Climbing Takes Off: New Rock-Climbing Gym to Open in Somerville

Somerville is getting a state-of-the-art rock climbing gym, complete with space to hangout, use the Internet, and meet new people.

Photo via Steve Annear

Photo by Steve Annear

With the popularity for indoor and outdoor rock climbing continuing to rise, the founders behind a Brooklyn facility decided to bring their business to the Boston area. Jeremy Balboni, a Babson College graduate and co-owner of Brooklyn Boulders, says avid climbers and those looking to get into the sport can expect to see the company’s newest 40,000-square-foot facility open its doors sometime in the spring or early summer in Somerville.

“We are not holding back on anything—the bouldering is going to be absolutely world class. [This facility] has been designed by climbers, for climbers,” says Balboni of the new location. “We all took a pretty active and in-depth role when it came to the design of these walls, with an eye for making sure they stay interesting for years and years to come. When doing something like this, you want to make sure you are designing something so people are having fun in 20 years down the line.”

The complex, called Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, will follow in the footsteps of its sister site in New York but with some added amenities and upgraded climbing options, including one of the largest bouldering walls in the country. Bouldering is a form of climbing that’s done without a rope, from lower heights and for shorter distances.

But the two-story rock-climbing facility won’t only be home to top-notch walls, Balboni says. Brooklyn Boulders Somerville will also feature areas for entrepreneurs, students, and businesses to flourish and get to know one another, not to mention access to the Internet and a glass enclosure with a fire place. Developers also have plans to include spots inside the complex for a rotating selection of pop-up style retailers to sell their products, something Balboni says is still “conceptual in nature.”

“We have a vision to bring these ideas in, and the reason we are doing that is because we want to be an anchor to the community so people can come to the gym and enjoy the company of one another,” he says. “You stay together for three to four hours [when climbing]. It’s a very different social interaction. If you can bring these pop-ups in, it adds a layer to an already really community focused endeavor.”

brooklyn boulders

Photo via and Brooklyn Boulders

People directly involved in the sport attest to its surging popularity, but the numbers are unclear. According to the Climbing Wall Association, based in Colorado, participation rates and the number of gyms actually out there isn’t currently recorded, however, experts are investigating ways to better gauge the rising popularity of the sport. A statement from the association says that climbing has gained traction in recent years, mostly because of an increased awareness about it being an approachable sport. The most viable data about activities such as climbing comes from a 2012 report released by the Outdoor Industry Association. According to that report, interest in climbing for first-timers, both indoors and outdoors, was up 20 percent in 2011. The median age for climbers was roughly 19 years old, the report says.

The introduction of more gyms like Brooklyn Boulders Somerville has added to the curiosity to try climbing, especially in a time when group exercising is particularly intriguing to those wanting to take up a new form of fitness. Indoor climbing, which often leads to a vested interest in taking the sport outdoors and into the wilderness, hasn’t been mainstream during the last two to three decades because people have gone after a traditional way of exercising, Balboni says. But that’s all changing. “I think people these days look for an alternative to what I would consider a fairly traditional workout,” he says.

For long-time climber Keith Hengen, the recent surge of newcomers to both the indoor and outdoor climbing scene has been noticeable, something that can both hurt—and help the sport—he says. “Because climbers don’t move that much, there is base impact and a ton of erosion [outdoors]. Not only is there a high environmental impact, but it also threatens access to all the climbing areas,” Hengen says of the challenges the climbing enthusiasts face when going outside.

In New England, outdoor climbing has become a finite resource because certain areas “can’t support hundreds and hundreds of people,” and as the industry becomes more mainstream, the ideal spots become more cluttered. On the inside, where bouldering and lead climbing, which uses ropes, have built up steam, it’s less about environment and more about safety. “The ethics and rules aren’t ‘don’t be inconsiderate’—there is actual potential for rapid, fatal danger [if not done right],” he says.

Despite immediate risks and dangers climbers might face, Hengen says his gut instinct to explain the reason why climbing is reaching a peak in popularity is because people don’t experience the same sensation of suffering from climbing that they would, say, at something like intense biking. “I think that the sort of immediate reward, the acute reward during the actual process of climbing, outweighs the physical discomfort, and I don’t think that’s the case when people consider taking up certain sports … it’s just another activity that happens to be pretty muscular, too” he says.

His own interest in the sport goes back nearly a decade and has become a daily activity—so much that he built a customized bouldering space in the attic of his Somerville house. As you approach the third floor, tucked away to the side at the top of the steps, there’s a room filled with holding grips for climbing and mattresses to catch anyone who falls while attempting to scale the various routes Hengen has laid out.

Hengen teaches his friends how to approach the bouldering process to make sure they are keeping safety in mind when attempting to climb. Hengen, who says he is excited about the new Somerville-based gym, agrees with Balboni’s sentiments that the sport aggregates a sense of communal enjoyment through a shared experience. “You have a bunch of people who associate it as a fun activity in a social group. And it’s a physically healthy and beneficial thing, and you can sell it to them for say, $20,” he says.

Balboni hopes that model is something that can connect the Boston area together in the years to come. “We want people to have a sense of success when they first come to the gym, and have the same success in five years, without ever being bored,” he says. “The walls we have built are aesthetically pleasing to everyone, not just experienced rock climbers.”

Other climbing gyms in our area:

Rock Spot Climbing; 67 Sprague St., Boston; 617-333-4433

MetroRock; 69 Norman St., Everett; 617-387-7625

Rock On Adventure; 661 Pleasant Street, Norwood; 978-835-2609

Boston Rock Gym; 78G Olympia Ave., Woburn; 781-935-7325