Local Legend: Chris O’Connell

Chris O’Connell is the owner of the Boston Rock Gym. He’s been climbing rock and ice throughout the Northeast since the 1970’s and bought the gym in 2006. Before Boston Rock Gym, O’Connell worked as a Sales Manager for Sterling Ropes. He is a passionate ambassador of climbing and maintains a vibrant and evolving gym just north of Boston.

Tell me a little bit about your climbing background, when did you learn to climb, how did you get into the sport?

I started climbing a very, very long time ago. I got the book “Basic Rockcraft” by Royal Robins, so that had to be somewhere in the mid-70’s. I went out, stole a clothesline from my mom, and then went out to a construction site with a friend and took a bunch of nails and started trying to aid climb on some little cliffs near my house. I guess was 10 or 11 when the idea of climbing captured me. After that, I went to high school in the New Paltz area; my house actually had a view of the Mohonk Mountain House, so I was exposed to the Gunks climbing scene from the 70’s on.

What’s your favorite route or area at the Gunks?

I think I like the Nears. My favorite route is Disney Point (5.10c), for some reason that route is just a blast.

What about other places you’ve climbed in the Northeast, any favorites?

My favorite spot would have to be Cathedral and Whitehorse. I really enjoy those cliffs, I feel most comfortable on them. I really enjoy climbing there, I have a house near Rumney, so my home is there, but I feel more at home at Cathedral.

Could you give us a background on the Boston Rock Gym, when did it open how did you get involved with it?

The gym opened in 1989 in Somerville, I was not involved with it at that point; I would have just been moving up here back then. I believe it’s the second oldest commercial rock gym in the US. There are some older gyms, but as a standalone rock gym it should be the second. When it opened I remember thinking: “An indoor rock gym? Who the hell would go to that?” A lot of the routes were just chipped out mortar on brick walls, so you were pretty much crimping on bricks. It even had a concrete floor. It was pretty hardcore. Living in Boston, on cold days, it just made more and more sense to go to the gym instead of Hammond Pond on a cold day. The gym, as well as climbing itself, has come a long way since then.

So why did the gym end up moving to Woburn?

It actually burned down. It was like a five alarm fire, it was on TV and everything. So when it burned down, the owners rebuilt in Woburn at our current location. That was probably 1993, and ever since then, every time we’ve grown we’ve taken additional space. That’s why we have the charming rabbit-hole layout with three or four different climbing rooms. It’s grown so much over the years that nobody really thought it would get to be so big.

When did you come into ownership of it?

I’ve owned it for about six years so I guess 2006. I worked there off and on since about 1993. I worked as an instructor, a belayer, I think I’ve been fired twice. I used to work for Sterling Rope and would test out prototypes in the gym back when Sterling was still a smaller company. I knew this place really well, so it made a lot of sense when I was looking to make my own gym and asked the owners about partnering up, and they just said “well why don’t you buy this one.”

It seems that for a gym to succeed it has to continue to introduce new people to climbing and new climbers to the gym, what’s your strategy for that?

We keep a friendly atmosphere and make it so that people feel welcome and not intimidated. Right now we have about 180 roped climbs, and need to make sure of the right mix of grades; we’re never going to have it perfect, but as varied as possible. Bringing people in we pay a lot of attention to instruction. We try to get away from the old “Hey he’s been teaching here forever, he can teach a lesson,” and really try to support some of the new initiatives in the industry to bring accountability and certification to instructors. For example, using the American Mountain Guides Association’s and Climbing Wall Association’s training programs.

What do you think the biggest challenge is for the Boston Rock Gym?

We’re an old facility, so making sure we stay relevant to the climbing community in Boston is our number one concern. We’re not the biggest, prettiest, shiniest gym around, but we’ve got quite a bit of soul. We’re very serious about climbing, and we invest a lot in route setting and our core competencies. We keep evolving as climbing keeps evolving; it’s a lot more bouldering now than it used to be.

Do you think that’s a trajectory that will continue, where people will come in for great boulder problems rather than top-roping?

No, I think it’s a mix. I think in this area top-roping is still the main attraction. I enjoy going to some of the mainly boulder-centered gyms around the country, but here in Woburn I don’t think we could open a spot like that and make it go.

What are your plans for competitions in the future?

We kind of have been wax and wane with competitions. We are going to look at doing the Heart of Steel in 2013 but not 2012. With the Heart of Steel we tried to incorporate a big community event and a competition event. This year we’re going to try to do another community-based event without the competition factor. I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it yet, but we’re looking to do a charity or festival type event.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us!

Photos by Joe Lentini.