Rock Climbing Through COVID: The Commons

After donning my climbing shoes and tightening my harness, I attached myself to an auto belay carabiner, grasped a nearby outcropping, and began pulling myself up a 45-foot wall at The Commons climbing gym.

Halfway up the knobby embankment, I was out of breath, my forearms burned and my fingers ached as I searched frantically for footholds below like I was climbing a prison wall to freedom. Also, I knew there was a climber watching me from a bench below and I certainly wasn’t going to look like a wuss, so I forged on to the top.

My first solo rappel seconds before I tripped and fell, bruising my ego more than anything else.

I’m no seasoned climber, the most climbing I’ve done involves climbing the scoreboard on Tetris. Where I grew up in Twin Falls, my friends climbed on basalt walls in the Snake River Canyon, but I had other priorities, like eating junk food and watching daytime television. 

So given my lack of experience, my second ascent that day was even tougher. 

On my second attempt, beads of sweat formed on my brow and I felt slightly ill. I nearly let go at several spots on the wall. Still I was determined to keep climbing and despite my rubbery forearms, I made it to the top for a second time.

Rebuilding From Scratch 

My struggle up the climbing wall at The Commons is similar to the gym’s origin story. The gym exists because a community of tight-knit, tenacious climbers refused to give up after their old climbing gym, Urban Ascent, was bulldozed to make way for an affordable housing project in 2018.

Urban Ascent before it was demolished in 2018. The site is now a parking lot for affordable housing. (Photo Courtesy of Mary DeWalt)

In its heyday, Urban Ascent was second home to over 600 members deeply connected by their love of the sport, including Clinton Colwell, who worked as the gym’s manager. 

Colwell and fellow climbers were told they’d have several month’s notice before their gym would be closed to make room for an affordable housing project planned by the city. But Boise broke ground far earlier than expected in May 2018 and abruptly told Urban Ascent they’d have to shut their doors.

That spring, Colwell told The Statesman that “people are going to survive and be fine, but it will leave a pretty big gap.” 

Refusing to give up, Colwell said hundreds of people in the climbing circle came to him and his Urban Ascent peers asking them to take action and open a new gym.

“A group of us from that community decided to pool our resources,” Colwell said. 

The Commons Co-Owner Clinton Colwell started climbing when he moved to Boise to complete a master’s degree in Geophysics.

Before my climb, Colwell, now one of seven co-owners of The Commons—which includes two engineers, a librarian, a general contractor, a doctor, and another former Urban Ascent manager—explained the deep interpersonal connections climbing fosters.  

“Climbing by its very nature is community based,” he said. “You generally need partners to climb, so you develop these deep lifetime friendships.”

Colwell and the six co-owners paid $850,000 for two separate office buildings on Emerald Street near its intersection with Orchard Avenue on the bench in Boise. During construction, the two buildings were fused to create the The Commons.

“We raised one of the buildings 45 feet on the outside, but we were able to go down three feet, so we have 48 feet in here,” Colwell said, referring to the bigger part of the building where we talked. 

The smaller side of the gym, which has 19 foot high walls, contains bouldering space. Bouldering involves climbing shorter sections of wall and doesn’t require a harness and belay partner.

Near the bouldering section, the gym houses traditional gym equipment and a yoga/dance studio. Throughout my conversation with Colwell, drills could be heard in the background, the work of “setters” who regularly move foot and handholds on the walls to form new climbing routes.

Several setters busy at work. Foot and hand holds are repositioned regularly to offer new climbing challenges.

Colwell said 20 months after Urban Ascent was bulldozed, the climbing community triumphed when The Commons officially opened its doors on February 20, 2020.  

But a new challenge lurked just around the corner for Colwell and his partners, and it would again take the continued supportive spirit of the climbing community to overcome. 

Coming Together Through COVID

COVID was a nauseating cheap shot to the gut for The Commons and its members. The gym had scarcely been open for a month before it was shuttered for the initial quarantine lockdown. 

Gym Co-Owner Mary DeWalt— who’s an avid climber and director of the Ada Community Library—told me the gym stayed alive in 2020 because people in the climbing community look out for each other. 

Sarah Jareczek teaches me how to belay properly. Unfortunately, I had no climbing partner to practice with.

Despite not being able to even use the brand new gym facilities during three months of quarantine lockdown, she said, most members kept paying their monthly dues allowing the fledgling gym to make its mortgage payments. 

“We are just so amazed by the community,” she said. “People had an option and we were happy to freeze memberships but a huge majority were happy to continue their memberships because they knew the situation we were in.” 

The Commons opened again in May and when I visited in November and December, masks and social distancing were in effect with no more than 60 people allowed in the building at the same time. 

“There are some days where we get close to that 60 but we haven’t had any situations where we’ve had to stop people at the door,” DeWalt said.

She said climbers take COVID seriously and look out for each other, following gym protocols of social distancing and wearing masks throughout sessions. Through sheer luck, climbers at indoor gyms may also have an extra level of protection against transmission of the virus.

Climbers train to tackle epic routes in the traditional gym section of The Commons.

A September 2020 study, conducted by researchers at De Montfort University in England concluded that the loose climbing chalk—calcium or magnesium carbonate—used to keep climber’s hands dry eliminates 99 percent of a virus similar to COVID-19 within one minute of contact.

Life After the Pandemic 

The Commons was created to be a place where people could come together. For obvious reasons, COVID threw a wrench in several plans for community events.

“The thing we are really missing is the social aspect,” DeWalt said. “People can chat standing apart with masks on, but it’s not quite the same.” 

She said during the four weeks The Commons was opened before COVID, the gym held a variety of events including a presentation from a geologist on rock variety in the Boise area, bird conservation in climbing spots, and climbing film screenings.

(Caption: Climbers had about four weeks to experience The Commons before it was closed in March 2020 for COVID lockdown. Courtesy of Mary DeWalt)

When COVID vaccinations are dispersed and the pandemic subsides—hopefully early in 2021—DeWalt said the gym continues to host events and further build on the existing climbing community.

“It’s funny because we have all these great ideas, but we’re just not able to do anything right now,” she said.

But despite the restrictions from COVID, people are still joining the ranks at The Commons.

During recovery from my tough solo ascents at the gym in December, I ran into Nathan Duncanson, a Boise transplant from the Tennessee/Arkansas area who was getting ready to tackle some routes. He said he started climbing in Boy Scouts and later became an instructor. 

“Now I just do it for fun a couple days a week because I can,” Duncanson said. 

He said he climbs at The Commons because there usually aren’t large crowds of people and the routes are challenging and fun.

Nathan Duncanson uses an auto belay to ascend a 45-foot wall in preparation for outdoor climbing this spring.

 “The setters do a fantastic job,” he said.

Compared to what is available in the flatter, eastern half of the U.S., Duncanson said, Boiseans have great access to indoor and outdoor climbing spots.

“You’ve got routes within a three hour drive,” he said. “I used to have to drive seven or eight hours back home to get any sort of good climbing and now it’s just down the road.”