By Riley Fussell
When Toronto’s booming condo market pushed The Rock Oasis out of its prime downtown location — with 60-foot ceilings and little competition — the climbing gym moved into a temporary location at the back side of an industrial building on Carlaw Avenue near Gerrard.
To get to the climbing area at the new place, visitors had to enter the building on Carlaw, and follow a maze of a hallway endowed with bright yellow signs pasted on the walls at each corner, with arrows to guide them. The new gym’s ceilings were half the height of the original, and the location was in the heart of Leslieville, a streetcar ride about 15 minutes east of downtown.
It’s been eight years since that relocation, and, as of this spring, there were no plans to move out.
“It turned out to be the best thing for us because this location has worked out really well with the community and the schools,” says Dru Merringer, the operations manager at The Rock Oasis.
The community of Leslieville is nothing like downtown. Walking along the streets near the gym, it’s quiet. Looking down one street, there’s a group of kids playing street hockey. A little further along there’s a mother walking with four young kids, all under the age of 10.
The wind blows softly, and the kids are smiling.
Nearly 250 children take part in an after-school program that runs Monday to Thursday at The Rock Oasis. Within a 15-minute drive of the climbing gym, there are nearly 19 schools scattered south of Danforth Avenue between Broadview and Coxwell avenues. Karen McGilvray, the owner, says the gym arranges to get some of the kids there after school.
The program has grown from humble beginnings.
“It all started because we had a parent who had a daughter and her three friends wanting to come climb after school. So initially it was just those four girls and it just snowballed from there,” McGilvray says.
The increase in size has also expanded the diversity of ages and skill levels in the program.
“We have kids all the way from age six with very little skill … to teens competing in nation-wide competitions,” explains Merringer, the operations manager.
While some would consider climbing a young person’s sport, The Rock Oasis aims to appeal to all ages. “It’s a lifelong sport,” says McGilvray, “You can do it your whole life and all you need is a partner.”
Sometimes, one person’s climbing adventure draws in a whole family, she explains, noting instances where “young kids will come and love it and bring the older people.”
Families are at the heart of the guy’s plan to introduce rock-climbing to as many people as possible. They’ve expanded to add a section dedicated to birthday parties, including some smaller bouldering routes, slides, and tables for parents.
“We have a whole kids’ section for them to run around and be kids,” McGilvray says.
Another program invites parents with young children to come and climb together. Or the adults can alternate turns climbing, with the other on the ground with their child.
“We’re all here to help the next generation of climbers and introduce them to what we’re so passionate about,” McGilvray says.
The Rock Oasis has house rules that everyone who enters must follow. These include: “Check your ego at the door” and “No bare feet on mats”. The first one is a sacred rule here, according to the climbing gym’s operations manager.
“Everyone started somewhere, and this a place of community and helping each other out,” Merringer says. “It’s crucial to this gym that no one that is climbing feels belittled by or less than other climbers. This is a space for learning, practicing and improving.”
In the summer, The Rock Oasis runs camps, sometimes partnering with other companies nearby to give kids full days of activity and education. Each child who attends is given a yellow t-shirt, something McGilvray looks forward to seeing on full display every year on the streets outside the gym’s home that no longer feels temporary..
“In summer I see all these kids in yellow t-shirts running up and down Danforth,” she muses.