Don’t mistake the weathered brick edifice bearing the words “STEEL SHOP” in big, white letters for a place housing aged equipment from a bygone era. Rather, the owners of Climb So iLL, a local indoor rock-climbing company, have transformed the industrial building in Historic St. Charles into a place where people can get a grip on the latest innovations of climbing, as well as more traditional options.
“The Steel Shop is perfectly designed to accommodate beginners to advanced climbers,” said David Chancellor, who is one of four owners.
The climbing entrepreneurs think they have created a gym that not only complements their first space — a former power plant in downtown St. Louis — but also rivals some of the best gyms in the United States.
The opening comes as there has been a tremendous increase in interest in climbing over recent years. Millions watched the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo” about an unprecedented climb of El Capitan’s 900-meter vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park, without the use of ropes, and climbing was supposed to have debuted this summer at the Olympic Games before they were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Climb So iLL owners, who opened their first gym in 2012, started working on a new location four years ago. They selected the St. Charles space, located near the Foundry Arts Centre, because they were looking for a second piece of historical architecture and because St. Charles did not yet have a climbing gym.
“Building a climbing gym in a ground-up facility is simple. Building a climbing gym in a historic building like the Steel Shop is more challenging, but it’s also what makes the Climb So iLL experience unique,” Chancellor said.
The owners invested millions of dollars in transforming the space, which spans nearly 30,000 square feet and is about three times the size of the downtown St. Louis location.
Chancellor not only liked the exterior of the old building but its interior, too.
“There are so many layers to the building when you walk through. You can see the walls. You can see the holds. You can see the duct work. You can see the structural steel and the wood behind that,” Chancellor said during a virtual tour hosted on Facebook. “I can pretty much stare in any direction and my brain takes a bit to process it.”
In addition to having more slabs than the first location, the St. Charles gym also features a Gravity Lab, an interactive climbing area meant for young climbers, team-building activities, and parties. It includes speed climbing (walls that feature a timer for people to compete as they climb); a maze wall; a tower climb; and boulders that people can top and then descend from on a slide.
“At the end of the day, I think everyone just wants to play and have fun, and I think this space does a really good job of delivering that,” Chancellor said.
For more conventional climbers, the Steel Shop also offers some contrast from the downtown location. Whereas much of the bouldering area at the original gym ranges from slightly overhanging to steep angles, the new space features more vertical slabs and slight overhangs — that’s in addition to steep sections of the wall — meaning there’s a challenge for climbers of various skill levels.
Route setting “has been exceptional here; it’s been so fun,” said co-owner Yusuf Daneshyar during the virtual tour. “We have so many different angles to make moves on.”
The second location also features a yoga studio; a large fitness area with equipment from Rogue, a popular brand among climbers; and a Tension Board and MoonBoard, interactive walls linked to mobile apps that allow climbers to tackle the same routes as others around the world.
As to how often they plan to change routes at the new gym, the owners say they will take their cues from members but estimate it will be about every eight weeks.
They could be having to improvise in other ways, too.
After four years of effort — Chancellor says when they started this project, “We were much younger men” — the owners then opened in the midst of a pandemic. To limit capacity and ensure safety, the owners required customers to make reservations and wear a mask while at the gym.
“During the COVID-19 shutdown, we faced some of the most difficult decisions in our professional lives,” Chancellor said. “The entire [Climb So iLL] team and community came together in a way that was absolutely incredible. The positive response was overwhelming and a source of motivation as we bring the Steel Shop online.”
Author: Eric Berger is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.
Photos: Ryan White, courtesy of Climb So iLL.