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Climbing gym's change in focus has hardcore climbers searching for a hang

Longtime climber Larry Brumwell said he's the poster boy for the economic recession.

In 2010 Brumwell, the owner of Bend's former climbing gym lost everything. "It was rough," said Brumwell, in what could be the understatement of the year.

In 1996 Brumwell opened Inclimb, a dusty rock gym that served as a second home to some of Central Oregon's strongest climbers. But in 2010, as he tried to expand into a larger space, Brumwell found he had stretched himself too thin. Brumwell's landlord, Jim Stone, offered a fix. Stone bought the business from Brumwell and absorbed his tenant's debt.

"I had a revelation, explained Stone. "I really enjoy watching programs that develop kids. And I can see that the revenue benefits what I'm able to provide for the future."

When Stone, a doctor who owns Bend's Mountain Medical Immediate Care, took overthe gym, he made significant structural changes and did away with the "elite-only" vibe. Stone realized to make the gym viable, he needed to cater to families and mid-level climbers—a demographic that makes up the bulk of the sport's current and emerging interest.

"Larry and Leah [Brumwell's former wife] did a fantastic job of building the climbing community, but they focused on the climbing community that could climb 5.10 and higher," said Stone.

In Bend and most mountain towns, you'll see two sets of outdoor users: the core, high-level athletes and the casual recreationalists. Brumwell and a number of other core rock climbers say Stone has distanced the real climbing community as he's made kids and families the priority at the Bend Rock Gym.

Stone's cash infusion and business savvy have allowed Bend's climbing gym to prosper. Stone made the gym cleaner, safer and more user-friendly. He replaced the old flooring with a padded surface, installed a venting system and increased the amount of climbable faces inside the gym. And he's hoping to double the gym's square footage, which should allow him to better segregate the kids from the hard climbers.

Originally disenchanted by the new ownership, Jeff Clausen, one of Brumwell's former employees, said he's recently started going back to the gym. "I think they're doing great," Clausen said.

But, over the past couple of years, a number of high-level climbers say Stone's shift in focus has alienated members of their community.

Some climbers feel their wants and needs aren't being met. Armies of small children often interrupt serious training sessions. Climbing competitions still exist, but no longer are they followed by dancing and beer drinking.

"What seems to be lacking is a group of really strong, dedicated climbers," Palo said.

For many the intimate hardcore vibe is gone.

"I wouldn't disagree," said Chris Sinatra, a local climber who's currently on a nine-month climbing road trip.

Sinatra said he misses Inclimb's high-level routes, which he attributed to Brumwell's strength and knowledge.

But Stone said that running a gym that caters only to high-level climbers isn't sustainable.

"In the past, the gym was so slow that these guys could come in and feel liked they owned the place," Stone said. "If they want that, then they need to go build their own private little climbing area."

For Brumwell, who's been toying with the idea of one day opening a new bouldering gym in Bend, it's easy to put a finger on the differences between his old climbing gym and Stone's current one.

"He's a business man and he's doing a good job with that," Brumwell said of Stone. "But he's an executive and lacks experience. That's where the feeling of illegitimacy comes from."

Palo, despite his misgivings about the Bend Rock Gym, provided a more balanced perspective.

"Climbers do not make the gym money," said Palo, one of few Central Oregon climbers who's completed a 5.14. "It's the birthday parties and groups that bring in the dollars."

According to Palo, overall the change has been for the better. As the old guard faded away from the climbing scene, a new crop of energetic climbers emerged in its place.

"Those of us who stayed were able to benefit from the additional capital Jim provided the gym," Palo said. Though he admitted that, rather than hang out, his associates operate at the Bend Rock Gym with their heads down and their mouths shut.

Brumwell gets it. He said he was long conflicted by his supportive base. The same climbers who frequented his gym and gave Inclimb its authentic feel, were also the ones clamoring for discounts and deals, which made it hard to remain financially solvent, Brumwell said.

If, however, Stone can expand as he plans to do, there should be room for plastic pullers of all backgrounds.

"We're so busy now members leave because it's too much," said Stone. He added that extended hours of operation could be in the gym's future. "We need something more and we're looking to do that," Stone said.

"But it still is a climber's gym."


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