Behind the Closures…is a series that interviews people who are part of the climbing industry during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis—and looks at how the situation is impacting gyms and companies around North America.
For this installment, CBJ ventures north—virtually, of course—to talk with the founder of a popular gym in Canada about the pandemic, reopening protocols, and someday returning to introducing new people to the “amazing sport” of climbing.
Name: Jordan Mackay
Title: Chief Climbing Officer, Regina Climbing Centre
Location: Regina, Saskatchewan
CBJ: Tell me about your background and the creation of Regina Climbing Centre.
MACKAY: I started Climbing on Mount Yamnuska [in Alberta, Canada] in 1986 at the Rocky Mountain YMCA. I love being outdoors in the mountains, and I try to spend as much time there as possible in all seasons. I later started to climb indoors at Stronghold in Calgary when it opened, and I still really like climbing there. I moved away from Calgary to pursue education and start our family in 2001. Regina is in the middle of the Canadian prairies, a ten-hour drive from the nearest mountains. In the 19 years in Regina, I finished my degree in finance and went through a couple of careers—one in pharmaceutical sales and one in risk management. I sold two products that nobody wanted to buy, insurance and pharmaceuticals, and now I sell a product that everyone loves.
Although successful, I really didn’t enjoy the work and I knew if I didn’t change I would not have my health. I grew up in a small business family and was always told that if you do what you love you’ll never work a day in your life. Finding that elusive opportunity proved harder than it seems. After a couple of years of searching, we went on a ski vacation to Kimberley [British Columbia] and went climbing at ARQ in Cranbrook, British Columbia. It is an amazing gym in a similar market size to Regina. I remember wondering to my wife Josie why nobody had built one in Regina…the rest is history.
CBJ: To a degree, all climbing gyms are in the same boat with this pandemic—forced closures, reopenings aligned with governmental regulations. But is there anything that makes Regina Climbing Centre’s situation unique?
MACKAY: We started the gym two years ago. It is a family business. My wife, Josie Ricci Mackay, and I are the owners and our kids, Ella and Paul, work at the gym. The climbing community was quite small and, I believe, was struggling to keep up the energy. We really didn’t know how many climbers were in Regina but it wasn’t very many. It was a leap of faith that we would have people that wanted to climb. A group had built a small bouldering wall in a two-car garage—and I think you needed a secret handshake to climb. Seriously though, I connected with the ownership of the garage gym and they were more than excited to have a commercial gym.
COVID puts a unique challenge on our community and membership as it is so young and developing. It might be easy for many to just have the sport disappear as they just started climbing and could easily go back to whatever else they were doing. I imagine in more mature communities the climbers will support the gym through thick and thin. We had just introduced many of our members to climbing, so to ask them to continue paying us for no service did not seem wise. We have frozen all memberships during the lockdown in an effort to bring everyone back when we reopen. We didn’t want to lose a single member. I feel like a custodian of the community and this crisis has only deepened this responsibility.
CBJ: How has this impacted Regina Climbing Centre’s staff?
MACKAY: Our doors have been closed since March 16th. We had to lay off our entire staff. This is the most horrible thing I think I have ever had to do. It broke my heart and I hope we can rehire them all.
CBJ: There was a social media post from Regina—“stress relief COVID style.” What has been the most stressful part of this whole pandemic?
MACKAY: When you own a business, it is a constant learning curve. I have learned a lot of lessons that I didn’t know I needed to learn. Having to let go your entire staff of people that you really like is brutal. I was a complete mess and the first few phone calls were ridiculous. Most of my staff are students and not having work will significantly impact their lives. I even had to lay off my own kids.
CBJ: Your gym has not reopened yet. But at this point, what does reopening look like for Regina Climbing Centre, in terms of potential guidelines for members and staff?
MACKAY: I am not really sure when—or what—the requirements will be if allowed to reopen. We are kind of grasping at whatever information is available in our province and other areas. We are trying to prepare for whatever regulation hits us, but also learning as much as we can so we can offer the safest environment possible. As information comes, we will be sharing climbing specific information with our regulators to make sure they understand climbing. Having said that, I don’t think we are out of the woods yet. I am hopeful but realistic that without a cure or vaccine nothing—with the exception of travel and a crash course in social distancing—has changed.
I believe that the scientists, doctors and administrators in charge of COVID in Canada and Saskatchewan are amazing people and will give us prudent guidance. Nobody wants to get people sick, so we will do what we need to when we are allowed to do it. Our priority when we do reopen will be to reengage with and focus on our existing community. They need to feel safe to return. Once we have better control on COVID then hopefully we return to growth and introducing more people to this amazing sport.
Share your story
Are you leading a climbing gym or brand through this unprecedented period of gym closures? Or, do you work for a gym or company that is now closed and have a story that others could benefit from hearing? If so, please contact us and tell us about it.
John Burgman is the author of High Drama, a book that chronicles the history of American competition climbing. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient and a former magazine editor. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team. Follow him on Twitter @John_Burgman and Instagram @jbclimbs