Jason Thomas had one concern when a climbing gym opened in his hometown of Cortez, Colo.
“Will it hurt my hands?”
Assured that it would not, he gave it a try.
“I was hooked immediately,” says Thomas. So much so that despite still being in high school and having now climbed once, he asked the head of the rec center housing the gym who was managing the wall. No one? Well, mind if I give it a go?
That led to an improbable trajectory that saw him head to the University of Colorado in Boulder (to major in Philosophy) because of the local climbing, a job at a Boulder climbing gym, and soon to Eldorado Climbing Walls, where he managed to talk his way into a construction job. That was in 2005. Today — literally today — he stood at the base of the “tall walls” at the freshly minted Triangle Rock Club North Raleigh talking with climbers about his latest creation as Eldo’s lead designer (officially, he’s the company’s Design and Creative Director).
To the untrained eye, the new gym, which opened at noon today, more resembles something you might find at the N.C. Museum of Art with a sign at the base reading “Do Not Climb.” The angular, vibrant orange and yellow walls cover 13,500 square feet, climb to 30 feet and are pocked with an array of equally artsy plastic holds. When Thomas explains his inspiration, though, he doesn’t refer to cubist influences, modernism or realism. He starts with the business of demographics.
“I think of areas in terms of different user groups,” says Thomas. Standing just inside the entrance to the gym, carved out of a cavernous former Gold’s Gym at Duraleigh Road and Glenwood Avenue, Thomas explains the crucial first impression he hopes to land.
To the left is a low-lying beginner wall. To a first-time climber it’s reassuring: I could do that, the novice thinks.
There’s an open area straight ahead, then slightly right of center is The Beast. The capstone of the gym’s expansive bouldering area, The Beast is an intense overhang — no more than 5 1/2 feet off the ground at the start before gradually swooping up to the ceiling.
“We want people to look at that, see people going up it, and think, ‘I want to do that!’,” says Thomas. “For any beginning climber it’s about progressions,” he says. “You need something to work toward.”
To the far right is the more advanced climbing area, dominated by a 30-foot spire. Again, progressions.
The gym is a collaboration of Eldorado’s wall building expertise — the company has built more than 110 gyms in the U.S. — and the Triangle Rock Club’s business model.
“They are the best in the business,” says Thomas.
The process began about six months back when Thomas flew into Raleigh to check out the future home of the North Raleigh TRC. At the time, the building was the gutted three-story remains of a Gold’s Gym. Thomas met with TRC managing partners Joel Graybeal and Andrew Katz, head route setter Scott Gilliam and facility manager Skinny Eney and kicked around some ideas. Then they went to Graybeal’s house, had dinner, drank a few beers and gathered around the big screen, where Thomas started to bring their shared vision to life with a 3D computer modeling program. Thomas went back to Boulder and within a month and a half they had a plan.
Thomas said TRC management was eager to improve on its gym in Morrisville. For instance, the intense bouldering area there is in a high traffic area. In North Raleigh, The Beast has plenty of room for passersby to get around.
“We didn’t want an 8-year-old at a birthday party getting landed on by someone bouldering,” says Thomas.
The bouldering area is particularly spacious, in large part to accommodate a key element of the sport: socializing.
“Bouldering is much more social,” says Jerad Wells, Eldorado’s CEO and a former professional climber. “People like to talk about the routes, they like to Tweet about it, they like to post about it.”
Another nice feature for the beginning boulderer: the beginning to intermediate bouldering area is in the back of the gym, where there are fewer eyes to watch your clumsy attempts at your first V2.
TRC also wanted the programming area — where classes are taught — separate from the main walls.
“They felt the classes were cramming the regular members [in Morrisville],” says Thomas.
The target market for the gym may surprise. Climbing gyms are viewed as the domain of lithe, athletic, 20somethings, but the Eldo crew had someone else in mind when they designed this gym.
“Our demographic is the same for Home Depot and Starbucks,” says Wells. “We go after families, and moms in particular since they tend to be the decision makers.”
“When I design a gym I design 80 percent of it for the beginner climber,” says Thomas.
The Eldo crew has kept plenty busy trying to keep pace with the current climbing boom. Thomas says they currently have nine gyms in various stages of construction across the country, “but we’ve got about 25 in design through completion.”
And it’s not just private gyms such as the TRC keeping them busy. They do a lot of school and university walls, rec centers, and outdoor projects, including a 50,000-square-foot outdoor climbing structure for the Boy Scouts in West Virginia that was designed to resemble climbing in the nearby New River Gorge. They’ve even begun installing climbing walls in office buildings.
State-of-the-art as the Triangle Rock Club North Raleigh is, Thomas says climbing gyms are evolving by the day.
“Boundaries are being pushed every day,” says Thomas. “As long as there’s a surface to be on and hand holds to hang on to, people will climb it.”
The trick, he says, is appealing to the moms, the families and the beginner masses, while still enticing the devout. Motioning to The Beast, he adds:
“You still need to have that ‘wow!’ factor.”
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For more on the Triangle Rock Club North Raleigh, go here.