From lazy river to boulders and walls: Arlington Heights water park becomes a climbing facility

  • Family, coaches and fellow climbers watch Monday as teens ages 13-18 participate in USA Climbing's Youth National Championships at the new First Ascent indoor climbing gym in Arlington Heights.

      Family, coaches and fellow climbers watch Monday as teens ages 13-18 participate in USA Climbing's Youth National Championships at the new First Ascent indoor climbing gym in Arlington Heights. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • Spectators use cellphones to record a competitor at the Youth National Championships Monday at the First Ascent indoor climbing gym in Arlington Heights.

      Spectators use cellphones to record a competitor at the Youth National Championships Monday at the First Ascent indoor climbing gym in Arlington Heights. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • A crowd fills the floor for the first day of USA Climbing's Youth National Championships in Arlington Heights. The weeklong event marks the opening of First Ascent, a recreational climbing venue in the Arlington Downs development.

      A crowd fills the floor for the first day of USA Climbing's Youth National Championships in Arlington Heights. The weeklong event marks the opening of First Ascent, a recreational climbing venue in the Arlington Downs development. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • A climber signals to the crowd as he reaches the top of his route at the Youth National Championships at First Ascent in Arlington Heights.

      A climber signals to the crowd as he reaches the top of his route at the Youth National Championships at First Ascent in Arlington Heights. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • First Ascent, a 45,000-square-foot indoor climbing facility in Arlington Heights, opened Monday for the Youth National Championships, ahead of its formal public opening Aug. 6.

      First Ascent, a 45,000-square-foot indoor climbing facility in Arlington Heights, opened Monday for the Youth National Championships, ahead of its formal public opening Aug. 6. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/25/2022 7:20 PM

Once home to waterslides, hot tubs and a lazy river, a former indoor water park in Arlington Heights has been transformed into one of the largest climbing facilities in the suburbs, with massive steel and plywood manufactured boulders and walls topping 50 feet.

First Ascent, a recreational climbing venue five years in the making, was teeming with activity Monday morning on the launch of USA Climbing's weeklong Youth National Championships, a competition of teens ages 13-18 vying to one day compete at the Olympics.

 

The event marks the informal opening of the 45,000-square-foot indoor rock climbing facility after a $4.5 million purchase and renovation of the shuttered CoCo Key Waterpark, which abruptly closed in 2009 after three years in business.

Located within the 27-acre Arlington Downs redevelopment at Euclid Avenue and Rohlwing Road, First Ascent was a sought-after attraction by master developer Springbank Real Estate Group to anchor the mixed-use district. It all started with a cold call in 2017 to Dan Bartz and his business partner, who had just opened their original First Ascent two years before in Chicago's Avondale neighborhood.

Despite the pandemic and resulting supply chain issues that delayed the construction process, Bartz and his 20-person staff were celebrating Monday, nearly two years after renovations began and about five months after the prefabricated wall pieces arrived from Bulgaria.

"It took a lot of perseverance to get to this day," Bartz said. "We stuck with it because we thought it would be a world-class facility."

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With 50-foot-tall walls -- second only to the Avondale location, which has 60-foot heights -- in addition to 400 different climbing routes and 20,000 movable climbing holds of all shapes and sizes, the facility is intended to offer something for both beginner and expert climbers, Bartz said.

The venue hosts all three climbing disciplines: bouldering (what the teen climbers were doing Monday), rope climbing and speed climbing. There's also two yoga studios, a fitness area with cardio and weight equipment, and meeting rooms for birthday parties and corporate events.

While the facility has room for as many as 160 climbers on the walls and boulders at a given moment, in reality, most of the climbers' time is spent on the floor mats -- if Monday's throng of 1,000 climbers plus their families and coaches is any indication. It's as much social experience as it is a workout.

"This is our driving force. These kids, parents and volunteers. These are the ones making the sport happen. This is what drives the sport," said Ben Lowe, director of marketing for USA Climbing, the national governing body of the Olympic team, which competed in the international games for the first time last year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

More and more climbing gyms like First Ascent have been opening nationwide -- an average of about 15 to 20 a year over the last five years, said Lowe, calling it an exponential growth in the sport.

A walk through the overflow parking lots at the Arlington Downs property Monday was evidence of the sport's emergence from coast to coast: license plates from places known for mountains, like Washington state, but also states you might not expect, like Florida, Georgia and Texas, where climbing enthusiasts are just as passionate.

"The sport has just exploded. And then it hit another speed with the Olympics," Lowe said. "People are looking for something fun to do. They're looking for something interesting to do. And something to help their physical fitness."

Lowe's colleagues from the Salt Lake City-based organization are in Arlington Heights this week looking for potential future Olympians for the 2028 games in Los Angeles; he says they already have a good idea of who will represent Team USA in 2024 in Paris.

While much of this week's competitions are open to public spectators for a $5 entry fee, the public grand opening for recreational climbing is Aug. 6.

It's First Ascent's seventh location -- there are four in Chicago, plus Peoria and Pittsburgh -- with plans to continue expansion in the Midwest, Bartz said.

"We're flatlanders, so it's taken a little while for rock climbing to come to the area, but we're excited to be on the cutting edge of bringing it here," he said.

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