Overcoming adversity and charting a path to success are just a few of the reasons why Mardi, Matt Roberts and their four children fell in love with rock climbing. This led them to a friendship and eventual partnership with Carrie and Alexis Ruckus, owners of the indoor rock-climbing gym at Vertical Adventures.
For Alexis Rokus, the fear factor is motivation. “If you don’t put yourself in a situation where you don’t feel a little intimidated, it’s hard to grow,” he says. All of these skills were needed as couples of entrepreneurs made their way through the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic and came close to the lockdown-induced freefall.
Vertical Adventures rock climbing gym
Roccos Vertical Adventures, Columbus’ first indoor rock-climbing gym, opened in 1994. The timing was right, climbing became commonplace, and the first wave of indoor facilities opened. Throw near the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, one of the top climbing destinations in the country, and the gym kicks off. “We’ve outgrown the space pretty quickly,” Alexis says. “We knew that if we wanted to grow, we had to build something bigger or else someone else would come into town and build something bigger.”
Roberts discovered rock climbing during a family vacation in 2008 in Colorado. When they came home, they found Vertical Adventures. “You have mentors who teach you,” Mardi Roberts says of the Ruckus family (who have two children). “They took us to the Red River Gorge and were our guides.”
Over the next few years, the couples began what Mardi calls courtship. “We flirted, started dating, got engaged, and in April 2013 we made it official and got married,” she says. The new business partnership name has been changed to 5.Life. 5. refers to the Yosemite decimal system in which rates are higher, with 5.0 being the easiest.
“It seemed to fit,” Alexis says. “They brought the business knowledge — Matt is an agricultural economist and Mardi has a marketing background. We had a climbing background.”
“Our role was to develop the business,” Mardi says, adding that Matt was a record breaker. “Matt likes to say he’s getting us into debt, the rest of us getting us out of debt.”
5- Life expands
New and larger Vertical Adventures opened in Kingsmill Court in November 2014 at a cost of $2.4 million. The “old” Vertical Adventures, located about a quarter mile apart, were initially used for youth classes. It closed in August 2021, Mardi says, “a victim of COVID.” The new gym, with 44-foot ceilings and 15,000 square feet of climbing space, looks huge but is about average for a climbing gym. Once again, business boomed and expansion was needed.
5. Live Chambers opened in June 2018 and Block Garten in May 2021. Both are indoor gyms. Bouldering is rock climbing without ropes, done at lower elevations and with mats for the inevitable falls.
The biggest launch was Climb Nittany, a $4 million complete rock-climbing gym in State College, Pennsylvania. “We opened twice. The first time was in november 2020, then there was a closure, and we reopened in january 2021.
Pandemic stops growth
With the beginning of 2020, business is booming, Bloc Garten and Climb Nittany are still under construction, and after that …
“On March 15, we laid off all but three employees,” Mardi says of the impact of the pandemic and the statewide shutdown. “It was the hardest thing we had to do, but we knew that if we didn’t do it, we wouldn’t have anything to go back to when we reopened.”
The past two years have been a scramble for survival.
“If only [Paycheck Protection Program and Employee Retention Tax Credit]Alexis says.
Business at Vertical Adventures has still been out of business about 20 percent since pre-pandemic times, but cash flow has been positive again, Mardi says.
Expansion plans are on hold for now, but Mardi is still dreaming. “Columbus is so vibrant and growing, there is definitely demand,” she says. “This sport is about to explode, and we don’t have enough ropes in Columbus to meet the demand.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.
Addresses: Vertical Adventures, 6513 Kingsmill Court; Garten Block, 512 Mayer Place; Chambers, 1165 Chambers Rd (all in Columbus); Climb Nittany, 328 Discovery Drive, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania
a job: Indoor rock climbing, rock fitness
was established: 1994
Senior officers: Co-owners of Carrie, Alexis Ruckus, Mardi and Matt Roberts
Revenues: $3.1 million in 2021