The 10-year-old sat on the edge of his folding chair, emitting a mixture excitement and annoyance like only a child can. He looked down at his socked feet, then back up at me, still waiting for me to put shoes on him. I suggested again he try a six, to which he hemmed and hawed before offering up a size seven. Smiling, I said, “Sure, let’s give a seven a shot.” His face lit up. “Perfect,” he said, jumping up and running over to take his place in line. He was the last in a string of kids to get shoes, and while I didn’t catch his name, his smile and enthusiasm created a picture I won’t soon forget.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the J. Churchill Owen Boys & Girls Club in Denver, Colorado, for the grand opening of its indoor climbing wall. I had been invited to the event by Tim Baum, executive director of 1Climb, to see first-hand the process the nonprofit goes through when it donates and opens a wall. This is the fourth wall 1Climb has built since 2017, and it expects to double that number in 2020.

Haven’t heard of 1Climb? The St. Louis-based organization started as an idea from professional climber Kevin Jorgeson, who is best known for his 19-day ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan with Tommy Caldwell in 2015. He and Caldwell spent those 19 days living on the wall, becoming the first to free climb the 3,000-foot route known as the Dawn Wall.

Jorgeson grew up in Northern California and credits finding rock climbing with giving his life purpose and direction. Having gotten so much from climbing, he wanted to find a way to give other children that same opportunity. In 2015, he shared his idea with Dan and Dave Chancellor of So iLL (known for its creative climbing holds) and the indoor climbing gym, Climb So iLL. The brothers saw the potential and agreed to partner up. Thus, 1Climb was born.

The benefactors of the organization are kids, and 1Climb founders wanted to find a way to reach the largest number of them quickly. A partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America was a perfect match, allowing 1Climb to build walls across the US and have thousands of kids climbing each day.

In 2017, all their hard work came together, and 1Climb built its first wall at the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club in north St. Louis. With the success of that wall, the organization stepped up its efforts to seek out donations and partners to build more. Over the next several years, 1Climb told its story, and many companies have come on board with a shared goal: to get 100,000 kids climbing.

Climbing wall J. CHurchhill Owen Boys & Girls Club

Kids climbing at the J. Churchill Owen Boys & Girls Club.

Back at the grand opening in Denver, I catch the attention of Kevin Spak, outdoor education coordinator at the club. Spak is an energetic young man who enjoys talking about the club almost as much as he loves the kids that come here. He gave me a rundown of what clubs like his offer: Each Denver club sees around 200 kids a day, from the ages of 6 to 18. They provide services ranging from STEM programs, arts and crafts, sports, health and wellness, leadership training, and now a climbing wall — all for the price of $2 a year per child.

Spak mentioned how the wall would be a centerpiece in many new programs that not only benefit this club, but all 20 clubs in the Denver area, which are able to visit and take advantage of the amenity. Having the wall allows the club to appeal to more kids, offering an option to those who may not enjoy team sports.

The wall in Denver is quite sizable, standing at nearly 20 feet tall and 24 feet wide, taking up a corner of the club’s small gym. 1Climb has partnered with Eldorado Climbing Walls to design a unique wall for each facility.

Watching the kids climb was the highlight of the day; some kids were meticulous as they climbed, looking for the next colored hold that would get them up the wall. But most simply jumped from hold to hold, not caring if it was the right color. They called to friends on the ground and next to them. Kids have no fear, and it showed as they climbed and fell, got back up, and did it all again. The one lone adult on the wall, Kevin Jorgeson, had been hanging out with the kids all day. Watching him climb, I’m not sure who was enjoying it more.

For this grand opening, the club ran more than 100 kids through the process. Thanks to many partnerships in the climbing and outdoor community, 1Climb has commitments to install four walls in 2020. With the continued support and dedication of the people and companies involved, I’m sure 1Climb will meet and exceed its goal of getting 100,000 kids climbing — all from its headquarters here in the Gateway City.

Author: Matt Inman is a contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Top Image: 1Climb’s wall at the Herbert Hoover Boys & Girls Club in St. Louis.