At Austin Bouldering Project, climbers tackle changing array of routes

Updated Jan 31, 2016

Austin chef Amanda Turner inches her way gecko-like up a wall, reaching from one crayon-colored grip to the next until her fingers give out and she flops to the padded ground below — like a suction cup that’s lost its stick.

Two friends — also chefs — cheer her effort as she plots her next attempt.

At the Austin Bouldering Project, climbers can tackle an ever-changing cast of 300 “problems,” or routes, that adorn the walls of the 50,000-square-foot gym located inside a refurbished food distribution warehouse in East Austin.

“This is addictive,” says Yoni Lang, 28, head sushi chef at Uchiko, as he watches Turner. “It’s challenging. You’re constantly looking for the solution. It’s mind exercise as much as body exercise.”

Indoor climbing gyms started as a place for climbers to train during bad weather. The concept, clearly, has evolved.

Austin Bouldering Project’s sprawling space contains what feels like acres of free-standing faux boulders and walls that jut out and sweep around corners. There’s a tiny climbing wall for toddlers, a designated youth area, space for a competitive team to train and even a climbing “treadmill,” that scrolls down as climbers grapple upward.

It looks sleek and modern, too, with concrete floors (except in the climbing pits), corrugated-metal ceilings, exposed pipes, a loft where members tap away on laptops and locker rooms where they can relax in saunas. It incorporates a yoga studio and a more traditional fitness studio where members can take group classes, plus a separate party room. An after-school program will launch in February.

But climbing is the focus, with cavernous spaces designed to emulate top climbing destinations like Hueco Tanks in West Texas.

Zach Olschwanger, 26, a former biomedical engineer who grew up in Dallas, teamed with four partners in Seattle to open the Austin business. A climber and entrepreneur who started a record label while he was a student at Texas A&M University and is getting ready to launch a sport-specific nutrition bar called Crafted, Olschwanger discovered the Seattle Bouldering Project while traveling.

Impressed by the concept, he later called the owners for advice, telling them he planned to open a gym in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because he didn’t want to tip them off to his Austin plans. Before that three-hour conversation ended, he confessed his true motive and ultimately joined forces with Andy Wyatt and Chris Potts to open the Austin facility on Springdale Road in late November. Dylan Johnson, who designed the Seattle gym, designed the Austin outpost. Another Seattle team member, Will Hanson, now divides his time between the two locations.

In bouldering, a type of rock climbing, athletes don’t use ropes or harnesses as they shimmy up low walls or rocks. Outdoors, they set up thick mattresses to cushion falls. Here, where the tallest routes top out at 17 feet, a giant squishy pad carpets the entire climbing area. Climbers wear special gripping shoes and dip their hands into a chalk bag to keep their hands dry.

Bouldering has a more social component than traditional rock climbing, the owners say.

“Everyone’s on the same plane, not separated by vertical distance,” Olschwanger says. “There’s no harness, no belay, and it takes out the fear of heights. No partner is needed. You just come and hang out.”

It tends to draw a specific type of person, Hanson says. “People not drawn to traditional sports like football, basketball and baseball find climbing and it speaks to them,” he says.

Turner, the chef who came to practice with her friends, is one of those people.

“I’m not the most physically fit person, but through climbing I’ve found physical activity I can engage in,” she says. She recently conquered her first V3-rated climbing route, which she says veteran climbers would consider easy. “I’m doing what I never thought I could do.”

She and her friends say the workout they get in helps build strength and late-night endurance they need for slinging pots and pans and wielding knives on the job. Plus, it’s fun and doesn’t feel like a structured exercise session at a traditional gym, they say.

The lumpy-looking hand holds at the gym are color-coded, with yellow and red for beginners all the way up to white for experts. In one corner, climbers cling like opossums as they work their way under a horizontal ledge.

“It’s such an amazing place to come and hang out,” says Stefani Spandau, 24, a videographer who works with emergency response teams. One of her shins is bloodied from banging it against the climbing wall, but she doesn’t care.

“It feels really good,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re in a movie to accomplish something you never thought you could do.”