Rock climbing

5.Life climbing gym dreams of growth despite pandemic losses

Overcoming adversity and forging a path to success are some of the reasons Mardi and Matt Roberts and their four children fell in love with rock climbing. This led them to a friendship and eventual partnership with Carrie and Alexis Roccos, owners of Vertical Adventures indoor climbing gym.

For Alexis Roccos, the fear factor is motivational. “If you never put yourself in a situation where you’re not a little scared, it’s hard to grow,” he says. All of these skills were needed as the entrepreneurial couples navigated their way through the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic and edged closer to a lockdown-induced free fall.

Vertical Adventures Climbing Gym

The Roccos opened Vertical Adventures, Columbus’s first indoor climbing gym, in 1994. The time was right, as rock climbing was becoming a thing and the first wave of indoor facilities were opening. Throw yourself close to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, one of the nation’s top rock climbing destinations, and the gym took off. “We passed the space quite quickly,” says Alexis. “We knew if we wanted to grow we had to build something bigger or someone else would come to town and build something bigger.”

The Roberts discovered rock climbing during a 2008 family vacation in Colorado. When they got home they found Vertical Adventures. “You have mentors teaching you,” Mardi Roberts says of the Roccos (who have two kids). “They took us to Red River Gorge and were our guides.”

Over the next few years, the couples began what Mardi calls courtship. “We flirted, we started dating, we got engaged, and in April 2013 we made it official and we got married,” she says. The new business partnership has been renamed 5.Life. The 5. refers to the Yosemite decimal system that rates climbs, with 5.0 being the easiest.

“It seemed like a good choice,” says Alexis. “They brought business knowledge – Matt is an agricultural economist and Mardi has a background in marketing. We had rock climbing experience.

“Our role was business development,” explains Mardi, adding that Matt was the numbers guy. “Matt likes to say that he works to get us into debt, and the rest of us work to get out of debt.”

Alexis Roccos photographed in the Vertical Adventures climbing gym.

5.Life grows

The new, larger Vertical Adventures on Kingsmill Court opened in November 2014 and cost $2.4 million. The ‘old’ Vertical Adventures, about a quarter mile away, was originally used for youth classes. It closed in August 2021, “victim of COVID”, says Tuesday. The new gym, with 44-foot-high ceilings and 15,000 square feet of climbing space, looks huge but is about average for a climbing gym. Once again business boomed and there was a need for expansion.

5.Life opened Chambers in June 2018 and Bloc Garten in May 2021. Both are indoor bloc gyms. Bouldering is climbing without ropes, practiced at lower heights and with mats for the inevitable falls.

A bigger launch was Climb Nittany, a $4 million large-scale climbing gym in the State College, Pennsylvania area. “We opened twice. The first time was in November 2020, then there was a lockdown and we reopened in January 2021,” explains Mardi.

The pandemic puts growth on hold

It’s early 2020, business is booming, Bloc Garten and Climb Nittany are under construction, and then…

“On March 15, we laid off everyone but three employees,” Tuesday says of the impact of the pandemic and the statewide lockdown. “It was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do, but we knew if we didn’t we wouldn’t have anything to offer them when we reopened.”

The past two years have been a rush for survival.

“If it wasn’t for the [Paycheck Protection Program and Employee Retention Tax Credit]we wouldn’t have made it,” says Alexis.

Business is still down at Vertical Adventures by about 20% from the pre-pandemic period, but cash flow is positive again, Tuesday says.

Expansion plans are on hold at the moment, but Mardi is still dreaming. “Columbus is vibrant and growing, there’s definitely demand,” she says. “This sport is about to explode, and we don’t have enough strings in Columbus to keep up with the demand.”

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.

5.Life

5.life

Addresses: Vertical Adventures, 6513 Kingsmill Court; Block Garten, 512 Place Maier; Chambers, 1165 Chambers Road (all in Columbus); Mount Nittany, 328 Discovery Drive, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania

Business: Indoor climbing, bouldering and fitness

Based: 1994

Senior officers: Co-owners Carrie and Alexis Roccos and Mardi and Matt Roberts

Employees: 105

Revenue: $3.1 million in 2021