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Climbers' co-op opens gym in downtown Duluth

The new group wants to grow the climbing community and give them a home base.

People using indoor climbing wall
Shannon Ball, of Duluth, works a route on the bouldering wall at the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op on Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — In a storefront below the downtown Flame Nightclub last month, Shannon Ball pulled herself up a wall and let go, landing on a thick mat below.

Ball had just become a member of the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op, which opened its gym in June at 22 N. First Ave. W. Most recently a kettlebell gym, the space is now occupied by a plywood wall jutting out from one side of the room at different angles with brightly colored hand and foot holds attached.

People using indoor climbing wall
Shannon Ball, of Duluth, looks for her next hand hold at the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op on Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The wall is meant for bouldering, a type of climbing where ropes are not needed because the wall itself isn’t very tall and there’s a thick cushion below to break your fall.

Ball said that other gyms focus on top-rope routes with smaller bouldering walls tucked off to the side as an afterthought. At the co-op, it’s the main focus.

And bouldering is “more accessible,” Ball said, because she can do it on her own, whereas top-rope routes require a belay partner to hold the rope. She’s glad to have the new space.

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People using indoor climbing wall
Shannon Ball, of Duluth, drops from the bouldering wall at the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op on Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
People using indoor climbing wall
Alex Ristow, right, facilities director at the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op, talks with Mikayla Haynes, social media and marketing director, on Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“I think it’s pretty cool the Duluth community kind of banded together to get it started,” Ball said.

Although there have been discussions about such a group and space for the last decade, it picked up traction about three years ago.

Alex Ristow, the co-op’s facilities director, said getting to the point the co-op is at today meant fundraising and pulling together loans and donations from members. “We had to be maybe a little bit scrappy,” he said.

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After fundraising enough to get the space, the co-op opened up member loans to help build the wall. The co-op plans to start paying those loans back after the second year.

Board members said they’ve tried to include member input on everything from the price of memberships, to the design of the bouldering wall, to the type of holds used on the wall.

“They’ve given that input,” said Jennifer Krussow, membership coordinator. “A lot of them are super invested and wanted a space for themselves.”

People using indoor climbing wall
Alex Ristow, facilities director at the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op, talks about the construction of the bouldering wall Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

In July, the co-op had nearly 100 members who pay a one-time fee of $5 for a lifetime membership; about 50 of them were paying $400 per year for 24/7 access passes.

Although bouldering can be a solo activity, it can also be incredibly social. Bouldering is usually short, but intense efforts with long breaks in between climbs.

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“Boulderers are there to do the climb, but also to, like, hang out,” Krussow said. “You need some recovery time, probably some snacks and beverages in between.”

Ristow said bouldering “just kind of facilitates people getting to know each other.”

People using indoor climbing wall
A collection of climbing holds seen on the bouldering wall at the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op on Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

And the co-op really wants to build and foster the area’s climbing community. In addition to the gym space, the co-op hopes to host member events like movie nights or events where the public could come in and climb.

And they aren’t confined to the gym they built. They want to organize groups to venture into outdoor climbing around the area. They’ve already led a trip to climb Palisade Head on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

Mikayla Haynes, social media and marketing director, said she’s noticed climbers in Duluth generally stick to small circles, and she hopes the co-op can bring those circles together and build a larger community.

The co-op and gym don’t have any employees — everyone is a volunteer. And if they turn a profit, it would either go to members or be invested into the gym.

“I feel like some people assume, ‘Oh, they made this happen, they must be getting something out of it,’” Haynes said. “We’re like, ‘We just want to see it happen. We want to be here, too.’”

People using indoor climbing wall
A slanted climbing wall at the Duluth Climbing and Fitness Co-op on Wednesday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

That also means members are more involved in running everything. Board members are hoping members with tech experience can manage the website and that some may even help clean the gym on a rotating schedule.

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“They’re members, they’re part of the community, they see kind of a need that they can fill for us and they’re reaching out on their own, which is really great,” Haynes said.

Board members say that although it’s a bouldering wall now, they could see themselves taking over a space with a higher ceiling one day so they can get some top rope routes.

“Our primary financial goal is to make it — repay our loanholders,” Ristow said. “Then a few years down the road, maybe this gets bigger.”

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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