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Climb So iLL - an indoor wealth of walls - brings a flashback to New Zealand

person on a colorful climbing call at Climb soIll
Provided by Climb So iLL

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2013: “You’re looking a little nervous,” said David Chancellor, co-owner of Climb So iLL, as I stepped into my climbing harness.  He wasn’t wrong.  As if my stammering and dilated pupils weren’t enough, the front of my shirt was already soaked in sweat; all this before I had completed any form of physical exertion.

“Climbing is a lot safer than Judo,” he said, referring to the cause of a strained muscle in my back that had kept me from coming in earlier that week.

“But in Judo, you fall from 4 feet, not 40,” I offered.

David smiled kindly at me as I wedged my feet into climbing shoes and then led me out of the pro shop. I followed him to the first of several auto belay systems, a great feature of the gym that enables solo climbers to get some work in without waiting for a partner. The simple set up allows a quick clip in and upon reaching the top of the wall, the climber only has to let go to be lowered gently to the ground.

David watched from below as I began my ascent … to about 10 feet. He then suggested I give the “letting go” part a try from that height. 

“Two seconds of courage!” he called. “Just let go!”

I really didn’t want to let go.

David continued to cheer me on, alternately cracking jokes and offering comforting words until I was finally able to peel my hands off the holds and let the auto belay do its thing. I glided gently to the ground, forgetting to put my feet down and landing instead on my rear end.  

The next time, I went a bit higher; and Dave reminded me to walk down the wall as the system lowered me so that I wouldn’t swing from side to side. Finally, it was time to go the whole way up. I enjoy the act of climbing but not the inevitability of coming down – one way or another – so when I reached the top, I paused, looking out over the facility.  

Climb So iLL is an amazing place.

Its roots go back to when David and his brother, Daniel, developed a passion for climbing at a young age. Eventually they began their own business creating holds for indoor climbing gyms, planning to one day have their own. Two years ago, David, Daniel and their childhood friend, Ian Anderson, took what was once the crumbling City Hospital power plant, 1419 Carroll, and transformed it into a multi-level indoor climbing gym.

Each wall is a work of art: an elephant, a tulip – even an eyeball. Last year, Climb So iLL was named one of Landmark’s 12 most enhanced places of 2012.

“Two seconds! All it takes is two seconds of courage!” David reminded me from below.

I returned my attention to the wall in front of me, my clammy hands re-grasping their holds.  

“I … I’m not sure I can let go,” I called back down to him, my mind racing back almost a decade to another moment of panicky wall-hugging. 

I had been with a boyfriend in the Blue Mountains in Australia and we’d already done a few climbs, when three-fourths of the way up, I had been overtaken by what I can only describe as a panic attack. It was sudden and violent and inexplicable. I had frozen mid-climb, unable to move up or down and started shaking and sweating uncontrollably. Tears began streaming down my face and I could feel my vision start to narrow. I called down to my boyfriend (coincidentally also named David) that I was freaking out. I kept asking, “Did he have the rope?” and begging him not to let me fall. He kept talking to me in a calm, soothing voice, telling me to just let go and he would lower me down. 

But I couldn’t, wouldn’t let go. 

If everything was all over, like my brain was telling me it was, I was going to reach the top first. I climbed, breathing in horrible, ragged gasps until my hand slapped the top and then, finally, my body went limp and David brought me slowly down to the ground. 

“I bet you were that little girl that climbed to the top of the tree house, right?” I heard Climb So iLL David say from the mat below.  “You can do this, just let go… trust the equipment!”

So I let go.  And it wasn’t bad.  At all.  I was lowered just as gently by the auto belay as I had been all those years ago by a worried boyfriend.

David suggested I take a little break and then try another wall with auto belay.  I removed the tight climbing shoes and walked around the space, pausing to watch a group of teenagers on the bouldering wall.  They would climb one at a time, the others looking on, calling out encouragement and suggestions, a great picture of an individual experimenting and problem solving while being supported by a community.

I reached another wall, clipped in and headed up.  It took me a while to let go on the new wall too but once I got used it, I genuinely started to enjoy myself. The panicky day in the Blue Mountains was not this day.

Watching other climbers, all ages, experience levels, shapes and sizes, experiment and problem solve re-affirmed the communal feeling. And the natural light flooding through the huge windows had a quieting effect. The whole space has an almost cathedral-like atmosphere to it – the soaring ceilings and windows, the quiet halls and training room. Music filled the place but added to the serene ambiance instead of being a distraction. Galleries, which will eventually become two restaurants, overlook the climbing walls, offering a great view of the activity below.

When I was finished climbing, I headed back to the pro-shop to return my equipment and check in with David.

The Climb So iLL motto is: “Grounded in experience. Dedicated to community.” And watching David happily chat with the climbers who passed in and out of the shop, I believed it. The gym offers classes and seminars for new and experienced climbers and has just launched its Climb So iLL Youth Team, whose aim is “to raise young individuals as responsible members of the community and to produce disciplined athletes.”

But David assures me that all of this is only the beginning  It seems that the space has so much potential and the ownership team so many ideas and goals, that as each phase nears completion, the next five are already in motion. Climb So iLL has taken a derelict power plant and drawn its own energy from it, putting in experience and producing joy.