Former grain elevator transforms into one of the nation's top climbing gyms
By Mary Ann Ford
Chris Schmick had almost given up hope finding a location for an indoor rock climbing gym in Bloomington some 23 years ago when he decided to give it one more try.
He was driving on the west side of the city when he noticed a trio of grain silos.
“They were basically abandoned,” he said.
They also were perfect for the dream he shared with his wife, Pam, for a larger location than the small gym they operated in another Illinois community.
“Bloomington is centrally located and has a decent population,” said Chris.
The couple purchased the 65-foot-high silos and started the tedious task of turning them into the indoor rock climbing gym they envisioned.
It took three months just to clean out the rotten soybeans and scrap steel from the silos and another three months to build the walls and drill thousands of holes for the climbing holds.
“My wife and I were super passionate about it,” said Chris.
The gym had its grand opening Sept. 2, 1995, just in time for a planned regional competition.
That December, Chris decided to try something new and used sprinklers to coat the outside of one of the silos with ice for ice climbing. A local avid climber and newspaper reporter took pictures that were picked up by the Associated Press, Chicago Tribune and others.
“It was the snowball effect,” said Chris. “People came from Chicago and Indianapolis. It was a time when there really weren’t many indoor gyms.”
The popularity of the gym continued to grow, prompting the Schmicks to expand to the St. Louis area, first opening one gym in 2001, a second in 2010 and a third in 2016.
“Not too often do you get to do what you love and actually make money,” said Chris. “We had to be successful to expand.”
Ericka Hines, marketing and activity manager for the Bloomington Upper Limits, said birthday parties are the gym’s “bread and butter.”
“Every weekend we have at least one (birthday party)” and sometimes two or three, Hines said.
The gym – one of the oldest indoor gyms in the country – also is popular with the Boy Scouts as well as climbers from Chicago suburbs, Springfield, Decatur, western Indiana, and other countries, she said.
In January 2016, it also attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Magazine, which included Upper Limits in its “Seven of the Most Innovative Gyms in the World” list.
The magazine’s writer notes: “As its nickname, “The Prairie State,” suggests, Illinois is lacking in the mountains department. So its climbing enthusiasts have to get creative with the resources the state does have.
To wit: lots of grain silos. At Upper Limits in Bloomington, climbers tackle the 65-foot-high walls of once-abandoned grain silos near the city’s railroad tracks. In the creative reuse department, this gets a gold star.”
Upper Limits climbers have three full circular silos to choose from, said Hines. There also is an additional space for climbing.
The “Rock Gym 101” class is the most popular, she said, but it’s just one of seven classes offered.
Upper Limits also has three traveling walls that appear at a variety of community events and the Illinois State Fair. The walls are available for rent at such things as family picnics.
The gym has partnered with the local Workout Company health club to offer dual memberships at a discounted price; with the local Coffee Hound coffee shop to offer a special coffee, “Summit Blend”; and with Illinois Wesleyan University.
The gym, at 1304 W. Washington St., Bloomington, is open seven days a week. Visit upperlimits.com for more information.