New owners, new life at local climbing gym

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Ain’t no rock wall high enough: Erin Horn scales one of Rocky Top’s 20-plus-foot climbing routes. (Photo by Nick Strocchia) Ain’t no rock wall high enough: Erin Horn scales one of Rocky Top’s 20-plus-foot climbing routes. (Photo by Nick Strocchia)

Rock climbers in Charlottesville looking for a quick fix face a geographical conundrum. Reaching a decent crag requires at least 45 minutes in the car. Fortunately, for the past 18 years Rocky Top climbing gym has been a reliable Downtown vertical refuge, and soon the sanctuary for top-rope routes and bouldering training will see some significant upgrades.

Three months ago the gym was taken over by new owner Matt Murray, a former local attorney who’s decided to spend his retirement running the place that first made him a climber. When Rocky Top opened in 1994, Murray’s son Wesley came to him repeatedly asking for $5 for day passes to the gym. Eventually curious about his son’s interest, he checked it out for himself and quickly became addicted to scaling the facility’s tall walls full of challenging holds.

Since taking over the gym, Murray has been gradually doing what he calls 18 years of deferred maintenance. Deep cleaning involved scrubbing residual chalk dust from the walls and applying fresh coats of paint. The real investment, though, has gone into the creation of new wall structures, buying new crash pads, and adding hundreds of improved holds that will be installed soon.“It is still my absolute passion,” said Murray, who now runs the gym with Wesley and his daughter Mimi. “When the climbing bug bites you, it becomes an obsession.”

In total, Rocky Top has over 2,500 feet of climbing space, split between the large 20-plus-foot walls of the main area and a narrow bouldering hallway dubbed the Bat Cave. As a gym, it’s a no-frills fitness club, where climbing is definitely the main focus. Although Rocky Top has a modest selection of free weights, aerobic machines and a racquetball court, the real draw here is the inexpensive access to a variety of consistently rotated climbing routes—set for every level from beginner to expert.

On a recent Wednesday evening, a dozen local climbers congregated in the gym’s main area and took turns ascending different routes. There’s a casual friendly vibe among Charlottesville’s small but lively climbing community. There’s talk in the room of upcoming trips to Yosemite, and since it’s a dreary cold February night, this is the perfect place to train.

“This is where I come to get ready for the real rock outside,” said Brendan Condron, a 16-year-old student at Monticello High School who climbs competitively and trains at Rocky Top five nights a week. “The people here are always encouraging each other and ready to help new climbers.”

Condron was first exposed to climbing by his father Barry, a biology professor at the University of Virginia and a 12-year Rocky Top veteran who got his kids on the wall at a young age.

“I can do a really difficult bouldering problem, lift some weights, and then spend some time playing with the kids,” he said.

Getting started
Rocky Top offers $50 monthly memberships for the general public and a $40 student rate. If you’re not ready for that kind of commitment, you can try climbing for the day for $12. While the gym doesn’t offer formal instruction, the owners will get newcomers set up with basic harness and belay instructions. Bringing a climbing partner is recommended. The gym also rents basic equipment: climbing shoes, harnesses, and chalk bags.

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