Summit City Climbing Co. is set to become Fort Wayne's first climbing gym

When young adults venture off to college, they often discover new hobbies or skills—during his time at IUPUI, Fort Wayne native Collin Jester discovered a love for rock climbing. 

“Indianapolis has five gyms and so I got into climbing there and that kind of brought this hunger for climbing,” Jester says. “Once you get into the climbing world you don't leave, you stay with it and you always have a hunger to climb more and that's kind of what happened with me.”

Then, Jester graduated, moved back to Fort Wayne, and found himself in what he describes as a “climber’s depression” because the sport was no longer accessible to him while living in Fort Wayne.

It’s a plight many other climbers in Fort Wayne have experienced too. There is one wall at the Parkview Family YMCA and Earth Adventures Unlimited offers a bouldering gym, Boulder Down Under, in their basement. (Local climbers will tell you those routes and options lose their appeal after so long.) With no dedicated climbing gym, climbers in Fort Wayne don’t have many options.

Jester, much like many other climbers in Fort Wayne, took to driving over two hours one way to climb at one of the gyms in Indianapolis. Fort Wayne resident and climber Derek Witli says other local climbers, like himself, often venture to Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Chicago for a gym, while others make the nearly five-hour drive to Red River Gorge, one of the closest options for outdoor climbing. When traveling isn’t an option, Fort Wayne climbers like Joel Blair take to building a wall or two of their own at home.

A home built set up inside Joel Blair's home in Fort Wayne.Whether they travel to a gym or park or build their own, most local climbers will tell you Fort Wayne is long overdue for a climbing gym.

But the community’s hope for a gym has been teased over the years. Promises of climbing gyms are made, only to have the plans canceled or disappear months later. Blair says it’s been infuriating to witness. 

In 2019, and for years after, the climbing community stirred with excitement as Sport Wayne Inc., a local organization, signed a letter of intent to open a state-of-the-art climbing facility on the Electric Works campus. Eventually, their social media accounts went silent and the discussion of a climbing gym in Fort Wayne once again fizzled out. 

Wetli, seeing the need for a climbing gym years ago, has attempted twice to start a gym in Fort Wayne, only to have zoning appeals and permits stop the process completely. He says he knew the process was tricky, so he did his best to keep his attempts under wraps to not create false hope within the community, and after the second attempt failed, he decided to move on. 

Edwin Chow, who moved to Indiana from California to attend Huntington University, often accompanied Jester on his drives to Indianapolis to climb.

“Every single time we drove down, we’re like, ‘Dude, we need a climbing gym in Fort Wayne,’” Chow recalls. “Eventually, we figured out that it probably be cheaper if we just build our own climbing gym instead of driving, you know, save on gas money.”

So that’s what they’re doing– building a climbing gym right here in Fort Wayne, and while it might not be cheaper than driving to Indianapolis, it’s filling a gap the climbing community in Fort Wayne has long been anxious to fill.

Summit City Climbing Co. is set to open in early April. Located at 1331 E Berry Street, the gym has 2,130 square feet of bouldering, which will accommodate all ages and climbing abilities, and feature a weight-lifting gym. 

Climbers can expect 10-15 foot walls, with a variety of routes that are routinely updated by a USA Climbing Certified Route Setter. According to Summit City Climbing’s Facebook, visitors will be greeted by a 15-foot 24-degree wall, as well as a second wall with a 40-degree overhang. 

Memberships start at $17 for a day pass, $20 for a weekly membership, or $75 for a monthly membership. Summit City Climbing Co. also offers a 10-punch pass for $144.

Summit City Climbing Co. under construction.They worked with David Detweiler, who taught Jester how to climb and is the gym’s resident climber, and Ryan Perkins, the gym’s resident engineer, to round out the gym's core team.

Originally, they hoped to be open by January, but they saw delays with the permitting process. Witli says as a bystander, witnessing the process made him nervous.

“I was really nervous when these guys were waiting on permitting and things,” he says. “It's like, oh boy, this is where it stops.”

But his nerves and skepticism about the gym opening eased as the permits came through.

“Once they had those permits through and they're sending pictures of the place and everything, I thought this might actually be happening,” Witli says. “And now it's like actually happening.”

Jester estimates, based on conversations with other industry professionals, that Fort Wayne might be the only city of its size without a climbing gym. 

Creating Fort Wayne’s first climbing gym was not something the duo took lightly. They were patient and did everything by the book, working with and consulting knowledgeable professionals on everything from wall construction to mats and holds.

They knew that Fort Wayne-based climbers were more than ready to have a space for their community and that this gym could potentially be a stepping stone for something larger. They say they wanted it to be quality and stand as a testament to what the future of Fort Wayne climbing could be.

Facebook groups and Reddit pages are already buzzing with talk of the gym. Witli says he is so certain the gym will be busy, that he wants climbers to be patient as the number of people attending Summit City Climbing Co. will likely outgrow the size of the gym quickly.

“My goal is to reiterate to people that, you know, if we do support them and tolerate the crowdedness of it and support route setting, they will expand,” Witli says. He also says that much like local climbers drive out to other gyms for day trips, a climbing gym could attract visitors to Fort Wayne.

Both Chow and Jester have started up their own businesses before. For Chow, who is currently deployed with the U.S. Army in the Middle East, this is his fifth business. He previously opened a teddy bear business, Chow Down Food Truck, and also runs a couple of Airbnb in the area. Jester runs a party rental company and more recently started up ELAN, which provides immigrants with legal services.

While they say their entrepreneurial experience has helped them, they both laugh a bit as they explain that building a climbing gym, even a smaller one like theirs, is on “a whole other level of small business capital.”

Jester says the capital alone might explain why all of the previous attempts at building a climbing gym have failed.

“They create a massive project, like a multi-million dollar project, and then they realize it’s impossible or get turned away because of how expensive it is, and we think people have come in with too big projects,” he says. “We want to come in with a small to medium-sized project and a proof of concept that it can be profitable– that it is a good industry. We want to show people that it can happen in Fort Wayne.”

Chow says they have their sights set on creating larger climbing gyms in Northeast Indiana, but their team knew that it had to start somewhere.

“We talked about this extensively, like we just need to start somewhere,” Chow says. “We need to teach Fort Wayne what rock climbing is. We need a proof of concept…Fort Wayne is ready for something so we're going to do it. We're in it.”

The team's dedication to the local climbing community has been noticed and appreciated. It’s part of their mission as a gym– create community, challenge, and confidence. 

“I couldn't be more excited,” Blair says. “I truly believe they are doing it right and filling a void that has been frustratingly difficult to fill over the years. I am most excited about their commitment to community, and how well thought out their plans appear to be.”

To help emphasize the importance of community within the gym, Summit City Climbing Co. is giving members early access to the gym. Ahead of the grand opening on May 17, members will have exclusive access to CRASH sessions and member-only climbs.

And to welcome new climbers in, there’s a short video orientation, shoes for rent, and staff members, or “GOAT ambassadors” who will help beginners get comfortable with the sport.

“We want to create a culture where people feel welcome and part of,” Jester says. “I mean we throw out the word ‘community’ a lot– I think it's overused but I think it's the right word.”

To learn more about Summit City Climbing Co. or to become a member, click here.
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Read more articles by Brittany Smith.

Brittany Smith is Input Fort Wayne's Managing Editor. Previously she served as Assistant Editor and participated in the College Input Program. She also volunteers for Northeast Indiana Public Radio.