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Entrepreneurship: A Boom in Rock Climbing, Minus the Rocks

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There were 414 commercial climbing gyms across the country at the end of 2016, up from 388 in 2015, according to data from Climbing Business Journal, a website dedicated to the indoor climbing industry. (Sample headline: “Should Politics Mix With Climbing?”) Most major cities — and many smaller ones — now have at least one. And climbing will be part of the 2020 Olympics.

But the 16 percent growth that Climbing Business Journal anticipated in 2016 was overly optimistic; expansion did not quite hit 7 percent. Would-be owners have a tough climb of their own: finding and financing real estate with the right dimensions, never mind the high cost of building a wall (no, not that kind of wall).

Another challenge: How do you get people to sign up for an activity that many view as difficult, if not downright dangerous? And what’s with all the lingo — lead climbing? Belaying?

On that Saturday at Brooklyn Boulders, a staff member gave an orientation tour to half a dozen first-timers, most of them millennials. She pointed out the cardio room, the yoga studio, the co-working spaces and the walls pocked with molded-plastic grips in many shapes and colors.

And she discussed the various means of ascent with and without ropes and harnesses: bouldering (climbing without ropes); top-roping (ascending a wall with a rope anchored above); lead-climbing (ropes and harness, but no anchor above); and belaying (helping the lead climber by means of rope). There is also chimney climbing (think Jackie Chan).

Mr. Pinn and two former classmates from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., were inspired to establish a rock-climbing gym in New York City in 2008 when they were put off by the high costs and limited options around town.

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Brooklyn Boulders has an average of 1,000 visitors a day in each of its locations, and “90 percent of people will interact with the wall while they’re here,” Mr. Pinn said. Credit Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

“We started a Facebook page called ‘New York Needs a Rock-Climbing Gym,’ and we got 300 friends overnight,” Mr. Pinn, 32, said. “This told us there was a lot of interest in climbing.”

He said he and his partners “did the math, and thought we could build a 6,000-square-foot facility for bouldering and a little bit of top-rope climbing for 300 members.”

They ended up opening for business in 2009 in a garage in Brooklyn formerly owned by The Daily News. It had a pop-up roof (ideal for their purposes) and 18,000 square feet of space. Success came quickly, as did the decision to expand the gym’s offerings to include yoga, Pilates, fitness classes and exercise machines. A day pass is $32; a monthly membership is $135.

Brooklyn Boulders has an average of 1,000 visitors a day in each of its locations, and “90 percent of people will interact with the wall while they’re here,” Mr. Pinn said.

But building one is an enormous undertaking. Thomas Betterton, 33, the majority owner of the Denver Bouldering Club, recalled the reluctance of landlords when, in 2009, he opened the first of his two locations.

“It was hard to get anyone to take us on as tenants, because they didn’t know what a bouldering business was,” he said. “And trying to get a small business loan was an uphill battle, because this is a nontraditional business.”

It is an expensive one, too. “You’re talking millions of dollars for the walls — there’s a lot of engineering,” said Kevin Goradia, 26, the owner of Crux Climbing Center, a nine-month-old, 22,000-square-foot gym in Austin, Tex.

“You need a lot of space, and you have to find a place where you will be allowed to construct a tall building,” Mr. Goradia continued. “Most small-business owners don’t have the ability to fork out that kind of money.”

He funded Crux himself, thanks to a stake in his family’s petrochemical business. The center offers three climbing “products”: bouldering, top-roping and auto-belay. A bar and a sauna are in the works.

Mr. Pinn has backing from the private equity firm North Castle Partners. “When we were raising money for the first two facilities, we would hear: ‘Climbing is a fad. It’s going to go out of style,’ ” he said. “But climbing facilities have been a constant in the U.S. since 1987, and maybe before that.”

The steep upfront costs persuaded Bradley Speaks and Blake Maddux, both 31-year-old climbers and entrepreneurs in Louisville, Ky., to think small. Their company, Elemental Climbing, which opened in July, has a mobile sport-climbing wall that can be rented.

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