THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOC
I asked Christiaan what time I should swing by so we could have a chat for this article. “Come on in around 10:00am.” I had the misfortune of underestimating my time getting over to Richter St. at such an hour. I was late and people were going the speed limit. Damn.
I pull up to the curb. I see construction contractors in an open lot. I don’t see the GNEISS logo anywhere. I approach and ask one of the workers, “is this the new climbing gym?”
A guy up on a scaffolding yells down to me. “Yeah, sure is.” He lowers his sander from the upper walls of the facility’s entrance. He raises his arm and points. “Just in there.”
I thanked him and rounded the corner. I walk into a clutter of hundreds of climbing holds scattered across its padded floors. Like a bowl of candy, I tip toe through an array of pink, blue, black, yellow and red climbing holds of all different shapes and sizes. I weave my way towards Christiaan, the owner of this whole operation and venture: Gneiss climbing.
He’s got a drill in one hand and a wooden plank in the other. He’s attaching them to the ladder, support for the route setters who use them to create a series of strategic and creative sequences for all levels of climbing, mainly bouldering, but as I walk into the room, the walls are blank and awaiting display. I am happy to see a wall just tall enough for rope climbing, a personal favourite. I think he’s caught me guessing the height of the walls as I come to a stop, straining my neck, looking up to the anchors.
“We had hoped for higher walls,” he shouts from across the room. “I think that wall will prove to be fun, though.” He removes his gloves and walks towards me. I walk over to him and we shake hands. It’s good to see him. It’s been too long. He goes right back over to the ladder and drill. Holding up a plank of wood he says, “I hope you don’t mind if we talk while I work.”
“Not a problem,” I say and get out my camera, pen and paper. Christiaan holds screws in his teeth as he drills one into the wood.
“So, how’d this all start?” I look around to the massive room. “How big is this place?”
Christiaan, on one bent knee, looks up and around he says, “It’s about 7,000 sq.” The walls are painted and textured with white, black and wooden brown. The ‘G’ of the Gneiss logo rests bold against them. The walls are angled mathematically, designed to challenge the movement, balance and strength of the human body.
“It started when I was working as a geologist back in Calgary. I was climbing a lot back then and was doing well in my career and enjoyed all of the travelling the work provided. I originally was interested in opening a gym in Kelowna because back then it had only one gym and I had become good friends with its owner, Mike. I didn’t want to impose on his business and I didn’t want a partner. The idea was put on the back burner, my career took off and then, a few years later, Mike called asking if I’d want to buy it. Years had passed, my life was rocking and I said thanks but no thanks.”
Christiaan sits with the ski now in place. He sets down the drill. “Add on a few more years, and my career ended up changing. Long story short, my company sold and with my departure I could finally afford to seriously think about opening a climbing gym and my sights went straight to Kelowna.”
Kelowna has a unique climbing community here. The majority of rock that’s climbed in the Okanagan is a metamorphic rock called gneiss. It’s pronounced (nice). I admit that for a few months, when it first opened its doors only 5 years ago, I was pronouncing it wrong. I was saying genesis. Google the Boulderfields sometime. That should give you an idea of how epic the bouldering is in Kelowna.
“Things came together and we’ve been busy ever since.”
“The pandemic must have been rough, though.”
“Oh ya. We even did a little video about down time as a gym owner. We never had a COVID related case, though. With all the touch points in a climbing gym it’s kind of amazing. We’ve been fortunate and it takes a lot of faith to keep the lights on and keep everything going.”
“What’s been the worst of it?”
“Rules can change so fast and getting reliable information was a challenge and the ups and downs were frustrating.” He stands up the latter and climbs to its top. He’s maybe 15 feet up in the air.
When you climb in a gym like this, the ‘bouldering area’ he’s on makes up the majority of the open space. Sunlight is bouncing off the floors filtering through the garage door. Peaks of the walls crown up along the tops in every direction in here. Bouldering is a sport that focuses on everything like strength, flexibility, balance, physical and mental power. It’s also a very social sport and lifestyle.
“How do you feel about the move into this neighborhood?”
“I’m really stoked to be so close to Knox mountain and to all of these local businesses. You can now have a good workout in here and go have a cold pint at any one of these places. It feels like a new chapter for Kelowna. We’re stoked to be a part of that.”
I enjoy this part of Kelowna. The old industrial part of the town. The rail trail ends up not far away. There’s hiking up Knox Mt and frisbee golf, the art district and prospera place are close by and there’s the waterfront that leads you to Bernard Ave. It’s all right here. And now there’s a new climbing gym.
“When are you hoping to open?”
He raises his arms, grinning. “End of the month? That’s the goal.”
I picked up one of the pieces. It’s a baby blue colour, its synthetic texture is like sandpaper, only stickier. “Man that is grippy. where are they from?”
“Sweet.” I take some photos as he gets back to prepping for tomorrow.
“When are you guys setting the walls?”
“We’ll start around 7:00am.”
“Can I come by and take some photos?”
“Sure. How does 10:00am sound?”
“I’ll be here.” I pack up my gear and head for the closest patio. It’s beer time.
It’s another sunny day. I have plans to go climbing out in the Southern end of Kelowna after I swing by the climbing gym. I walk in through the entrance and when I turn the corner I see a team of people, all wearing the GNEISS logo.
Some are up on ladders, some are hanging from those gum drop looking climbing holds I mentioned earlier. Drills scream over 90’s Dr. Dre that’s playing on a speaker somewhere. Christiaan is looking up at a section of the wall. It’s splashed in colour, very different from yesterday.
It hangs over, then leads up into a diamond tipped peak. He holds two bright pink holds in his hands. ‘Route setters’ are like painters. Their sequences are painted across a naked canvas. The routes they create bend and twist a climber, pitting them against the pull of gravity. I see an old friend, Jess Meril working on one of the routes. We exchange hellos and she tells me she’s setting a route winding its way almost upside down, diagonally. “Big moves on this one.”
She points out a few parts of the sequence you’d have to hook your heel on in order to pull the body up such an angle. Jess is one of maybe 8 or 9 crew members, Christiaan included. I spend time walking around, taking photos of this new facility and everyone working to get this place finished, hopefully before the end of the month.
It’s a good addition to this neighborhood in Kelowna. A neighborhood that is thriving in these lingering days of a pandemic. It’s been a struggle for many and with the storm now weakening, I am hopeful to see more businesses begin and others to be revived as a new chapter is being written here in the Okanagan.
I leave with my partner and we head out to the local bluffs. The cool sunshine of October will be nice company climbing in the last days of the 2021 climbing season. I leave with a collection of images and a story to tell about the new kids on the block out here in the old part of town, newly revived and building its community, climbing upwards, one success at a time.