After 19 days of free climbing the sheer face of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in California’s Yosemite National Park, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson recently reached the 3,000-foot summit.
Without a net. No pulleys. Ropes were present for safety only.
Ha. Child’s play.
Progression Climbing’s Rodney Biddle has been climbing for almost 12 months, and there’s no summit in sight.
As owner and founder of Chapel Hill’s Progression Climbing, the first local climbing center dedicated specifically on bouldering, Biddle knew that building his business over the past year would be a long, arduous climb, fraught with peril, and without a net. Still, the view looking back on the past year is impressive.
“I’m pretty pleased,” Biddle said. “There were a lot of challenges, but nothing specific to us – only the challenges to any small business. I’m very happy with the (direction) we’re going. Our graph shows a scale upwards consistently each month, which is good.”
Progression Climbing opened last March, offering a 1,600 square foot, custom-made, continuous padded flooring system – twice as thick as any other climbing gym floor in the Triangle or the Triad. At the bottom of the gym’s 16-foot artificial climbing walls are huge, 13-inch-thick crash pads to cushion the landings for any falling climbers.
Located at 1713 Legion Road, quietly tucked behind Ram’s Plaza, Progression Climbing’s location hasn’t provided for a lot of drive-by interest.
No, we don’t get that a lot,” Biddle acknowledged. “This road for Chapel Hill is an odd duck. We get some drive-by recognition, but a McDonald’s-style sign about 40-feet high would certainly help a bit.”
Biddle never doubted the success of his business, however.
“From day one, I was fully prepared to be open a year,” he said. “It was never an issue of whether the business would support itself. It was more a question of whether we could actually make money at it. Given our size and philosophy, it’s not been easy, but it’s easier than if we were double our size.”
Unlike top-climbing facilities at the Chapel Hill Community Center or on the UNC campus, bouldering at Progression Climbing has no ropes or harnesses. The 3,500-square foot facility offers challenging climbing terrain appropriate for beginners and experts, catering to enthusiasts of a sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years, especially among younger athletes.
“We’re the first to truly represent the sport here,” Biddle explained. “It’s actually the most approachable discipline within the climbing world, because you can do it at any time by yourself instead of doing it with a partner. It’s just a newer, hipper discipline in the sport.”
Biddle said once a climber experiences bouldering, it’s tough to derive the same challenge or thrill using ropes and harnesses.
“I’ve always thought that rope climbing was a bit of a stretch,” he said. “I understand on a giant wall like the one at the TRC (Triangle Rock Club) in Raleigh, but to put a rope on a 25-foot climbing wall seems silly when they’re actually bouldering 25-foot walls in California with bigger floors.”
Progression Climbing instructor Elizabeth Culler said bouldering called out to her immediately.
“I started working here in October as a general employee,” she said. “I was absolutely into bouldering before that though. I found bouldering through a friend at Triangle Rock Club, but then I came here and liked it a little better. I never played sports in high school or college, but I just found this, and I love it.”
Culler said bouldering seemed to strike a chord with young climbers.
“I’m working with this young girl, Sophie, right now,” she said. “Kids are just great to work with, and I think climbing really gives them a sense of accomplishment.”
Culler’s student Sophie Hogan, 8, agreed.
“My babysitter, Elizabeth, worked here and decided to bring me here one day, and she decided to help me rock climb,” Hogan said. “She told me the more I tried, the more I’d get better.”
Progression Climbing offers single visit rates for youths and college students ($10) and adults ($13) with substantial discounts for 10-visit punch pass holders. Climbing shoes ($3) and chalk bags ($2) are also available for rent.
Monthly and annual memberships for individuals and families also reflect savings and allow for unlimited access to climbing, retail discounts for climbing and classes, and more. Rates are published on the Progression Climbing website.
Progression Climbing also offers programs like youth and adult climbing teams for climbers of all ages and skill levels. Three organized climbing teams compete for Progression Climbing: both a recreational and competitive youth team and an adult training team.
Progression’s youth competitive team has been to regional competition at the Triangle Rock Club, to Charlotte and to Richmond, Va.
An after-school youth camp for ages 7-14 is offered for those not ready to join up with a team. The program meets 4:30-6:30 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Progression’s website stated.
“We’ve also hosted plenty of birthday parties,” Biddle pointed out. “We even have kids’ yoga in the building now, and we’ve had a big reception with our youth team. Kids join the team and come in twice a week with a coach. It’s gone very well.
Biddle understands that indoor bouldering’s main goal is to prepare climbers to face the elements outside.
“We did some local bouldering trips – day trips to here and there,” he said. “Those went very well, but that works best with newer climbers.”
During warmer weather, Progression Climbing typically tries to schedule at least one outdoor trip each month to local bouldering sites as close by as Carrboro or farther away – to Hanging Rock State Park or Grandfather Mountain.
Recent developments at Progression include a collaboration with Meraki Wellness to offer a variety of Pilates and Yoga classes as well as a range of Massage Therapy services, as well as a venture with Chapel Hill’s own Kidzu.
“We’re working with Kidzu, and we’re building a climbing wall for them at University Mall as sort of a cross-promotion,” Biddle said. “We’re donating labor and design, and Fitch Lumber is giving them a break on the (materials).”
Biddle also hasn’t ruled out expansion.
“We’re just trying to continue to grow and build our revenue so that we expand our vision,” he said. “Our ability to implement that vision is only limited by our pocketbooks. But we’ve already got the money to do some more work inside the building, and we’re talking with the bank about moving forward. We’ve got some property next door that’s vacant.”
It only seems fitting, as their business prospects have been “looking up” for almost a year.