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Fresh New Look, Same Old Charm for Joe Rockhead’s

On December 8, 2018, Joe Rockhead’s closed its doors for the first time in almost two decades for a much-need facelift.

The Toronto climbing gym re-opened to an excited public on Jan. 1, 2019, ushering in the new year with new floors and mats, new lights, a new wall, new holds and fresh paint. Photos alone reveal a striking contrast to the pre-reno facility.

Joe’s was renowned for, even proud of, its gritty character, so when Joe’s gets cleaned up, does it become “just another modern gym,” as one member wondered?

It was more than the layers of shoe scum that made Canada’s oldest gym special to its users. For example, it was one of the few gyms that still had a huge number of “spray walls”, i.e., walls filled with holds for climbers to make up their own problems and train endurance with continuous traverses.

Part of the new look does mean fewer spray walls. But the owners were savvy to keep the back-filled traverse wall and the 40-degree spray wall in the front.

Joe’s was also known for its holds: classic hold series of in-cut edges, slopers and pinches. Good, reasonably-sized, “get strong” holds. And, indeed, many of the old holds were retired and replaced with $100K worth of the latest trends in holds and, of course, volumes.

The thing is, the new shapes of holds and volumes represent an evolution in climbing movement that is making climbers more versatile, flexible and stronger all around. There was an adjustment period when “the circuit” (a.k.a., “World Cup style”) problems were introduced to Joe’s years ago but those problems became extremely popular, if not the most popular boulders in the gym. To that point, a new (easier than purple) green circuit has been added to the mix for your climbing pleasure.

So, is the new look at the expense of Joe’s old school charm? To this question longtime member Will Johnson wittily replied, “once the non-dust settles and it’s back to the regulars, it will be good as old.”

Johnson’s comment speaks to an important element of every climbing gym: the people. After climbing there on opening day, he reported, “It’s awesome. Same vibe with friends and fellow climbers. But clean, bright and well improved.”

Sure, there may always be some sentimentality for the old gym, as there will always be nostalgia for the days when climbing was underground. And that’s okay. But let’s get real: Friction on holds is good; Not tripping on bulging seams in the old top-rope flooring is good; Not leaving with 20 years of grime on your hands is good;

Not feeling like you’re in a horror film because of flickering fluorescent lights is quite pleasant; And, replacing weirdly short and steep top-rope routes with a 60-foot boulder wall is…awesome.

It’s true, fewer climbers make up their own problems these days and there’s arguably something lost there, but one can also see the emphasis on set problems a sign of luxury – a sign of the increase in talented setters who provide a high quantity of high quality routes and boulders.

And while you will surely play on some is-this-really-climbing? parkour boulders, every time you climb on a beautiful series of crimps with perfectly placed footholds, you’ll be reminded that you’re climbing at the one and only Joe Rockhead’s.

[shareprints gallery_id=”28910″ gallery_type=”thumb_slider” gallery_position=”pos_center” gallery_width=”width_100″ image_size=”large” image_padding=”0″ theme=”dark” image_hover=”false” lightbox_type=”slide” titles=”true” captions=”true” descriptions=”true” comments=”true” sharing=”true”]Photos from Gripped’s first visit to the “new” Joe Rockhead’s on Jan. 3 showing the new walls, problems, mats and psyche.