A climber’s paradise

North America’s largest climbing gym opened in Englewood, Colorado. What does this mean for the climbing community?

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Earth Treks' newest gym expansion and its inclusion of new climbing styles and education tactics symbolize a new age in the sport.
Grey Satterfield courtesy of Earth Treks

I’m swinging from the top of the tallest route at the brand-new Earth Treks Englewood facility, my camera in tow. Looking down at the emergence of Colorado’s newest climbing community, I snap pictures as folks pull down on brightly colored plastic holds and smear their feet against the textured walls, smiling while fighting against the pull of gravity. Both green rock enthusiasts and seasoned vets alike are exchanging grunts and encouraging exclamations as they pass tough moves or cling for dear life, trying to figure out the next place to go on the gym’s 65-foot-high artificial climbing walls — which are now the tallest you can find anywhere in Colorado.

The 53,000-square-foot Earth Treks climbing facility in Englewood, Colorado, opened in early September, and it’s the largest of its kind in North America. With more than 250 roped-climbing routes, 200 feet of crack climbing and 230 bouldering routes, this is a monumental amount of climbing under one roof. Even dangling from above, I feel the excitement buzzing down below.

Have you seen those flashy photos flood your Instagram feed lately — you know, the ones with climbers hanging effortlessly from a precarious piece of rock, ready to make a move that looks impossible to nail? Well, that’s never been me. Climbing doesn’t come easily to me; I’m gifted with a strong sense of self-preservation and a healthy fear of heights.

So, I never considered myself a climber until a few years ago, when my significant other, John, wanted to stop a 15-year smoking habit and get back into shape. He figured rock climbing could do the trick, and when some climbing friends recommended Earth Treks’ original Colorado gym in Golden, I showed up week after week with John to support his goals.

What I didn’t expect was how the bright, chunky plastic holds would beckon my grip. Even indoors, I sensed an air of adventure watching lead climbers swing from single strands of rope, dozens of feet off the ground. But what really made me want to try on this whole climber thing was the sense of camaraderie, the high-fives from friends who were all jumping outside their comfort zones, too.

It took a while, but the supportive environment at Earth Treks Golden slowly turned this exposure-shy gal into a full-blown climber. Over the years I learned climbing techniques, lead climbing safety, outdoor anchors, rappelling and more through their course offerings — a favorite was called Whip Therapy, where you learn to properly fall on lead and your belayer learns safe catching techniques. Slowly I developed into the high-alpine, multi-pitch climber I am today.

Meg Atteberry

Earth Trek’s new climbing gym responds to the demand for more indoor climbing opportunities here in Colorado. Since the second half of the 20th century, professional climbers and amateurs alike have used gyms to train for their outdoor pursuits. But with the twin influences of a booming fitness industry, population increases in Colorado and the announcement that climbing will join the Olympic Games in 2020, gym climbing has skyrocketed in the U.S. In 2017, 43 new gyms opened (that’s almost one per state) and climbing for fitness skyrocketed a whopping 10 percent last year. It’s no longer unusual for people to climb only indoors.

There’s one route in particular that stands out in the Englewood facility: the brand-new, full-sized, regulation speed wall. Speed climbing — an indoor climbing discipline where competitors race up a standardized 10- or 15-meter route on top rope — has long been considered a distant practice among U.S. climbing communities. But now that it’s been bundled with lead climbing and bouldering in the Olympic games, elite climbers who want to wear the U.S. colors must also train for indoor speed. Before Englewood’s facility opened, speed climbers living on the Front Range would have to travel hundreds of miles just to find a 15-meter standardized wall on which to practice.

I caught up with Carlo Kopf, a long-time climber at Earth Treks and dad of world-class youth climber Sienna Kopf. Sienna Kopf, 16, placed third in the Speed Climbing National competition in her age group and 10th this year in the World Speed Competition for Youths.

Courtesy of Carlo Kopf

The Kopfs used to drive seven and a half hours to Utah in order to train on a full-sized speed wall. Earth Treks included the 15-meter course, complete with auto-belay and timer. “We are pretty excited to have a full-sized speed wall in our backyard,” Kopf says. Sienna doesn’t have to worry about fatigue from travel and envisions her climbing career blossoming even further with the new accessibility.

During Earth Treks opening week, I chatted with several climbers who came from the original Golden facility to check out the new digs. In the busy bouldering area, climbers of varying skill levels were monkeying about in the caves, chatting about the excitement of “sick new holds” and the creative terrain.

One climber I talked to couldn’t wait to bring his wife to the new facility. She’d been hesitant to join him bouldering, since the drops from the tops of the rope-less walls were often daunting in height. Earth Treks Englewood installed a ladder on one of the bouldering walls to help climbers safely reach the ground again.

As though anticipating new climbers flocking to the walls, eager to learn the sport, there’s a dedicated area to education, with the ability to create two classrooms on shorter walls for climbers to hone their skills.

Meg Atteberry

The lead wall offers more seasoned climbers an opportunity to get their pump on with its completely overhung terrain from start to finish. The climbing wall design firm Walltopia worked directly with Earth Treks to respond to the needs and wants of their climbers: varied features, overhangs, creative problem solving. Looking at the heartbreak wall, you see a large crack running through the middle of a three-dimensional heart shape.

“We are excited to introduce new people to the amazing sport of climbing and get more people included in the best community around,” says Tori Barnett, marketing manager at Earth Treks.

I’ve felt the powerful uplift that climbing communities provide. Newer climbers often learn techniques from more seasoned vets, developing mentor/mentee relationships. Since outdoor climbing gear is expensive, climbing partnerships develop in order to share gear and at the crag (outdoor climbing area) and it isn’t uncommon for fellow climbers to shout words of encouragement as someone attempts to pull a difficult move. Earth Treks wants to serve as the go-to gym for facilitating mentorship and positive-minded climbing, so with its opening, the gym rolled out a new program to make climbing more accessible. You can take a one-hour belay class where a newbie climber can learn the ropes (literally) and safely learn how to top rope. The best part? If you’re a member of the gym, you can gift these courses for free to friends and loved ones. The belay course enables climbers to learn the basic safety of climbing in a controlled environment. The course includes a full-day of access to the gym, all classes and workout facilities so you can practice what you learn. “We want to further foster that climbing community. We integrated hangout spaces and lounge areas because people come spend the day here,” Barnett explains.

Englewood’s expansion and inclusion of new climbing styles and approaches to climbing education symbolizes a new age in the sport. And as I get lowered down from the top of the 65-foot route, camera in hand, I let the buzz in the gym settle in. The excitement makes me smile — it’s a great time to be a climber. All around me there are people from every walk of life getting excited to push their own boundaries and jump into the sport.

Meg Atteberry