Reaching for the top
Birmingham Boulders offers families and individuals a top-notch climbing facility to stretch mentally and physically
by Stephanie Gibson Lepore, content director
Photos courtesy of Joe Ortega/Birmingham Boulders
Thanks to his dad, Henry, teaching search and rescue in the Sierra Mountains during the late 1970s, Joe Ortega grew up climbing in the Northern California and Oregon mountains. Those early rock-climbing expeditions got in his blood, and after visiting a climbing gym for the first time in Odessa, Texas, in the mid-1990s, Joe was on a mission.
“When I moved to Birmingham in 2005, it was to open a climbing gym,” he says. “I had been to the city several times on my way to the world-famous sandstone of Horse Pens 40 [a well-known bouldering spot located northwest of Birmingham in Steele, Alabama].” Joe remembers walking around downtown in 2004 and imagining the potential Birmingham held—perhaps for his own climbing gym.
“I had the opportunity to move here, and I jumped at the chance,” Joe says. And finally, after years of planning, in August 2009 he opened First Avenue Rocks, the first rock-climbing gym in the city. “We opened to a very excited community of climbers. My goal of bringing an authentic indoor climbing experience here was literally a dream come true—something I had been chasing since that first climbing gym experience in Texas.”
“Bouldering,” as the sport is known, is a climbing style that involves scaling boulders or shorter artificial walls at jump height, without the aid of a rope or harness. Most climbs are 12 to 15 feet, and soft pads aid your landing.
First Avenue Rocks became a community center for climbers of all levels, catering to individuals, groups, and younger adventurers, too. “It served as a training facility and a school,” says Joe. “Scouts could get their rock-climbing Merit Badges on Friday, kids could conquer the rope wall at a birthday party on Saturday, and seasoned stone masters could hone their minds and muscles all in the same modest facility.”
Despite its success, however, Joe acknowledges it wasn’t enough. Within a short time, it became clear that First Avenue Rocks was already outgrowing its facility and needed more space. So, says Joe, “I dusted off my drafting table and went to work designing the gym Birmingham deserved: a world-class training facility with all the best equipment and every tool a climber could ever want to achieve their goals.”
Joe opened the 14,000-square-foot Birmingham Boulders facility in November 2016—at the time, the largest bouldering gym east of the Mississippi—where he also houses The Forge, one of the top five training facilities in the United States.
“Oftentimes, people think of rock climbing as an upper body workout, but climbing truly is an entire body workout,” says Joe. “Climbing increases balance, focus, flexibility, strength, and overall health. Many climbers enjoy a healthy active lifestyle, and because our community is so encouraging, welcoming, and inclusive, we are always finding new people who want to join in the experience.” To that end, Birmingham Boulders offers a variety of programs for families and children, from a summer camp program that teaches the ABCs of climbing to a competitive team and climbing 101 classes families can take together. They also offer birthday parties and bookings for youth group outings, field trips, and scouting events.
Joe says that climbing helps increase judgment under pressure and rewards positive character traits such as honesty, self-control, courage, and perseverance, which makes it the perfect family activity. “Climbing also helps individuals to focus on one task at a time and really stay present in the moment in a positive and encouraging environment,” says Joe.
Birmingham Boulders offers family memberships that make it cost-effective for the whole gang to participate together. “We have many families that climb with us on a weekly basis,” says Joe.
As people readjust to routines again, Joe is excited to be open and offering plenty of programs again this year, as well as planning new events for later this summer and fall. “We just hosted the USA Climbing Youth Bouldering Regionals, as well as Boulder Bash 2021, and we had a great turnout at both events. We’re so proud and excited to be able to host these special events that serve the southeastern climbing community,” he says. “We’re here to bring a first-rate indoor climbing experience to the people of Birmingham, and by giving beginners a place to learn, regulars a facility to enjoy an adventurous experience, and climbers room to train, our goal is to grow the sport of climbing in an authentic encouraging environment.”
Birmingham Boulders is located at 136 Industrial Drive, Birmingham 35211 (map). They are open Monday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Sunday noon – 8 p.m. For more information, visit bhamboulders.com.