Rocky mountain high at the New Orleans Boulder Lounge.
For years, metro New Orleans lacked an indoor rock-climbing facility. A facility called Climb Max once operated on Canal Boulevard, but disappeared after Hurricane Katrina (although its website didn’t). Slidell Rocks, a 30-mile drive from downtown, was the closest climbing destination.
When Eli Klarman was a student at Tulane University, Slidell was too far to go. The Atlanta native grew up climbing, but in New Orleans he nearly quit.
“As far as the social scene, there’s no activities for people more health-oriented rather than party-oriented,” he says.
His childhood friend and fellow Tulane student Daniel Bressler suggested they open their own climbing gym, but the idea didn’t take root until a few years after graduation. With help from co-founders Garret Mortensen, Kelsey Confreda, Andrew Weekes and Andrew Dreis, the result was unveiled this month: the New Orleans Boulder Lounge, offering 2,500 square feet of climbing wall in the former Good Eggs warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street. The space has an earthy vibe, with a burlap sofa, a front desk made of reclaimed wood and a compost bin beside the trash.
“We wanted to build something unique to New Orleans,” Klarman explains. “The front desk, we wanted it to feel like a bar. … [It’s] more of a hangout experience. Dedicated lounge and cafe space. We tried to keep it very casual.”
Many patrons are beginners, Klarman says. Others are recent transplants who climbed recreationally in their old city.
“People move to a city and think, ‘oh, I’ll go to the climbing gym,’ and with so many young people moving here, they [didn’t] have that option,” he says. A few gym members – Klarman estimates 20 or 30 — are longtime locals who’ve pursued the hobby in spite of the inconvenience.
Patrons at New Orleans Boulder Lounge.
Like many people, I hadn’t climbed since elementary school. My most vivid memories were of the harness: nylon straps that rode up the inner thighs, bulging at the crotch with the power of Superman’s red undies.
The Boulder Lounge is different: it offers only bouldering, which is done without harnesses, ropes or carabiners. When you’re ready to come down, you let go – and crash into foot-thick cushioning covering most of the floor. (Slidell Rocks also offers bouldering, as well as top-rope climbing – see the box for a quick guide to several styles of rock climbing.)
Klarman gives me a quick primer on falling safely: stay loose, bend your knees, roll. After Velcro-ing my rubber-toed rental shoes and signing an extensive liability waiver, I’m ready to go.
On my first try, I make it about halfway up a 14-foot wall. I’m not sure where to go next, so I take a quick peek over my shoulder, push off the wall and bend my knees. It’s not painless, but it’s not bad. It’s a rush, like jumping off the swing set.
Emboldened by my success, I head for a taller wall. As at many gyms, suggested climbing routes at the Boulder Lounge are indicated by the color of the rocks, or “holds.” I figure I can’t afford to be so selective just yet, so I ignore the colors and focus on getting some height. To my surprise, I climb all the way to the top – almost 15 feet up. But I haven’t yet practiced climbing down, and sideways doesn’t look like a good bet either. Holding back rising panic, I let go.
This fall feels much longer. Between the top of the wall and the floor, I have time to genuinely consider the wisdom of jumping. Air swooshes up inside my shirt. And then: I hit the ground. I’m fine. I crash down crab-style, with my feet and butt on the ground and my hands behind me.
Climbing at New Orleans Boulder Lounge.
I keep climbing, looking for routes with the most holds. One set of yellow, bulbous rocks turns out to be easier than it looks, and I scale it completely, twice. Grabbing hold of the smooth, unfinished wood at the top of the wall is strangely rewarding, and knowing I could slip at any moment is exhilarating.
“From a health and fitness standpoint, I think our generation is looking for something more engaging than running on a treadmill. Climbing is physically challenging, but it’s also mentally challenging. It’s also very communal,” says Klarman.
A Vermont company called Leading Edge Climbing Walls helped to develop the Boulder Lounge’s angled walls, but the placement of the holds is chosen by the staff. Climbing holds come in all shapes and sizes: scooped-out grips as solid as a handlebar, tiny, slippery nubs, holds shaped like bunches of grapes and one that looks like the spine of a prehistoric animal. Led by Mortensen, the team changes out a quarter of the walls every Tuesday night.
“I like to come up with a specific motion I want to force and then build into and out of that,” says Mortensen of his process for designing climbs. He also teaches introductory bouldering classes. “We want to make it as accessible as possible to people who haven’t been above 14 feet in altitude in a while,” he jokes.
As the evening continues, the Boulder Lounge does begin to feel like bar – one where patrons watch climbers instead of TVs, drink water instead of beer and scoop handfuls of athletic chalk instead of nachos. There’s no definite organization; people step out from the crowd to an open route, climb as far as they can and cede to the next person. Particularly impressive feats earn claps and “Whoa, dude!”
The climbing walls are the center of attention, but the Boulder Lounge also includes a quiet room for yoga classes and a small, specialized training area with free weights, gymnastic rings and a miniature rock wall. The front desk offers tea and cafe items from Breads on Oak, which visitors can eat in the lounge.
By the next morning, my neck hurt from craning to watch climbers on routes I can only dream of right now. My forearms felt sore in a way I’d never quite experienced before. I don’t miss climbing harnesses at all.
The climbing walls at New Orleans Boulder Lounge.