When you think of the Midwest, what comes to mind? Maybe you envision peaceful plains and wind farms, or forested hills and sparkling lakes. You consider pastimes like hunting and fishing, maybe biking, in addition to more adventurous activities like water skiing and zip lining—but what about rock climbing?
Believe it or not, rock climbing is a thing in the Midwest.
A growing number of climbing gyms in and around the Kansas City metropolitan area have formed a community of climbers who don’t let the lack of mountains stop them from climbing.
For Kelly Walden, her rock-climbing adventure started on a whim after returning home to the Kansas City area from Florida.
Walden shared that she’s always lived an active lifestyle, whether running, competing in triathlons or surfing.
“I like to find a way to be active,” Walden said, “and be physically and mentally engaged, all in one.”
But her passion for rock climbing took flight after a chance encounter at a dog park.
Walden bonded with a woman over experiences about their non-traditional breed of pet, the Rhodesian Ridgeback dog. As the conversation continued, the woman shared that her husband was opening a rock-climbing gym. This intrigued Walden and she signed up, patiently waiting for the gym to open that spring.
“I was curious about rock climbing,” Walden said, since she’d never done it before. “I started going to the gym and just pretty quickly got hooked.”
Climbing holds an interesting dynamic that Walden describes as a duality.
“You’re hyper independent when you’re actually climbing. When you’re on the wall, it’s just you and the wall. No one else can do it for you,” she explained. “But simultaneously, climbing is very team and community orientated. You have to have a partner and your partner literally has your life in their hands.”
This subculture of rock climbers in Kansas City is a very tight-knit group of individuals, she admitted, sharing that you learn climbing by spending time with climbers.
“You forge really close bonds, but you still get to test your personal fortitude,” Walden added.
She found herself at home with a family of climbing friends at RoKC after she jumped into climbing with both feet.
“I joined a league and through that league I made close friends and really lasting friendships. People that I’m still very close with today,” Walden said.
The common thread amongst climbers is that they seek adventure by pushing themselves, and Walden believes climbing is a very social activity.
“It’s a way to meet like-minded people,” she concluded.
Every climber has a different approach to climbing and the same goes for Richard Lonski. Much like Walden, he said he found climbing by happenstance, inviting himself along with some friends who were heading to a rock gym.
“It was a lark, out of nowhere,” Lonski explained. “I found climbing to be strangely addictive.”
Where some might assume that climbers are adrenaline junkies, it’s quite the opposite.
“The activity of climbing is actually typically very calm, methodical and focused. It’s almost a meditative type of movement,” Lonski shared, saying at times it can be very physically exerting but climbing movements are usually very fluid, controlled and well thought-out.
A volunteer route setter at Monster Mountain in Overland Park, Kansas, Lonski said the different climbing gyms in the Kansas City area support the passions of climbers in a multitude of ways. The walls and setters might be different, but each gym offers one thing: the opportunity to climb and a different set of puzzles to unlock as you’re climbing.
And climbing in the Kansas City area is different than in Denver, for example, where climbers can be on a mountain in 20 minutes or less. Kansas City has a larger proportion of rock-climbing gyms than mountains.
“Here in the Midwest, and in Kansas City, for us to get outside and climb it’s like a four-hour trip typically,” Lonski elaborated. “So, the level of excitement and energy you have to keep, to invest that much time to do your passion, means everyone is super psyched about climbing.”
“The activity of climbing is actually typically very calm, methodical and focused. It’s almost a meditative type of movement”
Lonski began climbing about seven and a half years ago and he admits that he wasn’t physically fit at all. He weighed in at 260 pounds with an average build on his 5’8” frame, and while he could manage a push-up or two, a pull-up was out of the question.
“Climbing was certainly not something that was easy. It took a lot of work, and just through the action of climbing over the first three years or so, I dropped 50 pounds and nearly 10 percent body fat,” Lonski explained proudly. “When I started, I was 44 years old; now I’m 51 and I can pretty much say I’m in better shape now than I’ve ever been.”
Climbing wasn’t about getting strong or healthy for Lonski. Instead, it’s been the natural outcome by continuing with an activity that he is passionate about.
“It’s definitely transformative, both physically and mentally for me, in that I view myself as an athlete now,” said Lonski. “It’s not a view I’ve ever had of myself, and exploring that aspect has been interesting.”
He just wanted to climb, and the more he climbed, the more he enjoyed it. While Lonski explained that climbing isn’t for everyone, almost everyone who he’s ever brought climbing has enjoyed it.
The biggest piece of advice he has for newbies wanting to try climbing is to not let your fear stop you. Whether you’re afraid of heights or don’t think you’re physically fit enough to start, set aside your fears and just try it.
“Relax and trust the person introducing you to it,” he shared. “Be open to new experiences.”
The Kansas City Climbing Community is a great resource for veterans and those just beginning their climbing experience. Abbreviated KCCC, the organization’s mission is to foster an engaging community of climbers who support each other in active pursuits of rock climbing, alpine climbing and mountaineering.
KCCC President Peter Chollet explained that it boils down to getting prospective climbers climbing, either in a gym or outside, and if they are climbing in a gym but have never climbed outside, they hope to get you outside.
In order to do that, KCCC has two trips a year, one in the spring and one in the fall. Details are shared on their website, climbkccc.com, and their Facebook group, Kansas City Climbing Community.
“We invite everyone down to Arkansas Friday through Sunday, and we will help guide you through some routes,” he shared, explaining their hope is to get people involved who wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to travel to northern Arkansas to climb for a weekend.
In addition to community outreach, KCCC also supports the local gyms. Chollet says the gyms and their owners are an integral part of the community. “The gym owners around Kansas City are some of the most amazing people in the sport of climbing in this area.
The gym owners really show a passion in what they do to support this sport. It’s not a rivalry,” he said.
It’s a partnership, one that benefits the climbing community as a whole.
All photos by Rick Mayo / Mile 90 Photography
About the Author
Brittany Zegers is a southern California native who, as a teenager, moved north of Kansas City with her family. While the beach remains her happy place, she calls Lawson, Missouri home, and enjoys traveling. A creative at heart, she discovered her passion for journalism, photography and design in high school and continued through college. When Brittany isn’t worried about hitting deadlines, she enjoys spoiling her nieces and nephews, and hobbies like reading, binge-watching a new TV series, crafting, sewing and quilting.