ITHACA, N.Y.—With vaccines steadily making their way into peoples’ arms, businesses in Ithaca and Tompkins County are slowly climbing out of their COVID-driven doldrums. In Keith Liao’s case, the statement is literal.

Liao is the business owner and operator of Cayuga Climbs, which seeks to be the first climbing gym in Tompkins County open to the entire community. A Cornell MBA, Liao was able to return to the area when his consulting job with the National Park Service in Denver allowed remote work. His fiancé Beth is working on her Doctor’s in Veterinary Medicine, and so he made the move back east.

It was after he returned that he realized that life in Ithaca is different when you’re not a student. For one thing, Cornell’s Lindseth Climbing Center at Bartels Hall is students-only, and even pre-COVID the openings for faculty, staff and other affiliates was quite limited.

“When I was doing my MBA, I was climbing at the Cornell climbing gym,” said Liao. “It’s a great gym, I met really great friends there, but now that I’ve graduated, I can’t exactly access it very well, it’s difficult, especially with COVID. I figured, other people are probably having the same issue, and there’s not really a gym in Ithaca that everyone can access, so I figured I would build my own gym and make it available to everyone.”

“Going to the Lindseth climbing gym, it was absolutely packed before COVID. From 5-10 PM, really whenever they were open it was crazy. Even just the Cornell community on its own needs a bigger space, and that doesn’t include the local or Ithaca College community, or even Cortland. I would go up to Syracuse, the Central Rock gym, to climb, and a lot of people who would go there are from Ithaca, people will drive over an hour to climb in the gym. Overall, Ithaca is a nice outdoorsy town, with great hikes and mountain biking. You have that personality, but people who might get interested in climbing, there’s no good outdoor opportunity to climb here, but there should be a good opportunity to indoor climb here.”

Liao is not the first person who’s had the idea for a climbing gym in Tompkins County. In conjunction with ReachWorks, the Rink in Lansing had plans for a wall and even had a zoning variance from the town of Lansing to put it up. The survey spikes were in and fencing had been erected before the project was cancelled, not for a lack of demand but due to concerns related to financing.

Liao said he was aware of the issues experienced by the Rink’s plan, but actually saw it as a positive. “It’s a good sign, really. For one, someone else thought it was a good idea. Also, they had the idea for a much bigger gym, much more ambitious. I’ve met a few of the people who were tangentially involved with it, it was a much bigger investment.”

So here’s we get into the weeds a little bit, or the rocky nooks and crannies if you will. The Rink proposal was an Olympic-scale 50-foot tall vertical climbing wall, which is probably what many readers think of when they think of a climbing gym. But that’s not the only kind of climbing gym. There’s also bouldering, which uses lower walls in a variety of configurations, from vertical walls to cave-like setups with overhangs and arches. These layouts usually do not require the use of ropes and harnesses. Cayuga Climbs’ walls are geared towards bouldering, and will be about 15 feet tall and about 140 feet in width. When you let go, you’ll be landing on 14-inch thick padded mats.

From a pragmatic business perspective, one of the highlights of a bouldering gym is that you don’t need to build a custom structure that likely needs height variances from town zoning – any decent-sized warehouse structure will do. In Liao’s case, Cayuga Climbs found a home in a recently-built warehouse at 53 Hall Road in the town of Dryden, next to the former Vanguard printing plant. In something of an unexpected bonus, the neighbors include Ultimate Cheer and Tumble gymnastics and cheerleader training and the batting cages of HitZ baseball and softball training, so it’s a natural-born cluster of recreational sports and fitness businesses. Liao says he and the owner of HitZ are already talking about collaborations to make it easy for patrons to flow from one business to the next.

“The moment I got inside the Hall Road property, I was like, ‘this is awesome.’ I had toured a few other places. I had looked at the Ithaca Mall, they had offered me a good deal on pricing, but it’s not necessarily a place I could envision climbers going. It had easy parking, but the space wasn’t quite big enough and it’s not the right atmosphere for climbers, whereas this warehouse is really tall, it has more space than I need initially so I can expand out, and it just feels like a climbing place.”

Liao says that along with the bouldering experience, Cayuga Climbs will offer a climbing shoe retail store, weightlifting equipment, and table tennis as patrons take breaks between climbs. About half of the leased warehouse space will be built out to start, with expansion dependent on community response and membership growth. To assist in running Cayuga Climbs, Liao has hired four part-time staff in “making sure that they provide the right experience in creating a welcoming atmosphere” that appeals to both beginners and serious climbers. As it opens, CDC guidelines will be the rule; masks will be required and capacity will be limited as COVID-19 guidelines advise.

So Cayuga Climbs will have its 2,000+ square feet of wall, and while that seems plenty to keep busy with for a while, eventually one has to figure out a way to keep patrons engaged and wanting to come back. As it turns out, the trick is in the climbers’ holds screwed into the walls; they can be rearranged countless ways with a variety of shapes and grips. “We’ll be resetting the routes about once a week for different sections. My gym will have a straight-up section, an incline section, and a section designed to feel like a cave. At all times, there’s going to be a fresh route, and it can take a few weeks to figure out how to get up a fresh route. But we’ll also do beginners’ classes, a package for private rentals, and 20-30 minute lessons so climbers can get tips and so they’re not wandering around wondering what to do,” said Liao.

According to Liao, May 1st is the planned opening date. The backbone of the walls is being assembled now, and then the wall panels themselves have to be installed. If things are a little ahead of schedule, they may do a soft opening in late April, or give tours for prospective members. In addition to her veterinary studies, Liao’s fiancé has been assisting after-hours in drilling the 14,000 holes drilled and screws turned to put those walls up.

But, it also raises an important question; she’s going to finish her degree at some point, and for many couples that’s the end of their times in Ithaca. So what does that mean for Cayuga Climbs?

A 3-D render of the climbing wall layout. Image provided.

“That’s a great point,” Liao said when asked. “She’s sponsored by the U.S. Army and so we will have to relocate in service to our country, right? But we’ll try to be within driving distance and coming back. I will ultimately try to get a general manager, promote one of my staff. That’s an important thing I think, having the ability to advance, and not working the front desk forever.”

For those interested in giving Cayuga Climbs a try, the inquiries and questions can be submitted on their website here. “I do want to emphasize, this will be an inclusive climbing community. With ropes you have to have a partner, you partner off and don’t get to meet other people. But with bouldering, you climb it and you’re down and resting and sitting in groups, at least before COVID. I think it’s a great opportunity to meet people who are interested in the same thing,” said Liao.

“The problem-solving aspect of it, you’re working against it, and changing one little thing can help you get up to the top. You’re working on it with like-minded people, talking it out and figuring it out. It’s how I met many of my friends, it really does help develop friendships.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.