In the new Freestone Climbing Center, climbers resemble Spider-Man while they hang from handholds and contemplate their next moves. One man clings to the wall for a few moments, hanging at a 45-degree angle, before he lets go and falls to the mat with a soft whump. "If you're not falling, you're not doing it right," says Freestone owner Walt Hailes.
Jan. 2 was the first day of business at the new Freestone location, informally called "Freestone 2.0," a renovated Westside warehouse shared with a CrossFit gym and the Moksha Aerial Studio Collective. Hailes thinks of the complex as an "alternative sports collective." Freestone's most impressive feature will open in late spring or early summer: a 50-foot-tall roped climbing section with 10,000 square feet of vertical space.
"It's unique," Hailes says. "You need a 50-foot-tall building with no stories, no floors."
Hailes' long-term plans include adding a yoga studio, weight room, stationary bikes and treadmills to broaden the facility's appeal.
Expanding to a bigger location was part of Hailes' plan when he opened the first Freestone on Toole Avenue in 2011. He's far from alone in capitalizing on a burgeoning trend. Almost 40 new climbing gyms opened in the country in 2015, according to Climbing Business Journal. A September piece published in Outside magazine called climbing gyms "the new health clubs."
Hailes grew up rock climbing in Kentucky, and recalls the days when climbing was a more obscure sport.
"In the old days, you went to the climbing gym to get better at outdoor climbing," Hailes says. "Now, going to the climbing gym is an event in and of itself."
- photo by Amy Donovan
- Jeff Peabody was among the first to try out the bouldering walls during Freestone Climbing Center’s first days of operation at its new Shakespeare Street location.
Hailes, who works as an exercise physiology researcher at the University of Montana, also guides for Washington-based RMI Expeditions. His climbing resume includes expeditions to Denali, the tallest peak in North America, and to Argentina's 22,832-foot Aconcagua. He says he always tries to visit the local climbing walls whenever he travels to a new city. He feels qualified in saying that Freestone offers some of the best indoor climbing in the U.S.
"There's some bigger gyms, but I don't think there's going to be any better gyms," Hailes says. "I think we have some of the best route setting in the country."
Freestone's full-time route setter, Scott Goodwin, says he's spent years learning how to formulate indoor climbing walls.
"Climbing and setting are like eating and cooking," Goodwin says. "You can eat a lot, but that doesn't make you a great chef. It's the same thing with setting."
Freestone's routes include five levels of difficulty, from the simplest, marked with one dot, to the hardest, marked with five dots. When Goodwin starts setting routes for 10,000 square feet of roped climbing, he says, he'll do it with an eye toward luring in newbies. Roped climbing, where the climber is supported by a harness, can be an easier gateway into the sport than bouldering.
"We want new climbers to come in and be able to look at the ropes and go, 'Oh! I want to climb that,'" Goodwin says.