For the Love of the Climb
The future and culture of rock climbing in Gainesville
In the backyard of his home in La Crosse, Florida, John Reger’s barn holds a homemade rock wall.
On it, he teaches his three children how to climb. His two sons and 1-year-old daughter maneuver the wall as often as they can, and they get better every day.
Reger himself started climbing when he was 13 years old. Shortly after, he joined other youth rock climbing in Gainesville Florida at the Gainesville Rock Gym.
Since those days, he has traveled all over the country to climb competitively and for fun. He says he has met most, if not all, of his closest friends climbing. Now, he gets to teach his children about the sport he fell in love with.
“The monkey blood is strong with my children,” he said. “We’ve got crash pads set up underneath, so they just climb up and around to their heart’s content and have a blast.”
Reger is one of the many people in the Gainesville area who fell in love with the sport of rock climbing the minute they strapped up and touched a wall. He said the activity is what gets you hooked, and the community is what keeps you coming back.
And although the makeshift wall in his barn is fun for his children to play on, it was inspired by a lack of places to practice rock climbing in Gainesville Florida that community is facing. In December 2015, the Gainesville Rock Gym, Reger’s first climbing home and a staple for the county’s most dedicated climbers, closed. Since then, the Sun Country Sports facility in Jonesville has provided the only place to experience rock climbing in Gainesville Florida — on its 2,500-square foot indoor wall.
Despite local facilities, according to Reger, “There are around 400 to 500 climbers that don’t have anywhere to climb. The nearest dedicated climbing gyms are in Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando.”
From that need came the idea: a new rock gym for Alachua County. Reger is working as an advisor with the gym’s catalysts. The plans for the facility, called The Knot, are being executed by his friend and fellow climber Mike Palmer.
“Mike and I have been climbing together since about 2003,” Reger said. “We’ve traveled all over the country to climb, and even though we’ve been multiple states apart at times, we’ll still call each other up and meet up at these climbing spots for little reunions. It’s really refreshing.”
The new gym is still in the early phases, but Palmer, who will act as the CEO and climbing director, has big plans for what it can offer for the community eager for rock climbing in Gainesville Florida.
“By providing a safe, clean climbing facility with The Knot, it will be a great opportunity to learn and to meet new people and to take your skills out into the world,” Reger said. “That’s the vision behind it. We want to provide a place where anybody can come in, feel welcome and really learn how to climb safely and effectively. We want them to get hooked on the sport.”
Mike Palmer lives in Deland to be closer to his hobbies — climbing and skydiving. He says he loves a good adrenaline rush, but climbing, for him, is like a breath of fresh air.
“It’s funny, because you might think that it would be just another rush, but really after climbing for awhile you get this calm, relaxed peaceful moment,” he said.
Palmer said that as CEO, he’s currently working with the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to get the gym up and running specifically as a part of the CRA’s Power District Redevelopment project. He is also joined at the executive level by Mitch Eadens and Jeff McMullen, who own Palomino Pool Hall in downtown Gainesville. Eadens and McMullen will work as the director of marketing and the operations manager, respectively.
The group recently started talking with companies who design rock walls and are ironing out other details involved with starting a new business. At this point, they are hoping the planning will turn to action around August.
For now, Palmer said he is taking things one day at a time and reminding the Gainesville climbing community that there are still dedicated climbers around for the long haul. “We want to show people that there’s still a lot of climbers, and we want to be open to the climbing community going on here,” Palmer said. “The more people that come out to our events says to us, ‘Hey, we still love climbing, we really want a climbing gym,’ and it makes for a faster project as we move along.”
As Palmer and Reger look to the future, though, those looking to climb in Alachua County have options.
Sun Country Sports in Jonesville is alive, well and open for both recreational and competitive rock climbing in Gainesville Florida, said Jodi Hunt, the director of marketing and operations for the facility.
“Our wall is kind of used for a little bit of everything,” she said. “We have adults that climb, we have college students that climb and then we also have kids. We even have families that will come and climb together. That’s kind of the beauty of the type of facility that we have, it allows people of all ages and abilities to come climb.”
The facility offers a gamut of programs from gymnastics to fencing, but Hunt says the climbing wall is one of the most popular programs.
“It’s pretty much busy from when it opens during the day to when it closes at night,” she said. “It’s great exercise, and anybody can do it at any time in their life. It doesn’t require any special skill set. People can learn to climb without ever having done it before.”
For those looking to climb outdoors, there are almost no places to go in Florida, said Chris Clark, a local climbing enthusiast whose daughter introduced him to the sport about six years ago. Clark helped coach the youth team at Gainesville Rock Gym that eventually merged with Sun Country Sports.
“Climbing is one of those sports where everyone is really supportive of each other,” Clark said. “You’ll be at a competition cheering on your competitor. It’s an unusual sport in that aspect. We combined the teams, lost a few kids, and were really strong for awhile there.”
From 2009 to 2016, Clark and his daughter were in the gym three times a week and taking trips to climb outdoors every few months.
“We’ve calmed down quite a bit,” he said. “But it’s kind of like riding a bicycle, you keep it over in the garage and you take it out every now and again.”
Indoor climbing is fun, says Clark, but there’s nothing like climbing in a beautiful, natural spot outside.
Clark, Reger and Palmer all agree that Chattanooga, Tennessee is one of the best places climbers can go to enjoy the outdoors, specifically Foster Falls and Little Rock City, also known as the Stone Fort. Located about seven hours from Gainesville via car, the Tennessee city is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
“Chattanooga is a good weekend trip,” Palmer said. “They have fantastic outdoor climbing, they have a fun downtown and overall just a really cool vibe. You can stay in a cool town, but also still make it out to climb on some awesome rocks.”
Little Rock City is also famous for being one of three climbs for the annual Triple Crown of Bouldering competition and for being the most accessible boulder field to downtown Chattanooga. Other places to climb outdoors in the Southeast include Horse Pens 40 near Steele, Alabama (also a Triple Crown destination), Rock Town in LaFayette, Georgia, and Red River Gorge in Stanton, Kentucky.
Rock climbing in Gainesville Florida enthusiasts will see a new dedicated rock climbing gym within the next year or two, courtesy of Palmer, which may arrive just in time for another climbing milestone – rock climbing will be part of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
Until then, Reger said he plans to keep climbing and teaching his kids, even if it’s in his barn. “The future of the sport isn’t necessarily with us older climbers,” Reger said. “We can still participate and we can still have a great time and enjoy our sport, but currently the kids and the teenagers who have been climbing since they were young children have been dominating, and it’s amazing to watch.”