It’s nice to be the town with the biggest something. Cawker City, Kan., has its famous ball of twine. Springfield, Mo., is home to the world’s largest fork. This fall, Denver enters its own superlative into the annals of gigantic stuff with the country’s largest indoor climbing gym: Earth Treks’ massive new facility, housed inside the old Sports Authority headquarters in Englewood.
Not so many years ago, few would have thought to use the words “climbing gym” and “profit” in the same sentence. Indoor facilities were made by, and for, small groups of trained professionals. These days, nothing could be further from the truth: Memberships are at an all-time high. High-stakes deals are being inked. Last year, Earth Treks acquired the California-based Planet Granite, resulting in the first true national network of climbing facilities managed by a single company. The new Earth Treks location, a potential boon for big investors, was made possible by an infusion of cash from the New York private equity firm Tengram Capital.
“By the end of this summer, we’ll have 11 locations,” says Earth Treks CEO Robert Cohen, who assumed command of the company in January. “It’s our intention to double that number in the next four years.”
A swelling industry will always have its critics, but in general more money in indoor climbing means bigger, better, and more accessible gyms. The trick, as Cohen sees it, is balancing the appeal of size with the burden of maintenance and personalized attention to guests. “Earth Treks and Planet Granite are both great brands that have done an amazing job of satisfying people who climb,” Cohen says. “Now we’ve built the largest gym in the United States, and the question is: ‘How big is too big?’ On one hand, you want people to come to the gym and climb without having to wait. On the other hand, setting and resetting routes in a gym of that size is more than a full-time endeavor.”
As any serious climber will attest, the authenticity of a gym’s community is also crucial. “In terms of what the customer is going to experience—all of that was designed internally,” says Cohen. No one wants to feel like a cog in some corporate apparatus, climbers perhaps least of all. “The degree that we can actually participate in shaping the member experience is something we really pride ourselves on,” he adds.
In his last job as vice president of global retail for Patagonia, Cohen made a name for himself as a down-to-earth leader who listened to the needs of his brand’s fanbase. Thus far, he has brought that same spirit of hands-on humility to Earth Treks. “We’re going to learn from our members,” he says. “You open a gym, you invite the community in, and when they come in, you listen to what they’re saying. Every day, we audition for the right to keep doing this.”
As for Cohen’s own climbing experience? “I have done it,” he says. “I’m not great at it, compared to most of our customers, but I continue to practice. What can I say? It’s a high bar in Colorado.”