THERE’S A PHILOSOPHY BEHIND THE PLACEMENT OF THE CLIMBING HOLDS AT GRITSTONE CLIMBING + FITNESS
Quietly opened in Sabraton during the pandemic, Gritstone Climbing + Fitness puts Morgantown on the global map as a hub for climbing enthusiasts.
The five-story facility, located on Eljadid Street just beyond Kroger, is the creation of West Virginia native Chris Bailey and co-owner John Burkhart. Bailey has been a climber for almost three decades. “For me, climbing was very formative, a place where I found a lot of acceptance and mentors and community,” he says. Morgantown has a strong outdoor recreation community, “and we thought that a climbing gym would be a great place for families to come and for people to find fitness and community.”
Bailey and Burkhart are joined at Gritstone by General Manager Matt Hulet, a 20-year-veteran climber, climbing coach, and route-setter who says he and his wife left California to try out a new lifestyle. They chose Morgantown in part for the great climbing in the region—places like Coopers Rock State Forest locally and Seneca Rocks and the New River Gorge farther south in the state.
This world-class facility is worth moving across the country for. Crafted by the leading manufacturer of climbing structures, Bulgaria’s Walltopia, the climbing walls were delivered in 14 shipping containers and erected over a period of months in 2020 by representatives of the manufacturer, Bailey says.
The result is a sprawling facility where the instruction and practice cover both bouldering—low climbing without rope or harness—and roped climbing, from beginner and youth to expert. “We have an area we call the Learning Zone, shorter walls for people to get started on,” Bailey says. “That’s where we train our kids’ club and kids’ teams. It’s also the place where we do a lot of training, teaching classes on how to top rope and how to lead a climb.” A more expert bouldering section gives climbers 3,500 square feet of wall that projects at various angles and extends over 15 feet high.
But the centerpiece at Gritstone—its 50-foot climbing walls—are like nothing else anywhere near West Virginia’s premier rock climbing destinations. They offer 9,000 square feet of surface and more than 100 roped routes spanning the range of technicality.
A critical aspect of running a world-class climbing gym is keeping the routes fresh. “Matt, as head route-setter, manages a team of people whose job it is to pull those sections of the wall off, power wash them, and reassemble new routes in their place,” Bailey says. They change sections out three days a week. “So any time you come to the gym, there’s a good chance there’s going to be a handful of new routes to try. It’s a constantly changing scenario.”
Route design is a science and a philosophy in itself. “We aim for an extremely high quality of route, and also a high aesthetic, so when you walk in, you see routes that look like cool pathways up the wall,” Hulet says. The color-coded routes draw your eye and your body up the wall—but they’re also designed to be physically fun and, just as importantly, inclusive. “In climbing, if you’re tall, you can reach things other people can’t. We set routes that are inclusive so different-sized people, different athletic abilities all can have unique, challenging experiences.”
That inclusivity is part of the foundation at Gritstone. “Our gym is very diverse in body shape and people. It’s a very welcoming place, a community experience,” Bailey says—and that reflects the Gritstone team’s commitment to empowering the community as a whole.