility. Masks are mandatory for everyone in our gym. We have sanitizer stations about the facility so our guests can use them between climbs. We are also doing temperature checks and a questionnaire for every staff every time they come into work.”
Implementing preventative measures does not make running a climbing gym easier, however it does inspire confidence from the member-base. Huitema hopes that the opening of the gym will help those struggling in these troubling times. He related, “Physical activity has long been shown to have a positive effect on mental health. My mental health definitely comes and goes, and things like climbing are always really good for me. Being able to open up, even at a limited capacity, is still welcome. Getting our community into the gym definitely seems like a really big positive for everybody.”
“People are definitely still struggling, but it is nice to have a space that is warm and welcoming and offers a really fun activity for people. Other than the masks and signs everywhere, it feels relatively normal when compared to going to a grocery store.”
At this point, The Calgary Climbing Centre is beginning to settle into this new normal. They are remaining positive. Huitema said, “We are really looking forward to welcome more of our community back over the winter. Definitely looking forward to seeing how this progresses and other restrictions we might be able to lift over time. We are constantly paying attention to what is going on in the world, and we are optimistic about the future.”