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, companies and communities in various regions.
For this installment, CBJ talked with Andrea Charest, who has run the Petra Cliffs (@petracliffs) gym in Burlington with her husband Steve since 2012. The facility itself is much older than that, dating back to the year 2000. As a result of such longevity, Petra Cliffs has become a key part of the Vermont climbing community. But as Charest explains, the gym and the community have never experienced anything quite like this pandemic.
Name: Andrea Charest
Title: Owner and Guide, Petra Cliffs
Location: Burlington, Vermont
CBJ: I saw a notice that Petra Cliffs will stay closed until at least May 15. Can you explain what will determine your decision to re-open?
CHAREST: Vermont’s Governor came out with the current “Stay Home Stay Safe” order on March 21. We could see it coming, and we wanted to be in front of it, so we decided to close on March 16—we knew that just trying to clean more wasn’t going to truly help control this thing.
It seems like the order is working for Vermont; granted, we have a smaller population, but we still have less than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. In order to re-open, we’ll be taking direction from our local agencies for responsible operation, and we’re underway with developing new procedures for sanitization, methods of distancing customers, and limiting total numbers in the facility. For it to succeed, everyone will have to work together, and I know any changes for our collective safety will be worth it if it means we get to climb again. We will definitely feel a change to our day-to-day operations, but we’re game to get creative.
CBJ: I think everyone has gone through a phase where this whole self-isolation/pandemic thing feels surreal, and we have all had moments when it finally starts to “sink in.” When did it really start to sink in for you…both personally and as a gym owner?
CHAREST: I was on my way to Joshua Tree to work an event with Mammut and REI when the Seattle outbreak occurred in early March. This huge event was cancelled, which made it hit home for me. This was a couple weeks before it started to sink in on the East Coast. It still feels surreal though, like I might wake up one morning and it has all been a bad dream. With the business, our community received the news really well that we were making the call to close and that we weren’t sure when we’d be able to re-open. It eased the process a bit. Many members have kept their memberships active, and we’ve started some new sustaining memberships through which even out-of-staters have offered their support. It has been extremely encouraging to have our community’s vote for our survival.
CBJ: How do you spend your typical self-isolation/quarantine days?
CHAREST: We have a three-year-old who can only occupy herself for about 15 minutes at a time, so it’s definitely a challenge to get uninterrupted periods of work time in. I get up early to get in some work; I work during naps and after her bed time. We are keeping consistent weekly video meetings with our management.
Otherwise, we’re trying to spend quality family time with lots of exploring and playing. We’re cooking and baking … and doing house projects … which usually turn into bigger projects than we anticipate. It’s a paradox as to how time goes by so slowly yet so quickly.
CBJ: I saw that Petra Cliffs is selling a “Quaran-Tee.” How did that concept come about?
CHAREST: Our member and graphic designer, Dylan Fant, pitched the idea to us! He came up with the graphic and sent us color schemes. … It was really easy for us to say “Yes!” Dylan says, “I just got to thinking about how much I was missing Petra being open and ways I could use my skill set to try and help out in these weird times.”
CBJ: Petra Cliffs has done a thing on Instagram where people can tag @petracliffs with stories of how they are climbing while cooped up. Are there any submissions that have really stood out in your mind?
CHAREST: One of our climbing team members built an outdoor wall with her parents and shaped holds out of rocks and wood that she found around her house. So cool! Another member converted his guest room into a bouldering room, since he wouldn’t be having guests for a while.
CBJ: 2020 was slated to be the biggest year for climbing gym growth ever, but that will change now. Your gym has been around for a long time. Do you consider yourself optimistic, pessimistic or just realistic about what the foreseeable future of the gym industry will be?
CHAREST: Oh, we feel the wallop. We have a new gym project in the works, and we were planning to break ground this Spring. We’ve already gotten delayed once and we just want to see this new gym come to fruition! We’re still waiting a bit longer to determine what this means for the project, but projections were certainly based on our continued growth trend, the booming industry, and the growth that the industry would see after climbing debuted in the 2020 Olympics.
I’d say I’m optimistic but realistic for what comes next. Our current operations will feel the strain—especially if/when we see major changes to our usual 500 (or more) kids during summer camp—but I know that we can continue in “buckle down” mode for a while and our community will help sustain us. This, I think, most climbing gyms have in common. They are such hubs for a dedicated community, and they see climbing as much more than just a sport. I’m definitely open to the possibility of some things changing for the better.
And not really one of your questions, but just an homage to our gym’s history: We sold off some of our retired holds when we knew people would need to incorporate climbing into their home lives. One of our community members, who has been around since the beginning of Petra Cliffs, has a home wall and put dibs on more than 100 holds. While packing them up for him, I found one hold that was signed by Chris Sharma! Chris randomly showed up at one of our ABS (prior to USAC restructuring) bouldering competitions.
Share your story
Are you leading a climbing gym through this unprecedented period of gym closures? Or, do you work for a gym or a company that is now closed and has a story 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