A few weeks ago, it was announced that Kelowna will be getting a brand new climbing facility under the ownership of Chris and Nancy de Vries. Gneiss Climbing is slated to open sometime in March 2016 and the new facility will be focused on bouldering with the goal of creating a community focal point for the Okanagan. We thought it would be best to go right to the source and talk to co-owner Chris de Vries, as he dives into some of his early memories at Vic’s Vertical Walls in Saskatoon and how that experience brought him to his next endeavour. Here is what he had to say.
Hi Christiaan, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. So, rumour has it that Kelowna has a brand new bouldering facility. Can you tell us a bit about the new facility?
I love wide open spaces and I love glass facades, that’s what attracted me most about our space. I wanted a centrally located spot with a ton a natural light. That was not an easy find in a town like Kelowna. All the new cool buildings are going up on the outskirts of town and I did not want to sacrifice location. Our building is unique in that it was build in the early 90s but has a distinctly modern feel and layout. Although we are not downtown, we are walking distance to decent restaurants, bars and coffee shops. We have 5000 square feet of floor space with a main bouldering area, separate kids climbing area (with some ropes), work out space and some straight chilling spots. Our bouldering will primarily be 16′ in height with a good variety of terrain; I’ve tried to include as much ‘training’ terrain as possible (campus wall, training infill wall, rope ladder, huge surface for multiple fingerboards, beast balls, etc)… that element of the game has been conspicuously absent in Okanagan Valley climbing gyms.
When did this endeavour start for you and your team?
The reality is that this project has been in the works since Nancy and I moved to Kelowna. I am not sure if you are familiar with the previous owner of Beyond the Crux (Mike Shannon, aka Mike Stripes); he and I looked hard at starting a new gym together eight years ago. That never ended up happening; I looked at it again when Mike wanted to sell Beyond the Crux but the timing was not right, that opportunity passed as I was too busy with work and family. Over the past year, I had a little more breathing room on the work/life front and the seeds got planted for Gneiss Climbing. Volume got kicked up to 11 early this summer after some lengthy chats with gym owner and rock star climber Jason Holowach and the space search got fired up. We’ve been nuking it ever since.
To give our readers a little background, when did you and your partner move to Kelowna?
We moved out to Kelowna nine years ago, coinciding with the birth of our first child. We have three now and are still really amped to be living in the Okanagan.
Where did you start climbing and what experiences made you want to open a gym?
I started climbing in Calgary, I was exposed to it from a young age because my late father grew up climbing in the Alps and was a Swiss certified mountain guide. Although I had spent a lot of time scrambling around the Rockies as a kid I didn’t get heavy into pulling hard until I hit Saskatoon for University and met all the cool kids at Vic’s Vertical Walls. The scene I experienced at Vic’s was a big inspiration for starting gneiss climbing. The indoor climbing scene in Kelowna (in my humble opinion) is underwhelming and I really want to change that and light a fire to spark new passion for climbing in the Okanagan.
Sounds like you still got a lot of ties to the City of Bridges, what was the scene like back in the day at Vic’s Vertical Wall?
Vic’s was straight up awesome, it was a super special place. Vic had some crazy vision to create that facility at that time in Saskatoon. It shows how important a good facility is; without that facility we would have never got to meet some of Canada’s most talented climbers (Nels, Nevin, Lil J). Because the scene was pretty small it was really open and inclusive… If there was someone new to the gym who was pumped on climbing we would all introduce ourselves and get him or her to try our problems. It was also a really tight scene socially, we all climbed together but also partied hard. I will always remember some of the road trips we did together; one in particular we took the Rosassen family van to Bishop and broke down halfway to nowhere. I remain in contact with all the friends I climbed with at Vic’s to this day, that’s a testament to how special that scene was. I really want to create something similar at gneiss.
It takes a lot of tenacity to get a facility like this up and running. Can you give us a little insight into some of the highlights and struggles of taking on such a facility?
Finances are always the biggest hurdle taking on something like this, you have to balance facility you want vs. the facility you need vs. the facility you can afford. Although I dream of providing Kelowna with a facility comparable to Hive North Shore, but at 18,000sq ft is something like that feasible with our demographics? Jason Holowach really helped get me over this hurdle and also acted as a sounding board as I contemplated different scenarios for facility size and amenities. Landing on our space was a huge highlight for us. It was frustrating to look at so many buildings that were either, too big, too small, too far, too dark or too lame. Ours is right in that sweet spot for sustainability and ticked the boxes for height, location and architecture. Once the space was locked, wall design was a beast, but with help from Jason Holowach, Vic Martin and some of the old school Saskatoon dudes along with Andy White on the local scene and Walltopias designers, I think we’ve put that beast to bed.
The Kelowna bouldering scene is ripe for a new place for the community to hang its hat. What does it mean for you to be located in the Okanagan and for the Okanagan climbing scene?
It’s an unbelievable opportunity to grab a captive audience, the growth of interest in bouldering in the Okanagan Valley is exponential. I was part of an early bouldering development push at the Boulderfields mostly spearheaded by Mike Shannon, Mike pushed out the first guide book for bouldering at the Boulderfields, but it was not until Andy came along with his development crew and really got that place the profile and exposure it needed. Now bouldering in the Okanagan has some serious hype, even non-climbers are getting engaged. To start a bouldering gym within earshot of the Boulderfields is a special opportunity to provide a hub for this growing climbing community.
What kind of things did you focus on while planning the facility?
Community was something I focussed on most when designing this facility. The Okanagan has a great climbing community, but I would consider it fragmented to some degree. I wanted Gneiss to be able to bring that community together and grow it in a big way. In order to do this, I allowed considerable space to create a social atmosphere. Climbing gyms are often limited in success due to lack of space for people to hangout; more climbing surface does not equal better climbing gym. Although I could have added a central boulder or some other features, I opted instead for creative seating and open space, this should promote the sort of social atmosphere and that is a major goal of mine with this project.
As I previously mentioned above, training was something we did a lot back in Saskatoon, showing up at the climbing gym did not necessarily mean strapping on the shoes and pulling plastic. Sometimes we would just session the campus board or finger boards or rope ladder, pushups, sit-ups, whatever we though was going to improve our climbing. I really enjoyed that process of going out of my way to get stronger. I want Gneiss to be a place where people can do that, training is a cool and fun part of climbing to me and that has never been a priority at any gym in the Okanagan Valley until now. We also wanted to have a safe place for kids to climb. I’ve got three of my own and I know the potential for a kid getting landed on when mixing kids groups or birthday parties with a main bouldering area. Our youth teams and programs will have access to the main bouldering area, but all other kids will be safely going apeshit in our kids climbing area.
How will you balance the space for climbing and the space for training?
When designing gneiss I didn’t have a formula for space distribution. I am working with an existing building so I did my best to include all the elements I felt necessary to create a legitimate facility that can both host competition bouldering events and develop high level competition climbers.
Have you guys thought about the potential of a youth team in Kelowna? Is there enough out there to put some rivalry into the BC competitions scene?
We really want to create that competition team scene here. Unfortunately, we have to start at the grassroots level and build up. Hopefully within a year or two the gneiss climbing team can bring the noise to the comp scene across the country.
When is the projected opening date for the facility?
That’s a moving target.. Hopefully we can swing open the doors sometime in March 2016.
Will you guys throw a big party?
We are currently cooking up ideas for the grand opening shaker… It’s got to be something crazy.
Thanks again for chatting with us, Christiaan! Keep us posted on your progress and all the best!
For more information on Gneiss Climbing, please visit the Gneiss Climbing Website and spread the word