The Climbing Gym That Banned Birthday Parties
New York City's least kid-friendly gym and its obsession with a "proper session"
In New York City, where trends are as common as potholes, it’s no surprise that the climbing frenzy has hit hard. In the past two years, five gyms have opened in the city and more are on the horizon. These multimillion-dollar facilities showcase the best new-age climbing has to offer: colorful walls, yoga rooms, espresso bars, and, probably, coworking spaces. However, not everyone loves the direction climbing is going. Some purists believe the indoor playsets stray too far from the sport’s outdoor roots.
“Climbing gyms started to become kind of an ends to a means, where people weren’t going to the gym to train for outdoors,” says Clifford Simanski, founder and operator of GP81, a bouldering gym in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “They were only going to a climbing gym to climb in a climbing gym. And that was all they wanted.” When the bouldering pads in New York got busier, it became impossible to have what Simanski calls a “proper session,” which he defines as trying hard and getting pumped on climbs you enjoy while surrounded by a crew of friends that get you psyched. So, with his buddies Dan Yagmin and Mike Cesari, Simanski decided to open the gym he and his friends wanted. GP81 strays from other similar facilities in the city by focusing on steep angles and bad holds, the kinds of climbs that get you strong for the outdoors.
GP81, which opened in December 2017, is not a gym for the mass market. Above all, its co-owners want to please their members. To do so, they’ve made a few quasi-controversial rules: absolutely no birthday parties, intro classes, or climbers under 13 are allowed.
These rules, which are often in direct conflict with the bottom line, are important to Simanski. “We also have limits in place for how many memberships we’ll sell,” he says. “It’s important to us to maintain that proper session, so, if necessary, we intend to cap our business to prevent overcrowding. We won’t sell more memberships than our facility can support.”
Simanski modeled his dream gym after famous ones of old, like the School Room in Sheffield, England, and El Dojo, in Northampton, Massachusetts, gyms barely bigger than a storage unit. Simanski wanted to create a place with the same spirit. “We wanted to make a space that was really focused on trying to put climbers first and not necessarily the profitability of the gym,” he says. Despite that, GP81 is wildly popular and successful with the climbing community of New York. So much so that it recently went through expansion renovations.
Marc Balilo, 27, one of the route setters at GP81, says he found a supportive community in the gym while still being able to push his limits as a climber. And he likes the facility’s harsh restrictions when it comes to kids. “GP itself has very limited space,” Balilo says of the gym, which has 7,000 square feet of climbing. “But it gives me that nostalgic feeling of when I started climbing ten years ago. It reminds me of the best climbing years of my life.”
Simanski started climbing in 2005 while still in college. After graduating, he moved to New York in 2007 looking for a PR job, but climbing had already taken over his life. “I realized I didn’t want a single one of the jobs I was interviewing for,” he says. Instead he started working at what was, at the time, one of the few rock-climbing gyms in the city, Manhattan Plaza Health Club. After picking up a few tricks of the trade, he bought a truck and dirtbagged his way across the country for two years. He spent a year in Yosemite, putting all his focus into climbing. “I certainly learned a lot from the journey, and it was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life,” he says. “I realized how little I actually need to be happy and how much I value all of my relationships.”
Simanski’s drive to open his gym was centered around pursuing the purity in his friendships. “At the end of the day, I just wanted to go climb wherever my friends were climbing,” he says. “The goal for me became to create a space that I thought my friends would want to climb at.”