May 5, 2011 in Outdoors, Washington Voices

Climbers’ indoor paradise helps all-season adventurers

Jill Barville
J. Bart Rayniak photoBuy this photo

Glenn Stewart has converted an empty warehouse near his work into a personal climbing wall. “This is a happy place,” he smiled, as he and climbing partner Reggie Oakes worked out April 13. The gym, which they use mainly during the winter climbing season, includes pingpong, a stationary bicycle, weights and a Bowflex machine.
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When you’re between a rock and a hard place, or hanging on by your fingers, it usually means trouble. But for sport climbers like Glenn Stewart, combining those clichés creates a problem that’s pure fun – pushing physical and mental limits to defy gravity and scale a rock. You could say it’s his happy place.

Though our area has many climbing rocks and routes, weather limits outside opportunities. So when it’s too cold, snowy or wet to climb outdoors, Stewart and his rock climbing friends retreat to The Rocky, the name for his personal bouldering gym in a nondescript warehouse in Spokane Valley.

Three years ago, the former diesel repair shop reminded Stewart of the training scenes in the movie “Rocky.” “It was disgusting and dirty,” he said with a laugh. With the help of climbing partner Reggie Oakes and others, he built a 16-by-8-foot bouldering wall for wintertime training.

According to Oakes, it’s perfect for the off-season because, “we can always create a controlled environment, get in good workouts, have fun and surround ourselves with positive people.”

To that end they’ve expanded the wall and built a second surface, so the space now has more than 700 square feet for climbing, with enough angles and interchangeable holds to create a constantly changing and challenging terrain.

It’s become the ultimate man cave for the active. At one end you can run on the treadmill, shoot hoops or play pingpong. At the other you can climb.

While Stewart keeps The Rocky private, he invites six to 10 climbers to train on its varied surfaces for “a big bouldering session” about twice a week. “It has opened us up to meet more people, more experienced, stronger climbers,” he said. “It’s my personal wall but I like to share it.”

He also opens the space for the Wild Walls climbing team to train before competitions.

“It’s really nice to have someone as welcoming and as open as he is,” said climbing coach Josh Jackman. “The second you enter the door you can feel the energy. Glenn is not only super happy, he puts in an exceptional effort. He has different angles, different holds. He and his crew set really good routes. It is a chance to get on totally different stuff which helps (the team) prepare for the competition.”

During a typical bouldering session, Bob Marley’s syncopated beats pulse in the background as climbers chalk up and put on their shoes. That’s all they need for this technical, rope-free style of rock climbing.

The wall juts and dips, with bolted holds of every hue protruding over crash pads four feet thick. Most of the holds have colored tape designating the route and difficulty. Like playing connect-the-dots, the goal is to follow the route to the top of the wall, 16 feet above ground.

“I train here for outside routes,” explained Stewart. He varies the location and style of holds to mimic the challenges he faces outdoors. In the climbing world, these are called problems, because successfully navigating a rocky route is like solving a puzzle.

This, naturally, requires a lot of holds. Stewart has more than he can count. “It’s like collecting stamps. I collect climbing holds,” he said.

To scale rocks without ropes, navigating angles from 30 to 69 degrees like Spiderman, requires physical and mental focus, so Stewart trains about 12 to 15 hours a week.

As a former competitive cyclist who has finished seven Ironman triathlons, this is scaled back for Stewart, who said he lost his love for cycling after he was hit by a car in 2006. About that time he started a family and was ready to slow the pace. But he still needed an athletic outlet so he turned to climbing, a sport he’d done recreationally for a few years.

“I need that structured lifestyle,” he said of the workouts. “I’m an immature alpha male.”

But Stewart still has the focus and drive of a competitive athlete, though he’s competing against himself now. Hoping to take his climbing to a new level, this year he hired online climbing coach Alli Rainey to provide weekly workouts, expertise and feedback.

So it’s no surprise that Oakes, who trains with Stewart, said “Glenn is one of the most positive, motivated individuals I’ve ever been around. He always wants to climb. He always wants to train and always has a good attitude. He is also very safety conscious.”

While the climbers are eager to test their skills outside as soon as weather and schedules permit, in the interim, The Rocky is the next best thing.

“It’s a very happy place,” said Oakes.

Jackman agrees. “Kids love it,” he said. “The last time we were there a kid asked if he could just sleep there. They fall in love with the place.”

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