When members of the 1872 Hayden Geological Survey first attempted to ascend the Grand Teton, they found “the enclosure,” an ellipse of vertical granite slabs built by native explorers. For as long as humans have traveled through Jackson Hole, they have climbed in the Tetons.
But climbing, once a monolithic pursuit synonymous with mountaineering, is now diverse. The stars of the sport are hyper-specialists. Some defy gravity on diminutive boulders by balancing and gripping their way up with the thinnest margin for error, while others pursue glaciated ridgelines for weeks on end. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo brought a new type of climbing spectacle into the global mainstream: artificial walls with artificial holds. As the competitors gracefully ascended human-made routes on the world stage, one thing became clear: Jackson Hole has been left behind.
“To have a place like this that’s such an extraordinary climbing hub, and not have a climbing gym is remarkable,” local climber Ben Gardner said. “Especially today when there’s a climbing gym in every squat little town and five in each big city.”
In 2019, Teton County voted to fund an expansion of the Teton County Recreation Center, which is to include an indoor climbing facility. But local advocates have continually raised concerns about the proposed size of the gym, now set at 7,500 square feet.
“You need community space available so the climbers aren’t all on top of each other,” Teton Climbers’ Coalition member Marian Meyers told the News&Guide earlier this year.
For two years Gardner, who is the former manager of a Salt Lake City climbing gym, has fervently worked on a plan to create a second climbing gym in Jackson Hole. As of this week he has begun conversations with a general contractor and an architect, received preliminary designs from a climbing wall company and made an offer on a local space. Backed by four other local investors, he said that the project is fully funded.
“The biggest hurdle now is finding a space,” Gardner said. “We made an offer on one in town already, but if that doesn’t work out we’ll be on the hunt again.”
Gardner has lived in Jackson on and off for a decade. Years ago he and his wife, physical therapist Cossette Burnham, had memberships to The Enclosure Climbing Center before it closed in 2014.
“We were probably unusual members in that we kept climbing there throughout the summer,” he said. “It’s easy to lose your strength during the summer if you’re only climbing in the alpine.”
When the couple moved to Salt Lake City, Gardner got a job at The Front, an expansive climbing center. In the back of his head he was still thinking about the Tetons.
“I managed The Front for three years,” he said. “My hope was to gain some of the experience I would need to come back and open a gym in Jackson.”
Now that the Rec Center is set to begin building a climbing facility and local real estate prices have skyrocketed, his vision has shifted slightly. Gardner has decided not to include roped climbing in the proposed facility. The gym will exclusively offer bouldering, a form of climbing on short walls with large “crash pads” laid beneath to catch a fall. It’s the same format that is on display at the Phil Baux boulder park.
“I want the gym to be a communal place for people to come spend time with their friends and work on their activity,” Gardner said. “The simplest form of that is bouldering.”
Gardner’s vision also includes a repertoire of climbing-specific training tools, a weight room and a multi-purpose space for yoga and physical therapy. If all goes according to plan, it will fit into a space of roughly 10,000 square feet, 2,500 more than the proposed Rec Center facility.
For some it might seem foolish to compete with a publicly funded project in an inflated real estate market.
“There’s a reason that we’ve lost two private-market gyms in Jackson Hole already,” Teton County Climbers’ Coalition founder Christian Beckwith told the News&Guide earlier this year. “We’re focused on the Rec Center gym because it’s not subject to the vagaries of Jackson’s crazy market forces.”
Gardner, on the other hand, is optimistic that his gym will be profitable. He argues that both the Teton Rock Gym and The Enclosure were plagued by management issues, not financial insecurity.
“Both gyms were actually financially successful and viable, but most people don’t think that they were,” he said.
As long as his team secures a building, Gardner will soon learn firsthand whether his instinct is correct. His vision isn’t too far from the vision for the Rec Center space; he imagines running youth programs and attracting families to the gym. But he imagines coexisting with the public entity rather than competing with it.
He said that 7,500 square feet is “just not big enough to house the hordes of climbers that live here and visit here. We’ll have a little more elbow room, and their hours will be more limited. We should be able to stay open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.”
Despite Beckwith’s reservations, he and the Climbers’ Coalition have been enthusiastically supportive of Gardner’s efforts. As far as local climbers are concerned, the more walls to climb, the better.