There’s something about a wide open area with padded floors, high ceilings and climbing holds that just makes youngsters go wild.
As the winds howled outside last week, a group of Juneau homeschool students clamored into the warmth of the Rock Dump’s leased building. Within seconds, each one was stripping off scarves and hats, jackets and boots as they ran toward the colorfully dotted walls of the climbing gym. Their physical education class was about to start.
Next week, the gym will kick off a new program aimed at an even younger group of users: toddlers.
Toddler Time, as it’s called, will kick off from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday beginning on Dec. 11. During this time, the gym will be open for toddler play and recreation time at no charge.
Youngsters will get a chance to explore the nooks and crannies that make up the intricate and specific bouldering routes. They’ll get a chance to move along the newly-created toddler climb wall that features colorful holds in fun and funky shapes. And, of course, the padded flooring offers hours of boo-boo-free fun. Parents or caregivers will be required to be present during their child’s play time and the roped climbing routes will not be available for use, Tyler Gress said.
It’s all part of a new plan, stemming from the gym’s new managing nonprofit Juneau Climbing & Recreation, to broaden the user base at the local indoor climbing facility.
Gress, a board member for the nonprofit, said the gym has always had a dedicated group of users, but with recent changes at the center, they have begun exploring ways to make their organization more sustainable.
“One day I would love to see this facility be a center for outdoor education of all types,” he said.
Gress is talking about hosting alpine touring and wildernesss first responder courses, for instance.
That’s a ways out, he said.
First, baby steps, so to speak.
Gress, along with nonprofit members Demian Schane and Eran Hood, know the climbing gym would not exist without its users, many of whom have become as close as family over the years. They also know that expanding their realm of offerings is a great way to engage new users, introduce them to the world of climbing and, hopefully, increase the sustainability of the gym.
“It becomes pretty apparent, pretty quickly that kids just love this place,” Gress said.
He said the group looked at other programs in town, such as the open gym time offered by Mount Jumbo Gym, and realized their own space might fit the bill. The gym also sees a lot of downtime in the middle of the day, he said, a time when youngsters likely have energy to burn.
The importance of branching out has been highlighted for the local operation this year after the gym nearly closed when the building that houses the gym was sold to Alaska Coach Tours. Gress said initially the gym’s fate was uncertain, but in the end Alaska Coach Tours agreed to lease the space to JCR, and the Rock Dump’s former owner, Matt Cecil, donated all the climbing walls, holds, ropes and gear to the new nonprofit.
Gress said he’s pretty sure the Rock Dump will be around for some time to come, but he also knows the power of a community voice.
If it ever comes down to it, he said, the more people they have lobbying for the climbing gym, the better.
But the creation of new programs at the indoor climbing facility goes beyond a contingency plan, Gress said.
“There’s something unique about this gym,” he said. “When members leave and go climbing elsewhere, they inevitably miss the Rock Dump. And they miss it enough to make a point of letting us know.”
Gress said “it’s because of the attitude, the atmosphere and the people that work and climb here. It’s an extremely accepting environment. Climbing, like any sport, can have a lot of attitude and a scene. There’s not really that here. Everybody’s just part of the family.”
He’s heard stories from parents of shy children who watched their child grow both physically and mentally, after spending time climbing at the gym.
“For example, we’ve seen a couple of kids become more comfortable in their own skin just by being here and gaining confidence of physical movement and also gaining the friendships cultivated in this environment,” Gress said.
More changes will likely be in store for the Rock Dump as the JCR finds ways to enhance offerings at the facility.
Currently, the Rock Dump offers a range of classes, clubs and programs for a variety of users, all of which can be found on their website rockdump.com.
Gress said that even with the changes, many will find the Rock Dump as familiar as in the past, just updated with new features, gear, holds and programs.
The nonprofit will continue to forge ahead and ultimately would like to morph into more than just a climbing organization, Gress said.
“I would like to see this organization do more,” he said. “Particularly with things that enrich the community.”
• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at email@example.com.