Woman indoor rock climbing

What It’s (Really) Like to Start a Climbing Gym

By Jennaye Derge

Rock climbing is rarely thought of as easy. Challenging yourself is kind of the point. Maybe that’s why two climbers decided to tackle an equally daunting task: opening a climbing gym in rural Colorado. 

Sebastiaan Zuidweg and Laura Chase are gearing up to open Gravity Lab in Durango, a town of 19,000 in the southwest corner of the state. While both Laura and Sebastiaan could be considered ambitious – in life and in climbing – neither of them would describe the process of opening a climbing gym as easy.

The couple met in Crested Butte before getting married and moving to Durango in 2019. When they arrived, they had no idea that they’d soon be opening a gym. The universe, however, had other plans. Durango’s previous climbing gym, The Rock Lounge had closed in 2020, leaving a growing population of climbers without a community hub or training center. Zuidweg and Chase jumped at the opportunity.

Sebastiaan Zuidweg and Laura Chase and child

They jumped in a way that was more of a slow tip-toe, and then a blind leap into the abyss. Both Zuidweg and Chase had backgrounds in the healthcare industry and had never owned a business. Gravity Lab was started on crumbs of ideas and bravery, and it was the crumbs that led them to take their first concrete steps. 

Even though climbing gyms are growing in popularity, that doesn’t mean they are becoming any easier to build and successfully open to the public. Climbing gyms can be a challenging business model to finance. On top of that, the buildings typically require a lot of construction, and local and state ordinances that can present unexpected obstacles.  

Despite the challenges, Zuidweg and Chase knew it was meant to be when they found the perfect location.

“All of a sudden, what was once a pipe dream for us, became a reality when we found an amazing property and we found ourselves in a position thinking that maybe we could afford to do this.” Zuidweg said. 

It was important for Zuidweg and Chase to own the property for their climbing gym. They said that many gyms close because of rent increases or the sale of the buildings. Such was the case with The Rock Lounge, which closed after its building sold. Zuidweg and Chase also wanted to be able to build as much as they wanted – or as much as permitting would allow – without having to worry about a landlord saying no, or having to move locations in the future. Once they found the perfect building – a former manufacturing warehouse – their obstacles only began to increase. 

Gravity Lab building

“There are a number of agencies involved in working towards approval,” Zuidweg said. “Everyone has a process, paperwork, fees and their own agenda. When we purchased the property, we needed to coordinate with every entity to make sure the use and intent of our project met each entity’s needs and expectations.”
For example, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) was concerned about additional traffic entering businesses along US 550, so the climbing gym needed to provide an alternative entrance from a side county road. On top of that, CDOT required Zuidweg and Chase to fund a study determining how much traffic Gravity Lab would produce. They also had to hire a civil engineer to perform a mandatory water study to determine the impact Gravity Lab would have on the sewer system, and whether or not their well water was safe for public use and consumption. And even though their well water met all county requirements for safe drinking, they were still required to hire an engineer to design a chlorine filter system, which needed to be reviewed and approved.
“This was another unforeseen process that required fees, time and work.” Zuidweg said. 
That was just the tip of the iceberg. Laura and Sebastiaan have had to deal with fire department codes, electrical systems, land easements, stubborn neighbors, and denied loans. 
“We actually experienced a bank denying our loans based on the fact that they just couldn’t get comfortable with the capital needed and the uniqueness of the climbing gym business model.” Zuidweg said. 

Inside Gravity Lab

Despite the challenges, Gravity Lab is on track to open soon and will face a new mountain to climb. It takes a lot of innovation and creativity to run a climbing gym, and maintain income to cover all the initial costs.
“We intend to have robust programming components including youth programming, adult training and coaching, specialty groups (adaptive programming, instruction, indoor to crag clinics,) etc. We will also hold community events, competitions and corporate events. We’ll have a retail shop with climbing specific gear, clothing, drinks and snacks.” Zuidweg said of their future plans.
He banks on the idea that opening a climbing gym in rural Colorado will be less of the traditional gym experience and more of a community gathering place for lovers of the outdoors. He plans on sharing the space with other climbing-enthused entrepreneurs and simply, anyone who wants a place to go where they can be with friends, meet future partners, and share their love of climbing.