Urbana Boulders climbs in popularity

Experienced climber Eric Pettenger attempts a difficult move Saturday at Urbana Boulders.

By Lillian Barkley

Urbana Boulders at 1502 North Cunningham Avenue has been open since Oct. 17. The gym is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, and anyone can climb regardless of skill level.

“It feels new and it feels good. It’s a relief, but it’s also the start of a new adventure,” said Alex Bragg, who runs the gym with Kristoffer Schmarr.

The gym was finished just under seven months after Bragg and Schmarr’s indiegogo campaign to build Urbana Boulders was fully funded. On March 26, the campaign closed with $14,409 — exceeding their $10,000 need.

“They started a great thing here. It’s going to be here a long time,” said Daniel Bernardi, who has visited the gym twice since it opened.

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Bragg hoped to “give everybody in this community another activity to do. If there’s something I think we can improve on in Champaign-Urbana it’s activities for everyone.”

The owners said business has been steady since they’ve opened, with some groups coming in multiple times within a week. On opening day, Bragg said they ran out of climbing shoes and had to rent more from the ARC.

“I had no idea this many people would come out,” he said. “We just didn’t really know what to expect because climbing in this town is a new market.”

On Saturday, the gym hosted two children’s birthday parties while more experienced climbers shared the walls.

“Each wall has something to offer everyone. All the children aren’t always put into one corner and all the advanced climbers aren’t always trying for the same area,” Schmarr said.

The 12-foot walls covering the interior of the building are color-coded. Grips of one color indicate a route, with the final grip marked by tape at the top of the wall.

“It’s way more intuitive,” Bragg said. “You can ignore everything else and just climb.”

Many climbing gyms mark their routes with tape, but Bragg said he and Schmarr wanted to use a color system from the beginning. This policy also extends to the gym’s difficulty scale, which is marked from easy to advanced by seven colored hands.

“We just want to get rid of numbers,” Bragg said.

Bouldering usually uses the “Hueco” difficulty scale, which goes from V0 to V16. The Urbana Boulders scale begins two grades below V0.

“That’s so we can have these beginners trying something new and getting in on the game with everybody else,” Bragg said. “We get new climbers in the door and they’re climbing within minutes.”

Bouldering, unlike normal rock climbing, doesn’t use harnesses and rappelling. Climbers use only their muscle to reach the top and either accidentally fall off or fall back when they reach the top. This sounds dangerous, but every climber is given a workshop on safely falling beforehand, and the gym is padded with 12-inch foam.

“This is the only gym I’ve ever been to that’s padded the whole floor,” said Hadley McGuire, one of the regulars who had been to the gym twice, and was sporting an Urbana Boulders t-shirt.

Schmarr said that there had been no injuries more serious than torn skin on climbers’ hands.

“We have brand-new holds here, so the texture is really crisp,” Bragg said. “People get a little excited and climb harder than their skin will allow.”

The grips may wear down, but routes will not. The walls are divided into eight sections, and one section will be changed every week.

“We want to keep Urbana Boulders fresh; we want to change the routes often,” Bragg said.

They also plan to change the climbing rope hanging in the open space between the walls. Bragg said it could be switched for gymnastics rings, a door or “some object people can interact with and have an experience around.”

Though the gym just opened, the owners have plans for expansions in the next year. “Phase 2” is written in bold on a white wall in the back half of the gym. The addition will include more climbing features and seating so students can climb and then use the free wifi to study.

“We have a big University following,” Bragg said.

The owners are working on organizing classes and are aiming to host competitions in the future.

“It’s just Kris and I right now, so we’re just trying to get the basics down before we develop any sort of community activities,” Bragg said.

For now, however, they are having a Halloween event where everyone can climb in costume as long as it doesn’t have a cape.

Bragg and Schmarr are the only full-time employees of the gym.

“I logged my first 90-hour week last week. It’s a pleasure to be open,” Schmarr said. “It’s like they say: When you’re working your dream job, it doesn’t feel like work.”

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