A new climbing gym in Durango opened in December of 2022, and while snow coats the rocks outside, the climbing community persists indoors.
After almost two years without a climbing gym, Gravity Lab finally emerged in Durango to give the local climbing community a space to gather, while also providing gear and resources to people who haven’t had the opportunity to climb before.
On their way to the gym, climbers drive past an array of trees and houses before arriving at a gray building with blue trim.
The smell of sweat and chalk-filled air engulfs climbers as they walk through the front door, and are then met with climbing walls showered in colorful holds and people sitting on mats, chatting, waiting for their turn to climb.
The atmosphere is different from other gyms in bigger cities. It’s smaller, more intimate, with 16-foot-tall walls, one main climbing room and a section upstairs that also has some climbing and training equipment.
It feels like a classic Durango space, where someone can walk in and recognize at least one other person in the room and can meet at least one new person within the climbing session.
Having an indoor gym creates a place for people to gather and connect over a shared interest in climbing especially when climbing outside isn’t an option, Brittey Ahrens, a Durango resident who’s been climbing for 20 years, said.
With three months under its belt, the gym has 500 active members and 3,000 individuals who have created accounts, with the majority being college students and young adults, Sebastiaan Zuidweg, co-owner, said.
One aspect of Gravity Lab that might discourage people to come is the pricing.
“I’ve heard a lot about memberships being too expensive, it’s a lot to ask for a college kid living in Durango to buy a $70 a month membership to climb, especially if you can’t utilize it,” Emily Hartley, president of the Fort Lewis College Climbing Team, said.
There is a $9 discount for students buying a membership, a $4 dollar discount for students buying a day-pass which is usually $20, and a 10% discount for veterans and active-duty military.
“The student discount isn’t much but it is a discount and that’s a start because that shows that he wants to include students,” Hartley said.
Zuidweg said that pricing is determined from both market research and looking into what other gyms are doing while also staying true to their values as a climbing gym.
“We want to make a living and pay our staff well and have nice equipment but we also want to balance that with access and inclusivity and programming,” he said.
Gravity Lab has work-trades where some college students or other members of the community can trade their services for a membership and there are also special prices for partnership programs run through the gym, Zuidweg said.
Before Gravity Lab opened, people could only climb outside with expensive gear that’s necessary but not a luxury everyone can afford, Hartley said.
“I think to have a space you can go no matter the weather is more inclusive and less scary and more for beginners,” Hartley said. “You can meet people who can maybe then take you outside and share gear.”
In Durango there is a large climbing community and a need for a climbing gym so having that come back has been crucial, Blaine Bailey, the director of the In The Weeds nonprofit, said.
“I think it’s the type of people this town attracts,” Bailey said.
David Deliz, an experienced climber in the Durango community, said that when he was young, climbing gyms weren’t popular because climbing was seen as a fringe sport and the people who did it were seen as hooligans.
He said he had a hard time finding mentors and resorted to reading books on tying knots and building anchors and went outside to experiment with his life in order to learn how to climb.
Over the past couple decades, the climbing industry has grown tremendously with movies like “The Dawn Wall” and “Free Solo” being popularized and with climbing becoming an olympic sport, Zuidweg said.
With five different youth programs running at Gravity Lab, ages ranging from four to 18, kids and young adults in the Durango community can learn how to climb in a safe, indoor space, Zuidweg said.
“The youth are really excited about it, so we’re getting some great responses locally,” he said.
Zuidweg said the gym is also partnering with La Plata Youth Services to help underprivileged youth learn how to climb through mentorship programs, where mentors are taught for free and bring their mentees back to teach them.
Hartley said one thing she missed about having a climbing gym was getting to hang out in the space for hours with friends.
“It’s a community space that’s safe,” Hartley said. “There's not many places you can just go where no one is judging you, everyone is going to be having fun and just hanging out. It’s a space for everybody.”
The climbing community in Durango is very welcoming and encouraging towards each other, and there isn’t a lot of competition between climbers which is refreshing, Deliz said.
As a female climber in a male-dominated sport, it can be difficult to make your presence known, Hartley said.
As the only female setter at the FLC climbing gym, she said that it’s scary but also powerful being the only female because it motivates her to be her best and show the boys who’s boss.
She said that she’s met a lot of female climbers at Gravity Lab that want to pull each other up.
The gym has also provided the space for the FLC climbing team to practice weekly and Zuidweg has helped support the team and FLC by giving prizes to students for on-campus climbing competitions, Hartley said.
Hartley predicts that having a climbing gym in Durango may also bring more students to FLC, especially for those who prioritize climbing and needing a place to train.
“I’ve talked to people at competitions, they were like ‘oh I totally looked at Fort Lewis and saw that they didn’t have a climbing gym,’ and were like ‘that was a big turnoff for me,’’ Hartley said.
Having a new climbing gym and climbing team could be a big selling point for prospective students who value climbing to come to FLC, she said.
In The Weeds nonprofit has also been partnering with Gravity Lab to provide access to restaurant and hospitality workers who need a healthy outlet for stress relief without resorting to alcohol or other substances, Zuidweg said.
Gravity Lab helps with inclusivity and accessibility for restaurant workers because its range of hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. allows for them to go in before their shifts, Bailey said.
He also said that climbing is a way to work through the route’s problems not just physically but mentally too, remembering to breathe and think through each movement can be an important skill that can be applied to everyday life stresses.
Zuidweg, who is also the clinical director at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, said he’s always thought climbing is a great therapeutic tool that taps into mindfulness and the metaphor of climbing and conquering an obstacle while facing fears.
“You also forget sometimes when you’re sad that you are really powerful and climbing totally brings that back, you try something and you’re like whoa I can do that,” Hartley said.
Deliz said that climbing introduced a whole new lifestyle of making authentic choices, pursuing what fulfills him and has completely revolutionized his mentality.
“I have a passion for it that just burns in my heart after all these years,” he said.
Having a climbing wall where route setters can change holds and routes every few weeks lets route setters at Gravity Lab have creative freedom over the space, Sebastian Mastor, a route setter at Gravity Lab, said.
The walls have a range of different difficulties and styles for people of all levels to try, he said.
Ahrens said that there are always spaces where there aren’t a lot of people waiting for climbs where she can just hop on routes and not feel crowded.
The bouldering or unroped routes range from grade V0 to V10+, with V0 being an easy, beginner level route and then gradually getting more difficult as the grades increase.
At Gravity Lab, the route's difficulty is associated with different colors, and the colors have a range of grades within them, Mastor said.
For example, V0-V1 is red, V2-V3 is orange, progressing all the way to purple which is V10+.
Route setting brings a new aspect to the sport because it’s not just about climbing the routes but creating them as well, Hartley said.
“Anytime I get a compliment on something that I’ve set, and someone says ‘oh that was fun or that was really unique’, that always feels really good,” Mastor said. “Even when people just finish the climb and are really excited and smiling, I’m like ‘oh nice’ I’ve created some fun for someone in that way.”
Ahrens said she’s very impressed with the route setting and feels like there is something for everyone.
“With bouldering, it’s called a problem for a reason because you have to figure it out,” she said.
In the future, Zuidweg said he hopes to build a second gym in the same lot to provide bigger walls and more access to climbing for people within the community.
While waving goodbye to climbers leaving the gym, Zuidweg said the most rewarding part for him thus far is seeing the sense of community that the gym has created.
“People are cheering you on and congratulating you when you get to the top,” he said. “It’s become this hub and great indoor social space and that’s been really cool to see.”