Get Outside RVA: A closer look at Richmond’s new climbing gyms

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Indoor rock climbing has been around in the Richmond area since Peak Experiences first opened its doors in Midlothian in 1998.

Since then, a lot has changed in rock climbing, but also in Richmond. The sport has grown from alternative, extreme sport to something that is viewed as accessible and safe to anyone, regardless of age, gender or ability level. As a result, the sport, and businesses associated with it are booming.

Meanwhile, Richmond was recently listed by Time Magazine as being the city with the second largest relative influx of millennials in the nation, not to mention young families, making it an ideal location for climbing gyms.

To make space for all the growing demand, two new rock climbing gyms are opening in downtown Richmond: Peak RVA and Triangle Rock Club Richmond.

Both facilities will be located just off of highways and within walking or biking distance of much of the city. Both have plans to open in the next few months, and both will feature space dedicated to yoga and other fitness opportunities apart from climbing.

Both facilities also have plans for growth and expansion beyond those that they are currently working on.

8New recently spoke with representatives from both businesses about their future plans to get an update about how things are coming along with the new locations and to learn more about their goals and aspirations moving forward.

Peak RVA

Peak Experiences first opened their doors in August of 1998. At the time, they were a novelty – they were one of the first large indoor rock climbing facilities on the East Coast.

They have been around and witnessed first-hand how the sport has evolved and how the Richmond area has grown and embraced outdoor culture and sports like theirs.

8News spoke with Jay Smith, one of the co-owners at Peak Experiences and the person in charge of operating the existing facility.

Jay Smith

“Ten or 20 years ago, climbing was seen as a rebel, extreme sport. People looked at you as having to be a little bit crazy because of all the perceived risk,” Smith said during an interview at the SCOR facility in downtown Richmond which will be the home of the new location. “But now, that mentality has changed. The perception has become that you can manage risk, and with the advent of gyms, much of the risk has been minimized.”

Smith has been climbing since he was a teenager, and first climbed at Peak as a member before becoming a part-time employee and then, eventually a part owner.

Smith said what initially drew him to the sport was the individualized challenge it presented.

“Unlike many sports, climbing is not really competitive in the traditional sense,” Smith said. “It’s about the individual, their growth and what path they choose. Regardless of whether you’re eight, 18 or 40, the only limitation is you.”

Smith said that Peak management has been considering a move into the Richmond downtown area for the past four to five years, but that it wasn’t until things started coming together with their partners at SCOR that it became a real possibility.

“We realized there was a market here that we might have been missing out on, but it was a matter of finding the right place that fit our needs,” Smith said.

Smith said that it wasn’t until SCOR’s dome collapsed in early 2017 and plans were made to build a new 50,000 square foot building that the two groups were able to come to an agreement to rent some of their old facilities.

Now Peak, along with help from Rockwerx, Inc., a national climbing wall manufacturer, are in the process of putting together the new facility.

According to Smith and a new online walkthrough of what the facility will look like when complete, the new site will feature over 15,000 square feet of climbing terrain, 5,000 of which will be devoted to bouldering. In all, the new facility is expected to accommodate up to 60 top rope climbs with a variety of terrain and angled surfaces, including a 38-foot overhanging wall.

The new facility will also have separate spaces dedicated to group events and for fitness. The group event area will have 10 ropes and auto-belays.

Smith said this area will also serve as space for instruction for those looking to learn new skills and technique, or to just learn the basics.

The whole facility is set to open sometime in late summer.

Once the work in Richmond is complete, Peak also has plans to build an additional 10,000 square foot bouldering facility adjacent to the existing Midlothian building.

When asked about the prospect of Triangle Rock Club coming into town, Smith responded that if anything, the competition would help everyone.

“I think the area can handle three to four gyms, and I honestly believe Richmond is big enough for everyone to thrive,” Smith said. “If the goal is to grow climbing, then the idea of competition or giving the climbers choice is not a bad thing.”

Ultimately, Smith said the goal of opening a new climbing gym is to spread the sport and help people push their individual boundaries while helping them foster new friendships.

“We want to focus on culture and community and take care of our members,” Smith said. “Richmond has a big outdoors scene. We want to foster relationships, not just teach people hard skills and technique, but help grow the culture and ethics as well.

Triangle Rock Club Richmond

The folks from Triangle Rock Club have been in business in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area in North Carolina since 2007.

Founding partners Andrew Kratz and Luis Jauregui, both former Marines and climbers, founded the business in an effort to take on a new challenge and “sew the climbing community” in their area.

Andrew Kratz (left) and Joel Graybeal are two of the managing partners responsible for Triangle Rock Gym moving to the Richmond area.

Not long after, long-time member Joel Graybeal joined them as a managing partner and has since helped oversee much growth in the business, from its original location in Morrisville to its North Raleigh and Fayetteville locations.

Soon, the group will be overseeing their latest addition in Willow Lawn.

8News spoke with Kratz and Graybeal about their decision to expand and their choice to move into the Richmond area. They said that one of the biggest incentives for the expansion, beyond hoping to grow the sport and their business was that they found a location that fit all of their needs.

“We were looking around North Carolina and then Richmond came on our radar screen and, and one of the drivers for us was finding the right piece of real estate, the right location and the right building,” Kratz said in an interview just around the corner from the former home of the Richmond Athletic Club which is currently in the middle of major renovations. “Once we deciphered the building and figured out how it could work for us, it was full speed ahead.”

Graybeal said the changing demographics and the high number of young people moving to the Richmond area were also a part of the reason for the move.

“Thousands of people a day across the country are learning to rock climb for the first time,” Graybeal said. “With climbing being added to the Olympics in 2020, there is a need for more climbing gyms in the country. Clearly, there is a growing need to serve more customers in this industry … Our goal is to collectively grow the climbing community. If we didn’t think that the market would support more gyms, we wouldn’t have come here.”

When asked about the reason for the rapid growth of the industry and sport, Kratz replied that he thought it had something to do with people looking for something that is real in a world full of impersonality and artifice.

“Folks nowadays don’t have interactions with others the way they used to,” Kratz said. “Everyone’s on their cell phone or looking at a screen … But climbing is a real thing that people are experiencing. If I climb a route, and you climb behind me, it’s the same thing. It’s an actual experience that you share, and so is that community that you get. It’s something that folks aren’t finding in everyday life nowadays.”

Graybeal offered an alternative, suggesting that others might be drawn, as he was, to the problem-solving aspect of climbing.

“My formal training is in aerospace engineering. I’ve always been intrigued by solving puzzles,” Graybeal said. “To be a good climber it’s technique, it’s strength, it’s coordination, it’s balance, it’s problem-solving and it’s mental resolve. And if you put all six of those together, if you improve any one of them, you become a better climber … You’ll never get bored and you’ll never run out of things you can’t do.”

The new TRC facility is set to feature 5,000 square feet of bouldering and 8,000 square feet of roped climbing initially. But within about a year, the group is hoping to build an additional 15,000 square feet of climbing. All walls are set to be built by an outside group called Walltopia.

In addition to the climbing, the new facility will feature all sorts of other stand alone perks like a dedicated yoga studio, a 2,400 square foot workout space featuring cardio machines and free weights, locker rooms with showers and a hot tub, sauna and steam room. Graybeal and Krantz said they are anticipating the new gym to open in mid-November.

When asked about moving into the market where Peak Experiences has long been the only gym, Graybeal says the key so far has been communication between the two groups.

“We didn’t want them to hear what we were doing from anyone but us,” Graybeal said. “So we called them up and said hey guys, we’ve got an opportunity we’re going to pursue up here. It’s going to have some impact on you, but just to the extent that we can, let’s de-conflict the situation.”

Ultimately though, Graybeal shared a sentiment similar to Smith’s.

“The reality is that the market is big enough to support us both long term,” Graybeal said. “And we both agree it’s going to be a little bit tougher in the beginning for both of us, but that period will pass and we’re both going to have very successful operations up here.”

As both new gyms are set to open in the coming months, Kratz offered advice to those looking to try the sport for the first time.

“Just get involved, climb, meet new climbers, educate yourself in all aspects of it … [It’s not for everyone], but for many, it’s a calling … and once they’ve experienced it, the challenge of it, the problem solving and the physical component, they’re hooked for life,” Kratz said. “Just get involved in the local activities at [your] local climbing gym to get plugged into the community.”

Graybeal offered his own advice.

“Most of the best things in life are not easy. There’s more of a fulfillment piece when you do something challenging,” Graybeal said. “I think a lot of people have a fear of falling or a fear of heights, but over time, we’ve seen tons and tons of people get past those. And I’ll tell you what, the people that do feel very empowered.”

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