My son, who’s in third grade, recently finished up a social studies unit on Louisiana geography. In addition to learning about our major cities, parishes, and waterways, he also dutifully committed to memory the existence of Louisiana’s highest point, the 535-ft. Mt. Driskill in Bienville Parish. During that process he discovered—as all Louisiana children eventually do—that this place is really, really flat. Based on the topography that they see on a daily basis, I’m pretty sure that neither of my children’s perception of what’s fun and possible in the world currently includes the idea of literally scaling great heights.
Thanks to a team of local investors led by Polo Gonzalez, that’s about to change. In mid-December, Gonzalez and his partners are set to open a state of the art climbing gym, G-Rock Climbing, inside the Shreveport Indoor Soccer facility in southeast Shreveport. The gym will be the first of its kind in Shreveport-Bossier, connecting our community with one of the fastest-growing sports in the country and around the world. Climbing has become so popular and competitive, in fact, that it will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo games as “sport climbing.”

“Climbing is safe, affordable, fun, social, and mentally engaging,” explains Gonzalez. “We think it’s going to be a very exciting thing to have in this area.”

GAINING A FOOTHOLD

Gonzalez moved to the area about six years ago along with his wife, Carolyn Spaht Gonzalez, who grew up in Shreveport and went on to live and work in several different cities, before returning to Shreveport. After working in finance for most of his career, Gonzalez took some time to think creatively, and began to explore the possibility of bringing one of his personal passions—climbing—to his new community. A climbing gym seemed like a welcome addition to the local sports scene as well as a smart business venture, since there was really nothing comparable within about three hours of Shreveport. “I thought at the time that it would be something that we could get up and running relatively quickly,” Gonzalez says.

He chuckles a bit when remembering that prediction now, at the tail end of an intense, detailed, year-long process of research, development, and design. The experience of building a unique and highly specialized business from the ground up has given Gonzalez a healthy appreciation for the complex work that goes on behind the scenes long before any potential customers or users are on the horizon. In the case of G-Rock, Gonzalez has been fortunate to assemble a group of investors—mostly friends and acquaintances—who are, in his estimation, “people who want to do new things, and try new things, but they also want to do them professionally. All of these individuals are professionals, and they want to do things correctly.”

Knowing that there is no room for error in a sport like climbing, Gonzalez and his partners committed to outfitting G-Rock to international industry standards. They meticulously researched and hired the top worldwide manufacturer of climbing walls, Walltopia, as well as a leading flooring manufacturer, Futurist Climbing. Gonzalez has worked with both companies to design custom climbing walls and flooring for the 5,000 square feet space that G-Rock will occupy inside Shreveport Indoor Soccer. “It’s a process,” he explains. “Designing the right kind of wall for the space takes a long time, and then the engineering is another huge step. Once you have that, you can start looking at flooring and holds for the walls.”

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G-Rock will feature top of the line facilities and equipment for two types of climbing: bouldering and top-roping. Top-roping is the more traditional climbing style, incorporating a higher wall and belaying techniques, while bouldering, as a “free” climb, is faster and more dynamic. The key to creating a fun and continually rewarding experience for climbers in both bouldering and top-roping is employing knowledgeable and creative route setters to place the holds. G-Rock is in the process of hiring for this position now. Gonzalez describes the route setter as equivalent to “the chef of a restaurant,” because he or she is tasked with the responsibility of getting climbers to return again and again to meet new challenges in the gym. “This is one of the most important parts of a climbing gym—keeping it fresh and exciting,” says Gonzalez. “You have to have a good route-setting team, and every day their job is to come in and put in new climbs and take out the old ones, or if there’s a huge favorite just to tweak it so it stays fresh and interesting. That’s what keeps your membership engaged.”

“IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME”
Both Walltopia and Futurist sent teams to G-Rock in November to professionally install the equipment that will soon make indoor climbing a reality in Shreveport. So the mid-December 2016 launch of a world-class climbing gym in our community is on schedule, but where—and who—are the climbers?

The current absence of indoor climbing in Shreveport, or really anywhere in the immediate region, can be interpreted as either a challenge or an opportunity for the team behind G-Rock. Indeed, Gonzalez shared that one of the most frequent first questions from some of his potential investors was something along the lines of, “Is this something for Colorado, or the West Coast? Somewhere that already has a climbing community?” Only one of the other investors is a climber, although several have children who have climbed before in different cities. As usual, Gonzalez was ready with research: “There are many cities in the south of similar size to Shreveport that already have climbing gyms, and there is evidence that they have been successful as soon as they become available. It’s something that’s attractive, and you don’t have to be in the middle of the Rockies to have people interested in climbing.” In Louisiana, there are existing climbing gyms in New Orleans and Lafayette and one under construction in Baton Rouge, and Gonzalez plans to tap into connections in those communities.

Based on his research and his own positive experiences with the sport, Gonzalez is firmly on the “opportunity” side of the coin when it comes to the future of climbing in Shreveport. He can persuasively make the case for why this largely unfamiliar activity will appeal to locals: “It’s available year-round—rain or shine, hot or cold—you don’t even have to wear sunscreen.” (Author’s note: Sold!) Gonzalez is also quick to mention indoor climbing’s stellar safety record, its affordability (“Basically, all you need is a good pair of shoes”), and its cross-generational appeal, from young children through adults. He has found that climbing tends to be a very social activity and that climbing gyms can create and sustain strong, active communities. “People make new friends in the gym, and invite their friends—it’s just a really nice social, fun, and good-for-your-body activity. Also, as people get better at climbing, they take what they learned in the climbing gym and take it outdoors, where there are immense possibilities.”

Gonzalez would love to see G-Rock become home base for this kind of community, supporting climbing lessons, after-school programs, team-building workshops for businesses, and even a competition team for teenagers and young adults. There are immediate plans for the gym to offer other wellness activities that complement climbing, including yoga and fitness classes. “I think that cross-training is very important,” Gonzalez explains. “Being agile and flexible helps a lot when you climb. People think that it’s just about upper body strength, but it’s not—most of the climbing is done with your legs. Including yoga and aerobic exercise in your training helps a lot to achieve good movement and balance. As you develop these abilities, you’ll enjoy climbing a lot more and become a much better athlete in general.”

THE NEXT BIG THING
Only time will tell what the climbing landscape looks like in Shreveport a year from now, but Gonzalez believes that the key to G-Rock’s success might lie with the youngest generation—with kids like mine whose idea of a steep climb involves driving up Thrill Hill on the way to school in the morning. “It’s natural for kids to climb things,” explains Gonzalez. “They climb trees, and fences, and furniture! But once they learn climbing technique, they get so much more out of it.”

Gonzalez’s own climbing journey has revealed lessons that parents are sure to appreciate, namely that climbing done right is a deeply cerebral experience. “Climbing is intellectual and technical. You don’t have to be super-strong, you just have to learn how to climb to be able to take on big challenges. If you learn to move and balance your body, you’re going to have a lot of fun climbing. If you look online at videos of climbing, you see these skinny teenage boys and girls—they are fantastic climbers! It’s the opposite of muscular—they have just developed good technique.”

The research and preparation that Gonzalez and his partners have invested in will bring a world-class climbing facility to Shreveport by the end of this year, and as the gym develops more locals will have the chance to learn why indoor climbing enjoys such a devoted following.