As rock climbers Kensie Whitfield and Jeanna Crockett packed their Mitsubishi Montero last summer with plans to drive west and find their place in the world, both expected they were leaving Charleston for good.
Yet after five months of touring the most famous climbing spots in North America, the couple reached an unexpected conclusion. As much as they'd enjoyed wandering the West, both felt ready to return to the Lowcountry and stake themselves to a far riskier dream.
That's the roundabout route that led the two 24-year-olds to open Coastal Climbing, Charleston's only indoor bouldering gym, earlier this month. The 4,500-square-foot facility is located on King Street just north of the Crosstown, in a tiny commercial district that's now bustling with activity.
Crockett, a 2009 graduate of the College of Charleston from Bethesda, Md., picked up the sport when she began dating Whitfield about three years ago. Whitfield's roots run deeper. A 2005 graduate of Wando High School, he began climbing as a 10-year-old at James Island County Park, worked at a now-defunct indoor climbing wall as a teenager, and chose Appalachian State University because of its proximity to so many rock faces. While earning his bachelor's degree he ran a popular outdoor climbing wall in downtown Boone, N.C., and studied geology "because you can't major in rock climbing."
His passion didn't seem to portend a future in Charleston, but an after-graduation job in Mt. Pleasant brought him home, and before long he and Crockett found themselves running the day-to-day operations of the Ballroom, a private indoor climbing facility they'd helped construct inside an old building leased by architect Kevan Hoertdoerfer on Upper King Street. It was there, watching the comings and goings of an invitation-only community of roughly 90 local climbers, that Whitfield began to wonder whether Charleston might be ready to support a dedicated climbing gym.
Whitfield's first stab at a business plan assumed a more traditional approach: long climbing routes, ropes, special equipment, etc. But during their 2011 western trip, the couple began pondering a new option. Instead of opening a traditional climbing gym, why not develop a smaller gym based on the less expensive, yet far more physically rewarding, sport of bouldering?
Dramatic climbs up dizzying heights get more attention, but even the most devoted big-wall climbers typically spend most of their training time bouldering, which is basically the act of stringing together a series of challenging moves without straying more than just a few feet above ground.
"It's something you can go out and do with all your friends really easily," Whitfield says. "You actually climb more when you go out and boulder. When you're fixed to a rope, you might climb five minutes in a 40-minute period. Bouldering allows for a little more creativity, a little more diversity. And because you're generally pretty close to the ground ... you're a little more willing to try crazier things. You can be totally upside down, and if you fall, you fall onto a pad."
The idea clicked, and with financial backing from their families, the two began looking for a location on the peninsula in October. They signed a lease on an unused former automotive repair shop at 708 King St. in January and went to work, finally opening to the public June 1.
The result is a facility at the far end of the white cinderblock building most easily recognized as Zappo's Pizza. The clean, no-frills climbing area is a converted repair bay divided into six angled plywood climbing walls studded with hundreds of movable climbing holds. The highest top-out is no more than 13 feet above the deeply padded floor, and climbers position additional pads to cushion any falls. A smaller cardio and free-weight room faces the climbing area, offering members not only a way to warm up before climbing, but also a place to continue working out after their fingers and forearms are spent. While proper climbing technique provides a full-body workout, few activities produce the lean arm and hand strength found in well-conditioned climbers.
Though Coastal Climbing markets itself as a gym, the atmosphere feels more like a cross between a yoga studio and a coffee shop. Tibetan prayer flags hang above the entrance to the climbing area, and instead of locker rooms and showers, Coastal Climbing's minimalist approach offers only restrooms and public cubbies where members stash their personal gear. A lounge and a wi-fi work area overlooking the reception desk provide everything from hand-drums and a communal acoustic guitar to television and board games. And members — many of them telecommuters — don't seem shy about using their climbing gym as a co-working space.
"A lot of people who are in summer school have been up here," Crockett says. "They want to get out of the house, but they can't go drinking at night because they've got all this homework, so they come here, hang out with their friends, and then come up here and do a little studying."
The laid-back twenty-something vibe is no accident. Passing up the traditional climbing-gym model meant losing out on a lot of middle-aged customers who need the security of ropes and harnesses to soften their falls, which means Coastal Climbing's core customer base has to skew to the young side of the 18-to-35 demographic to be successful. With their proximity to the Citadel, CofC, Trident Tech's Palmer Campus, and a North Central neighborhood that's been attracting more young renters and owners every year, the owners are relying on word-of-mouth publicity and social-media buzz to make up for the advertising budget they can't yet afford.
But if they can get people to try it, Crockett and Whitfield like their chances. New climbers pick up the basics quickly, and besides, Whitfield says, "Climbing, like yoga, tends to be a lifestyle activity. Once you're immersed in the sport, you're constantly thinking about it."
Coastal Climbing, at 708 King St. Unit 5 in Charleston, is open from noon to 9 p.m. seven days a week. One-day pass, $10. 10-day pass, $80. Monthly memberships are $50, with $5 discounts for students and military. Annual memberships provide one month for free. Beverages, snacks, and selected gear can be purchased, and private instruction and equipment rentals are available. Children under 13 must be under adult supervision. (843) 789-3265.