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Climbing Gyms: The Modern Community Centre

Climbing gyms have always been community centres. We spoke with Seven Bays and True North about their communities and the pandemic.

It was always more than exercise. Where conventional gyms might boil down to fitness, a climbing facility is built around a community. It is a second home, a place where people gather and grow. It is unique.

Part of that comes down to the sport. Climbing allows a person to become something greater than they were before. Whether that is defined by their community involvement or their increased self-confidence, it is an experience that builds on itself. There are many reasons to love climbing.

Seven Bays – Support

It is easy to see why it was missed. This pandemic has brought with it periods of self-reflection. What we value and how we value it has been given attention in the absence of our passions. For climbers, that has meant a great deal, both indoors and out. For many, the loss of their climbing community brought feelings of isolation. The return of climbing was a great relief for those without any other outlet.

Climbing is a sport. A Climbing gym is a community.

Seven Bays

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the climbing community is small. It is also radical.

While Canada’s climbing gyms tackled the ambitious task of reopening their doors, Paul Denzler of Seven Bays Bouldering worked to finish a brand-new facility.  Denzler laughed, “It was pretty stressful. For anyone that has opened a gym, they know it’s a pretty difficult endeavour regardless.” Mix in a global pandemic, and opening a new location for your business becomes an entirely different experience.

Though a nation-wide shut-down creates its own challenges, it also allowed Denzler and his team some breathing room in relation to the opening of their new facility. “Throughout the pandemic, me and a couple guys were building it. That kept us busy. It worked out that our opening date was around the time the government allowed us to reopen our gym.” A week after the regulations lifted, the Bayers Lake location was open.

The end result was something special. Originally, Seven Bays was built as an expansion project for the Montreal-based Allez Up. Denzler said, “They wanted to expand and open up a second location. They were looking at Halifax because they knew there was an existing climbing community here, but not a modern gym to facilitate it. Once they found their location, they asked if I wanted to come to Halifax and help them open up the gym. Originally, my role was to help train people,and then return to Montreal. Instead, I ended up staying. Six years later, here I am.”

“The first Seven Bays got full quite quickly because it is a fairly small gym. We were due to expand and open a properly sized facility, so we decided to look at Bayers Lake.” This new facility would become one of the most aesthetic bouldering gyms on the east coast.

Naturally, they wanted to kick of their grand-opening with a bang. Though they had plans for an extravagant celebration, it was more important to keep their community safe.

Though Seven Bays would have to wait to celebrate their member-base, Denzler reflected on the special experience of welcoming that base to a brand-new gym. “Honestly, it was awesome. It was really cool to see our members, who had been climbing in the same tiny gym for years, walk into a 12,000-square-foot facility. For the most part, people were just excited to get out of their house and see their friends. We had to put in a lot of precautions to fight COVID and the staff have had to be diligent. They have done a really great job making sure that people are safe and following the procedures, so we were able to open without any big issues. Staff have killed it.”

Thanks to the hard work of the Seven Bays crew, the facility moved forward with a member-appreciation scramble competition in October. “We are still waiting on having an actual opening party until we can do something proper, but we are hosting our first competition this Saturday. In a way, that is going to be a party. Obviously, it’s going to be a pretty mild event. It’s more to just do something cool for our members, but we’re resetting the gym and doing a scramble comp with no spectators and strict capacity limits.”

Seven Bays – Beverage of Choice

Since then, their competition went off without a hitch. Denzler and his team have been excited by the number of new members they have seen walking through their doors. Though Seven Bays is still working hard to reintroduce many of the things they offered months ago, they are excited to have a gym to give back to their community. Their members are just as psyched.

True North

Though the client-to-business relationship is a natural aspect of any climbing gym, the connection between the climber and the facility is more than a subscription. It is built out of trust and respect. The climbing gym is designed for the benefit of its members. The pandemic has forced many businesses to shut their door. Ontario’s True North, however, decided to close down in order to protect the community they have built. They were the first climbing gym in Canada to make that difficult call.

True North

This level consideration stems from the owner, John Gross. It takes bravery to risk the cost of closure, but for Gross, the decision appeared quite obvious.

“When the government said that they were extending March-break, I thought ‘If the schools can’t be open, we shouldn’t be open.’ I didn’t want to be a place where people got sick. We have not heard of any cases connected to the gym, and we want to keep it that way. I want the business open as long as we can keep it open safely. We know that climbing is important to people and those that are back are really enjoying it. It is really important to people’s mental health and it is really important that people have something they can do. As long as we can operate safely, we will remain open.”

That said, Gross admits that the pandemic has been tough. “Our business was doing well before the pandemic, but it has been pretty hard since. We were shut down completely for 143 days. I had to layoff almost all of my staff. It’s emotionally hard, it’s financially hard.”

So why put the effort into reopening during difficult times? Gross said, “I think people are desperate for something they can do. Climbing is pretty good therapy. It’s physical, it’s social, it works your mind, and it’s good for you in a lot of ways. I think that is something people need right now.”

True North

To keep their community safe, True North has gone above and beyond. Gross said, “We have limited our capacity beyond what the government has said because that’s where we feel comfortable. It’s by reservation only and we don’t have any overlapping sessions. We have sanitizers around the gym and an outdoor sink so members can wash their hands before they come in. We are enforcing distancing strictly. We are cleaning all the surfaces that we can during the day. We are doing everything that we can think of. We have spent thousands of dollars on equipment and supplies to try to protect people. We are putting safety ahead of profit. Most months we are still losing money, but we are losing less than we did. I’m confident that we are going to get through this.”

That determination to overcome adverse conditions is a part of the climbing experience. Climbing is defined by taking something challenging, and breaking it down into more manageable parts. It is for this reason that Gross believes anyone can climb. “I’ll often talk to parents who have kids in the gym and I’ll ask them if they are climbing. I often get a look of astonishment, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t do that.’ Then I will tell them about my mom.”

“I brought my mom to the gym when she was only 89, she’s not the oldest climber that we have had, but she’s the oldest to get to the top of a wall. When I tell people about that, they are surprised. When you first look at climbing, it looks really hard. It is hard, but it is also exactly as hard as you need it to be.”

“We’ve had some people on the wall you wouldn’t expect to be climbing: blind climbers, amputees, people in wheelchairs. Once you are on the wall, it’s actually the same for everybody: you are pushing yourself, you are climbing where your limits are. It doesn’t matter if I am on a 5.7, I am still having fun.”

Though True North has temporarily closed as they weather the pandemic’s second wave, the work they have done has meant a lot to their community. They have facilitated an environment in which their product has tangible meaning for its members.

In speaking with True North routesetter Alex Kuusela, it became clear just how important climbing can be. She said, “You could almost say it is life changing. Not only is it confidence building, but you get in better shape. You challenge yourself and are rewarded for it.”

“I think that the confidence you build in climbing translates well to other areas of your life because you feel yourself succeeding where you have put in effort. Climbing was the first sport for me where everyone appreciated the sharing of experience. I feel like that is a core value of climbing culture. It doesn’t matter your age, gender, or the difficulty of your climbing, you are just hanging out together and that’s really nice. You talk with people and those conversations develop into friendships. The people you meet give you advice unique to their own lived experiences, I think that is unique to climbing.”

“I think if you don’t have a sense of community, if you aren’t participating in other extra-curricular activities, climbing becomes a place where you make connections. It becomes a safe space. You go in and you know that you are in your own crowd of people. I think that is one of the most special aspects of climbing: those positive relationships within the community.”

It is in our gyms that these communities are realized. Kuusela said, “I definitely struggled hard when everything closed down at first. I was missing climbing a lot, but I was also just missing my friends and that community interaction.”

No matter how hard you train at home, it is impossible to replace the network of relationships built in climbing gyms.

True North

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