Rock in the community

Halifax climbing scene reaches new heights

Shelby Hallam frequents rock-climbing gyms in Halifax on a nearly daily basis. (Photo provided by Shelby Hallam)

Sometimes finding your passion takes years. Sometimes it shows up spontaneously, or requires a leap of faith. For Shelby Hallam, a walk one summer day answered that question for her. 

While waterfall chasing around Nova Scotia with her boyfriend last summer, Hallam encountered a towering rocky wall along their path. Eager to get a view of that waterfall, her boyfriend climbed the rocks and encouraged Hallam to do the same. What she found at the top of her climb was more than a waterfall. 

“When I got back to the city, I was like, ‘Where can I climb every single day?” she said. “The feeling was amazing and climbing’s amazing. I got hooked right away.” 

Soon after, Hallam began frequenting rock climbing gyms in Halifax on a near-daily basis. She invested in her own climbing equipment like harnesses and took up different types of climbing like top-roping. The best part though? Joining the Halifax climbing community. 

“The staff at [the gyms] were so friendly and welcoming. I knew through [those interactions] that I was meant to be in this community,” Hallam said. “They and other climbers are the most inviting people. And just like me, they’re stoked on climbing rocks.” 

Solid support 

Jackie Turner is a co-owner of East Peak Indoor Climbing in Halifax. East Peak opened in late February 2020 for 16 days before the initial COVID-19 shutdown closed the business for three months. In a time where small businesses like East Peak ended up going under, she gave local climbers credit for helping to keep the climbing gym open. 

“People have pulled through in huge ways,” said Turner, who was organizing activities for East Peak’s first birthday when interviewed by the Dalhousie Gazette. “They kept memberships running during closures and asked what they could do to help. In your first year of business, to already have customers that dedicated and loyal was amazing.” 

Paul Denzler worked in climbing in Montreal and Ottawa before coming to Halifax in 2014. The general manager at Seven Bays Bouldering said there’s something he finds special about this community with the smaller population. 

“It’s cool to be part of this small club of climbers in Halifax as compared to Montreal or something like that. The interest in climbing places like outdoors here is cool, since we have access to so much more other than just the gym,” he said. 

The local rock-climbing hype over the past decade led Seven Bays Bouldering to open in 2014. (Photo by Geoffrey Howard)

The climbing community, Turner said, was a big reason for why she decided to open the type of business in the location that she did. Before, she had worked at climbing gyms in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, which contributed to the love for the sport she shares with climbers today. 

“Nova Scotia has this dedicated and long-standing climbing community. There’s established outdoor climbing here too. So when our business joined the community, they were ready to welcome us with open arms,” Turner said. “Being in Halifax, good news travels fast around here. We’ve been really lucky that people have been coming in and having a good time, then telling others about it. Most of our customers have come from other people’s referrals.” 

As Turner and Denzler mentioned, Nova Scotia’s outdoor climbing scene is just as popular as indoor climbing within a gym. When rising COVID-19 cases closed gyms for another month in late November 2020, climbers like Hallam got their climbing fixes on some real cliffs. 

“The shutdown didn’t stop me,” she said, laughing. “I found some cool rocks outside and I never climbed outdoors before so I didn’t try anything too crazy. But once you start climbing, you can’t stop.” 

Exponential growth 

Both rock climbers and businesses have raved about Halifax’s rock climbing community. Heather Reynolds is the Dalplex rock court’s climbing coordinator, working in climbing with organizations like Climb Nova Scotia since the 1990s. She said while the local climbing community has always thrived with good places to climb outdoors, popularity has jumped within the last five years. 

“Today, there are more climbing venues available around here, as it becomes more and more popular of a sport,” Reynolds said. “In the United States, the sport grew exponentially a few years before here. In the U.S., there are varsity climbing teams, but we’re not there yet. The sport itself has just been growing and it hit here in a big way.” 

Despite struggles small climbing gyms faced in the pandemic, she suggested, the shutdowns highlighted the importance of physical activity. 

“The break has taught us that perhaps there’s a benefit of taking time to be active,” Reynolds said. “When things first shut down, more people were out hiking and taking advantage of parks and public spaces. The pandemic has taught us about the value of recreation and sport, not just for the physical benefits, but for the connections and fun with people.” 

Denzler said the sport itself is good at keeping climbers engaged through the pandemic as an interesting activity that’s easy to try out. 

“The interest in doing something new and challenging, plus safe in the pandemic, attracts a lot of people to come and check climbing out,” he said. “By the nature of the sport, people get hooked quite easily too, so as long as we provide safe facilities to climb in, climbers will come.” 

“The best part about climbing is that anyone can climb,” Turner said, highlighting East Peak’s and the sport’s popularity with customers of all ages. “We have customers all the way from two to 70 years old. We see lots of students too, many come to meet new people or try a new activity.” 

For Hallam, meeting new people has become a community of supporters that have had her back. When her climbing gear was stolen just over a month ago, she posted on Facebook asking for friends to look out for her missing equipment bag. 

Several people messaged her in response, offering gear she could borrow in the meantime. Among them was East Peak, who offered to cover equipment rentals until Hallam found her gear. As it turns out, the bag was in a ditch near her home. She suggested the thief wasn’t pleased that it was full of only climbing gear. 

“They make me feel welcome. It’s not a group sport, but it kind of is,” she said. “You have all these people cheering you on. I wasn’t really into sports until I found climbing. The whole community is like a family.” 

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Luke Dyment

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