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
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
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
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
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.
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.
excellent training and open climbs. 147 East 82nd Street, No. 1B,
New York 10028 (212-744-0589)
helpful in finding clubs anywhere. 303-384-0110.
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.