Getting There

Climbing Contacts

Corrections or additions?

This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the July 4, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Bringing the Mountain Inside

Rockville Center — 200 Whitehead Road," announces

the obscure sign in Hamilton Township’s warehouse district. Inside

is a rock climbing wall brought indoors all toasty and dry. Wincing,

I paused before the sign and recalled an observation made a


ago: "We have diminished the outdoors to just one more stage for

athletic performance. The thrill of wilderness has been blithely


aside by the search for `Personal Best.’ That lone, tough individual

seeking to explore creek or peak has been trampled by the new herd

who would truly prefer to paddle God’s streams or scale His mountains

in the cozy warmth of a gymnasium."

I penned this curmudgeonly stab in 1976, aiming at the hearts of rock

climbers, paddlers, and campers (now called backpackers) who lately

came swarming to the woods clutching more gear than skills. They were

just out there having fun, frowned my profound youthful judgment,

without the proper appreciation of Nature’s grandeur.

What set me to wallowing in this bigotry is irrelevant. Suffice it

to say, I have nourished it smugly while more and more of my


continued just having fun out of doors. During this past year, 53

percent of our nation — over 111 million folks — plunged into

at least one of 14 popular outdoor sports. And we don’t mind risk.

In 1996, more than 5.7 million Americans roped up weekend after


testing their hands, feet, and courage against God’s great cliffs

and mountains.

Thus, I guess, it was only a matter of time before so great a swarm

of aficionados actually did manage to bring technical rock climbing

out from the cold and into a gymnasium. I shook my head. Shouldering

a fool’s disdain, I entered in.

From the beginning, the Rockville Climbing Gym won my approval. Still

within a week of its opening, there was no glitz or hoopla. No


posters depicted free climbing daredevils hanging by fingernails over

some rocky abyss. No cheery array of lobby products or (thank god)

inspirational banners with trite mottoes adorning the wall. These

people had decided to let their product do the talking. And it did.

Instantly my eyes were drawn through the lobby to the vast tan,


concrete climbing wall, creatively littered with scores of colorful

little rock hand holds. The whole challenge seemed to rise much higher

than its advertised 32 feet. Scanning the small, odd-shaped


across its breadth, I became intent on planning my route of attack.

"Hi there. May I help you," came a voice from behind me. I

turned and stared across the counter at the familiar face of Clay

Tyson, 37, fit and friendly. A lifelong salesman, including a stint

selling ads for U.S. 1 Newspaper in the early 1990s, Tyson, now


director of marketing and program development, is pursuing his first


Within minutes, Tyson sized me with a pair of rubber, flexible


shoes. He then fitted, checked, and re-checked me into a climbing

harness, and led me to one of the 28 ropes that dangle from the main

wall. The smooth green, braided climbing ropes are all the standard

nine millimeters thick, and each is tested frequently. One end loops

through the climber’s harness and is fastened with a secure climber’s

double-figure-eight knot. From there the rope passes up to the ceiling

and down to a belayer who wraps it around his own harness. The belayer

is a safety man who, using his hands and his own body weight,


feeds out or pulls in the line, keeping a constant tension on the

rope. Under such a system, it is virtually impossible for the climber

to fall.

That is the great indoor advantage. In the rock gymnasium, the rope

above you moves back and forth over a carabiner — a stout metal

loop — which is solidly bolted into the ceiling. Out on Nature’s

own rock face, you use the same system, with the harnessed climber

and the constantly monitoring belayer, but your carabiner is not


so secure. Instead of a hefty bolt into iron, that carabiner is


onto a "wedge," a lightweight loop of cable with an odd shaped

lump of malleable metal, which the climber jams tightly into an


rock crevice.

The climber sets such wedges along an upward route, passing the rope

through each, down to the belayer. Should she take a tumble, if she’s

good (and lucky) her wedges will hold and she’ll drop no more than

the distance to the last wedge — maybe 12 feet — before the

belay rope stops her fall. While I have never seriously fallen, my

friend John, a veteran of the Gunks, shattered both ankles in one

such short fall, and recently Clay Tyson took a frightening drop onto

a tree.

But in the gym, there is no crumbling rock, no slippery water


no uneasy wondering if that last wedge is really in there tight


The system is totally trustworthy and you feel like a giant.

Tyson started me off on one of the easier routes. Colored strips of

tape to the lower left of some hand holds offer a suggested route

to the top. But the variety is infinite. You do whatever works. I

sprawl against the wall, rise a bit and then begin to grope for a

hold. My hand reaches up and inspects a large yellow blob. No. No.

Too round. Good enough for a foot hold, but too smooth for fingers.

"Use your brain," Tyson quietly encourages. For some reason,

I choose that moment to recall a conversation with Scott Fisher, one

of the world’s premier climbers, who set dozens of new routes before

his tragic death attempting a Mount Everest rescue. "I’m never

scared because I absolutely trust the (climbing) system. When right

rigged, ropes never fail."

Suddenly, realization pushed out instinct. With this bolt above and

Tyson below, I was as safe up here as the expert Scott had ever been.

Perched on two foot holds, I leapt up and jammed my left fingers into

a high red marker. They held and up I went. Tyson kept praising me

as if I were conquering Anapurna. Actually, it was an appalling first

showing, but I descended beaming and excited.

Such exhilaration is exactly what Rockville’s owner

and founder, Mike Fortunato, seeks to share through his new business.

Fortunato, 38, first roped up five years ago and became instantly

hooked. Interestingly, technical rock climbing is one of those sports

that folks do casually. They give it one try, they either turn away

or get forever addicted. Mike’s enthusiasm took him climbing in the

"The Gunks," the sheer smooth cliff faces of the Catskills’

Schwangunk Mountains. He soon broadened his horizons to the Rocky

Mountains in Utah and Colorado, the West Coast and the French Alps.

Along the way, Fortunato began encountering rock gyms. The gyms ranged

from sheet plywood with a few hand holds to Colorado’s beautiful


Rock Club gym with its array of flat and curved faces, textured


and innumerable routes. These walls invariably drew all the local

climbers, and became great places to find partners and swap


Though an ardent climber, Fortunato couldn’t help examining these

gyms with a businessman’s eye. For 10 years Mike and his wife, Remi,

who also enjoys dangling from ropes on sheer mountain faces, have

owned and run Remi’s Cafe in Haddonfield. The couple soon saw a way

to turn their passion for climbing into yet another business venture.

First Fortunato analyzed the market. Indoor rock gyms initially dawned

upon the climbing scene in 1988 with Rich Johnston’s Vertical World

in Seattle. Since then nearly 400 commercial gyms have opened in the

U.S. with many more tucked in schools and recreation areas. A


for the outdoor industry trade association (known as ORCA), Frank

Huglemeyer, notes that "not a day goes by when some grammar school

or business or YMCA doesn’t call in wanting the specs and standards

for a climbing wall."

While the average age of outdoor rock climbers is 26, rock gym


include pre-schoolers and Social Security recipients, and there are

plenty of gyms to serve them nearly everywhere in the Northeast, but

Fortunato found a gap. South Jersey, North Jersey, Philadelphia; each

area had at least one wall — most of them small, but the Princeton

area stood ripe and waiting. Fortunato decided to kill ’em with


and bring in a facsimile of the Boulder Rock Club wall.

Tyson, Fortunato’s marketing director, had entertained the idea of

opening an indoor climbing facility of his own. The wall he hit, one

more formidable than financing even, was real estate. "You need

at least a 30 to 35 foot ceiling for a wall," he says. But


with 35 foot ceilings generally have volume to match. There are plenty

of 48,000 square foot warehouses that are high enough, but the ideal

size for a climbing facility is more like 6,000 square feet, he says.

"The building drives the project," says Tyson. But there are

other factors that come into play. "You need good access,"

he says. Rockville has good highway access (via Route 1 or I-295).

Having found his deal location, Fortunato discovered that liability

insurance would not be a major expense. The average rock climbing

gym nationwide encounters only three to four injuries a year, all

of them minor. Better than a retail shoe store. So Fortunato’s entry

into the indoor rock wall climbing scene is officially launched, and

a host of old outdoor climbers have crawled out of the woodwork to

join the ranks of the newly curious.

Fortunato grew up in Montclair, where his mom, Edith, watched over

the brood of four while father, Alfred, went off to serve as a


fireman — a position he held for 30 years. Fortunato’s older


followed their father as a Montclair fireman. (No fear of heights

in this family.) Fortunato attended Catholic schools, where he


himself into a year-round sports routine of football, baseball, and

pole vaulting, totally unaware of the pretty young girl who lived

in adjacent Glen Ridge, not 10 blocks away from him.

After graduating in l985 from Wake Forest College with a bachelor’s

degree in marketing and business, Fortunato ventured north, setting

his lance for Wall Street. There, the Pershing brokerage firm placed

him in what he found to be a very standard, very regimented management

trainee program, where he sampled each aspect of the Wall Street


It just didn’t take.

Yet this rather mundane program was not entirely a washout. It was

there that Fortunato met fellow trainee Remi — the girl who grew

up just 10 blocks away. Together they quit Pershing, married, and

went into business together. Within a year of their wedding, the


opened Remi’s Cafe in Haddonfield. Fortunato has watched five


come and go, but Remi’s, with its Italian "and whatever"


is still flourishing.

Of the impetus for his latest venture, Fortunato says, "No, it

wasn’t watching dad climb ladders. I got into rock climbing because

it was a challenge that everybody told me I couldn’t do — the

same with business."

Fortunato stands a lean 5-foot-7 and weighs in at 145 (the ideal


General Sherman chose for his elite cavalry in the Civil War because

"they’re the toughest and last the longest.") He continues

to climb outdoors, and hopes the Rockville Center will keep his skills

well honed. But Remi, who is pregnant with their first child, will

have to be content for the moment with memories of her last climb

up Wyoming’s Grant Tetons.

By now I had shaken out my fingers (a climber’s prime

fatigue point), and was ready for another go. This time I chose a

harder route, but armed with more confidence, I made it to the top.

Cocky, I asked Tyson to scare me, and he led me around the corner

to "The Bouldering Cave." Made of the same materials, with

the same type of grips, the cave’s lower, more severely-angled


put climbers horizontal over the low, cushioned floor. Bouldering,

both in and out-of-doors has become a new, higher end of the climbing

sport, where the small, seemingly impossible sections of rock are

seen as "problems" rather than routes.

I watched a new member free-climb (sans rope) this puzzle with slow

and astounding moves, and all the old memories came back. I have


and climbed up Mount Everest’s Tibetan side, Anapurna, the Andes,

Mt. Kilimanjaro’s western breach, Mount Rainier, Colorado’s Rockies,

and our own eastern "Gunks," and I was terrified every damn

day. After all these years, my feet still ache when I urge them within

a yard of the cliff edge where my wife perches, dangling her torso.

In Ghana, crossing the 150-foot high, two-rope bridge of the famed

Canopy Walk took a clenched gut and courage screwed to the sticking

place. My instincts won’t let me trust the system, be the rigging

mine or others.

This places me in a fairly hefty majority. Instructors of high rope

walks and climbing schools generally estimate about 2 out of 100


will scamper up the ropes or cliff face and gaze down utterly devoid

of fear. The rest of us must dredge up some hard character. On the

other hand, Tyson estimates about 70 percent of first timers to


hit the wall without visible trembles. So here I perch on one of the

main wall’s more difficult surfaces, reaching, straining, fearing

only that I will run out of energy before I am able to figure out

a route. (Tyson sagely offers encouragement, but never advice.) No

wonder kids love this.

Not only kids, but all-age adults are signing up. Initially, it was

the outdoor climbers coming for a workout. But now, even prior to

a major ad campaign, word of mouth is drawing the novices. Fortunato

has truly built recreation’s better mousetrap. For the business


the wall provides team building exercises at a fraction of the cost

of a seminar featuring a motivational speaker. For parents and


it beats the theme parks or any passive, overly commercialized


money pit. Many singles find it more stimulating and social than


at the gym.

Hopefully, a few little additions will come with time. Chalk, in bags

or in a bowl on the floor, might aid the climber’s grip. Perhaps,

considering my aching forearms, a nice selection of finger exercisers

would be in order.

The Rockville Climbing Center will not diversify. "We are a


gym," says Fortunato. "We are not here to entice or prepare

people necessarily to `move on’ to outdoor climbing. The activities

are separate." Thus axes, ropes, and the full assortment of


gear will not be for sale. Rockville has set about establishing


referrals with Eastern Mountain Sports and Blue Ridge equipment


rather than compete with them.

I clip off the harness and hand Tyson back his shoes. Fun and


without fear. I love it. Maybe I have descended to join that group

I destained 25 years ago, that joyful swarm who, ignoring Nature’s

stern grandeur, just romped out and had a grand old time. Maybe I

can both take my frightened frame to mountain tops and scramble around

indoors like this. Maybe. But one thing is certain. I already have

my next pass for a day at Rockville’s wall, And I’ll be using it soon.

Top Of Page
Getting There

To reach the Rockville Climbing Center


take Route 1 South, turn right on Whitehead Road, and continue for

about 1/2 mile. The center (609-631-ROCK) is open seven days a week.

Hours are Monday to Friday, 3 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.;

and Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

Extended hours are available for parties and corporate groups.


are available for individuals and families. A one-day package is


It includes all equipment, introductory belaying instruction, and

a day’s pass.

Top Of Page
Climbing Contacts

Appalachian Mountain Club , New York Chapter — offers

excellent training and open climbs. 147 East 82nd Street, No. 1B,

New York 10028 (212-744-0589)

American Alpine Club — a national mountaineering


helpful in finding clubs anywhere. 303-384-0110.

American Mountain Guides Association — a non-profit

education and training service. 303-271-0984.

Corrections or additions?

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— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

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