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Utah's oldest climbing gym was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Rockreation first opened 21 years ago, but this Monday its owners finally coiled the ropes, turned out the lights and shut the doors forever. It was the end of an iconic mom-and-pop climbing gym, and illustrates how sometimes explosive growth in an industry leaves some businesses in the dust.
"After a lot of soul searching," owner Jeff Clapp wrote in a statement, "I have come to the hard reality that the Rockreation Salt Lake City gym is no longer able to compete in today's state-of-the-art indoor climbing world."
Before Rockreation permanently closed Monday, it occupied about 4,000 square feet of space in Holladay. It was small, but it was enough. Nathan Williamson an assistant manager at another climbing gym called The Front said he always thought of Rockreation as the place where Utah's original climbers went to train. It was an "old school" scene where a climber could "hang out with legends" and learn the ropes.
"They were considered the quintessential very first place to do really hard training," Williamson added.
Jeff Pedersen, CEO of the large Momentum climbing gyms, also praised Rockreation, saying that in the early 1990s it was "a cutting-edge gym." Rockreation continued to stay profitable, Pedersen went on to say, because they catered to a core group of passionate climbers.
"They were a great operation," he said.
But over the years, climbing changed. Pedersen said that in the 90s Utah became a climbing epicenter for the sport, which was maturing into the modern activity most people practice today. That evolution continued into the 2000s as gyms proliferated and newcomers began to have their first experiences on indoor walls, rather than outside on actual mountains.
As that happened, newer and bigger gyms opened up to meet the needs of the growing market. Williamson's The Front has been around for about 15 years under various owners. It has about 10,000 square feet of space and today occupies a niche that might not have worked in a nascent climbing scene: it's known as a training facility for building strength, and as a place for singles and adults, rather than families and kids.
Even more importantly, The Front is preparing "to build a gigantic new facility," Williamson said. The new space will have more lounging area, more ropes courses and just more space. Williamson didn't say The Front needed to expand to survive, but he was optimistic that the addition would help the gym serve an "exploding" group of enthusiasts.
And that seems to be the way climbing is going. Pedersen currently operates two gyms, a Sandy location with about 20,000 square feet and a Millcreek location with about 25,000 square feet. He has plans to open even more locations in future.
Both of The Front and Momentum dwarfed Rockreation, which lacked the room to expand and evolve with the market. Salt Lake City climber and climbing teacher Steve Green said that put the gym at a disadvantage; Rockreation lacked some of the training emphasis of other gyms and its walls were less complex. Green also pointed out that climbing itself is still evolving, with more and more people exclusively climbing indoors. Rockreation, on the other hand, was designed to give outdoor climbers a place to practice and therefore didn't exactly cater to contemporary markets. And everyone who talked to The Tribune said the sport has seen explosive growth, fueled in part by media attention and people's desire to do something different.
All of which means the market gradually outgrew Rockreation. Clapp couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but his statement adds that he opted to close the gym at the end of March rather than face "a slow slide into disappointment for members and staff."
Still, the closure will leave a hole in the community. Pedersen said the people at Rockreation were his friends and he respected them for their years of work. Williamson summed up what many are likely feeling about Rockreation: "It'll definitely be missed."