The Gym Protecting the Crag

Photo: Wisconsin Climber's Association

Photo: Jay Knower/ Wisconsin Climber’s Association

By Alex Beld

As a business owner, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that anything with the power to pull a customer from your doors is a competitor. Many businesses strive to put their competitor out of business, ending the competition. As a gym owner, the answer is certainly not the same when it comes to the local crag. In fact, to some gyms, it’s clear that the outdoors are a friend to the gym industry even if it doesn’t act as a source of revenue. Many climbers from recent generations are getting their first climbs in the gym, but those who got climbing going learned outside. Some of those outdoor climbers moved on to be at least a portion of the gym founders and owners of today.

Once the decision is made that real rock is a friend to the gym, a second question of what to do about it comes about. If the answer is to just let it be, it ends there. But if a gym wants to get involved in advocating to maintain and increase access to outdoor climbing they have to figure out the best way to do that. Does the strength of the gym come from the business itself and its capital or does the access to many voices better serve access to natural climbing?

It’s Not Business Sense

Though climbing gyms come with fitness equipment like chain fitness centers and host birthday parties like a laser tag venue, they have something else not as commonly found at a smaller business. These gyms, to varying degrees, are gathering places for the climbing community.

“The more that a gym can ingrain itself to the community, the more it can push beyond being ‘just a gym,’” said Steve Schultz of the Wisconsin Climber’s Association. “While that might not line the owner’s pockets, it solidifies each gym as a community which is arguably more important for the climbing community as a whole. Being an advocate is a service to your members and we’re incredibly thankful that we have two gyms that think that way.”

Boulders Climbing Gym in Madison and Adventure Rock in Milwaukee recently hosted letter signing events with the WCA in an effort to open Ableman’s Gorge State Natural Area to climbing. The group was given access to the two gyms during busy hours in high-visibility areas. The gorge is about an hour drive north of Boulders. Ultimately there was no cost to either gym, but they also gained nothing from the effort.

“I have literally no concern with it being competition,” Boulders General Manager Katie Schultz said about the area. “I think the more people climbing, the better.”

Without discounting these efforts it is, however, fair to say that offering space and exposure is a far easier effort than making a large financial contribution. To save access to Black Wall at Donner Summit, Planet Granite donated $40,000 towards the acquisition of nearly 12 acres of land in 2015. With the help of Planet Granite, Touchstone Climbing, the Truckee Donner Land Trust, Access Fund and the climbing community a total of $300,000 was raised.

Founder of Planet Granite Micky Lloyd said, “We don’t view all these things from a strictly business perspective.” They normally don’t exceed $20,000 for an individual cause, he later added.

The gym donates about $40,000-50,000 to outdoor climbing initiatives every year. Other than Access Fund the gym gives to The Sharmafund, Outward Bound and Big City Mountaineers. Each of which provides young people, in many cases underprivileged youths, with outdoor experiences. Each entity is doing something the gym can’t necessarily provide, which is why they didn’t work alone to save access at Donner Summit.

“Access Fund, we feel they can do things we can’t,” Lloyd said. He explained in the case of Black Wall, Access Fund provided experience with laws and regulations, the Truckee Donner Land Trust worked on the financing and the gym was responsible for raising funds with their own capital and through their membership.

Planet Granite has a membership of about 10,000 and through the help of that group about $44,000 was raised for Black Wall. Letting other groups take care of the rest helps them focus on their business after engaging their customers. The U.S. Small Business Administration and others also agree that these same customers typically view generous businesses in a more favorable light. So it may not offer a cash incentive that can be directly tracked, but there could very well be one in there. It also doesn’t hurt that donations can come with tax incentives.

The Influence of a Climbing Gym

“Anybody at any time can have influence,” Lloyd said.

It’s no secret these days that large corporations have the ability to sway government officials at varying levels. The indoor climbing industry, however, isn’t nearly as large, but these gyms are part of a business community, unlike many others.

Lloyd said the climbing industry is unique. “We have an incredibly passionate membership base,” he added.

This power can come in the form of the $44,000 donated by the membership base of Planet Granite or by calling, writing and even emailing government representatives. On the other side of the spectrum, Boulders and Adventure Rock were able to help the WCA gather at least 125 letters to mail to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as they continue to discuss land use at Ableman’s Gorge.

“The DNR has mentioned that the climbing community showed its voice through the Ableman’s process and that has allowed us a chance to have more in depth talks with them,” Steve said. “We’re in the process of putting together a larger proposal for the DNR so I can’t speak directly about which other areas we’re looking to gain exceptions to.”

The initial comment period for the management plans of natural areas ended in late March. The new plans for each area go before the Natural Resources Board on May 24. The climbing public will have another chance to make their voices heard at that meeting.

“Seeing us as a large user group is more important,” Katie said. “If we get one area open it will be easier to get the next one,” she later added.

In the case of Donner Summit money offered a more permanent solution, but this method can only be pursued when working with private landowners. In some cases, landowners will allow climbers, but that only lasts as long as they decide. With Donner Summit it was a case of the owner becoming concerned about liability.

“What we needed to do was provide an incentive to those owners,” Lloyd said. He explained that gyms need to be willing to put “money where your mouth is.”

To get members to put up some money for these endeavors it helps to offer incentives for them. Planet Granite auctioned off a guided trip among other items. Not many people have an adverse reaction to getting something for their efforts. Money, however, only gets the climbing industry so far, as more than half of U.S. climbing areas are on public lands.

If Lloyd and Katie are right about the voices of many having much more sway than a handful of cash, this isn’t necessarily a problem. And the smaller, yet growing industry can continue to put up cash when it can, but focus on learning how to mobilize its membership.