You have to look closely to see the minibus-size red eyeball or the several-stories-tall purple elephant at Climb So iLL near Lafayette Square in St. Louis.
That’s because the walls on which the artwork are painted are also covered with human beings crabbing their way to the ceiling. Some are wearing harnesses and helmets, all strategically reaching for or balancing on brightly colored handholds and footholds.
“My roommate took me rock climbing and I fell in love with it,” said 19-year-old Taylor Bergschneider, of New Berlin. That was eight months ago. She stood in a mezzanine of Climb So iLL, overlooking the Elite Wall, intently watching climbers’ techniques and strategies for reaching the top of the 55-foot wall. She and Chris Thomas, 22, of Athens, would soon be rigging their gear and heading up.
“I’ve been doing this for four years,” said Chris. He and Taylor were among five members of the rock climbing club at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville enjoying an evening inside the facility that was once the St. Louis City Hospital’s Power Plant. Chris is the president of the club.
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Their own climbing wall at SIUE has been shut down since April for repairs and won’t be up and running until fall. That hasn’t kept them from grabbing rope, flexible shoes, chalk bags and other gear and working out.
“With their wall under construction, we offered them the use of our facility,” said Climb So iLL co-owner David Chancellor, 36, who with his younger brother Daniel, 32, and friend Ian Anderson, all veteran climbers, opened the 10,000-square-foot climbing gym in 2012.
What is the appeal of climbing?
I like to see a problem and come back and do it. You don’t know until you hop on it what will happen. You can’t let anything psyche you out.
Chris Herman on the challenge of climbing
“I like the challenge,” said club member Chris Herman, 22, of Festus, Mo. He’s been climbing for 1 1/2 years. “I like to see a problem and come back and do it. You don’t know until you hop on it what will happen. You can’t let anything psyche you out.”
Drew Scanlon, 19, of Freeburg, started in September. He said sometimes just watching others helps him get better.
He and Anthony Hettinger, 21, of Lovington, stood in front of the big eyeball, part of what is called the bouldering wall. Instead of being a high, straight wall, it is shorter, can be canted out in places and is sculpted with outcroppings like ledges and boulders that might be seen outdoors. It is climbed freestyle, unharnessed. Underneath the wall is a soft, springy surface on which to land when you don’t make the right move, find yourself hanging by just fingertips and have to let go.
“It’s a lot of fun, like a stress reliever,” said Anthony. He leaped at the wall, grabbing a bright green hold with both hands, shooting his right foot out to level himself upward. Moving left, then right, but always a bit upward, he made progress, then found himself stuck for a second when his left foot couldn’t find a proper purchase.
Below him on the ground, Chris Herman quietly encouraged him: “Go Anthony. Go.”
Anthony didn’t make it to the top and fell with a soft plunk to the ground. He popped up and shook his head.
What I thought felt right wasn’t. It didn’t work. You learn from your mistakes.
Anthony Hettinger on falling from the wall
“What I thought felt right wasn’t,” he said of what is called routesetting, or figuring a way to the top. “It didn’t work. You learn from your mistakes.”
Chris Herman laughed, pondering his own mantra while he’s climbing: “It’s all, ‘Don’t slip, don’t slip, don’t slip. Am I breathing?’”
Brothers climb into business
David Chancellor and his brother, Daniel, both from St. Louis, wanted a climbing gym as a complement to their climbing gear business, So iLL Holds, which they started more than a decade ago when Daniel was at SIU Carbondale. They found success creating and molding a variety of urethane holds that indoor climbers use to position hands and feet as they maneuver to find a route to the top.
Eventually, they moved the business to Edwardsville. But the right space for a climbing gym didn’t come along until they laid eyes on the once-abandoned St. Louis power plant, built in 1903. Its soaring heights inside and huge open areas (once the machinery was removed) allowed them to install a variety of climbing walls, ranging from 25 to 55 feet, with skill levels from beginner to elite.
10,000Square feet in the climbing gym
55 Feet of the tallest climbing wall
That purple elephant is on the wall for children, while a tulip graces a vertical climb for beginners. The vexing red eyeball is for bouldering, a place many adults start.
“We get climbers here from 6 up to 65 and even older,” David said. “If you can climb a ladder, you can climb a wall.”
There are 40 “top rope stations,” where harnesses, helmets and a partner on the ground are required. Also available are walls where several auto-belay systems are used. They enable solo climbers to get some work in without waiting for a partner. The simple setup allows a quick clip-in and, upon reaching the top of the wall, the climber has only to let go to be lowered gently to the ground.
There is a dedicated training area and instructional classes. And, if you get too good, Climb So iLL prides itself on moving its holds, or changing its routesettings, to keep you challenged.
Climb So iLL
- What: 10,000-square-foot indoor climbing gym with walls for beginners to experts
- Where: 1419 Carroll St., St. Louis, one block east of Lafayette Square. Look for the smokestacks.
- When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and to 6 p.m. Sundays.
- Information: 314-621-1700, www.climbsoill.com
- Offers: Classes, equipment rental, training areas, showers, lockers, pro shop, summer camp for kids, supervised Kids Night, Scout climbing, field trips and day camps, fitness programs, rooftop yoga, fitness lab and more.
- Climbing info: $16/day pass, $125/10-visit punch pass ($180 with rental gear). Gear package is $9 and includes harness, shoes and belay device or chalk bag.
- Intro to Climbing: $64. Perfect for new climbers who want to take advantage of every part of the facility. (Note: Instruction is not required for first-time visitors.) Other classes for other levels of climbers also available.
- Private instruction: $45 to $60 per hour for an individual.
- Most of the power plant’s original structural steel was reused during construction. Other recycled or sustainable materials, such as car hoods and bamboo, were used to create custom countertops, cabinetry and furniture.
- Natural lighting reduces Climb So iLL’s carbon footprint by minimizing the amount of electricity needed to illuminate the facility.
- State of the art HVAC system removes from the air chalk used frequently by climbers.