It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Michael Hudson is hard at work screwing brightly colored polycarbonate climbing holds to a severely overhung plywood wall. This is how he spends almost every Tuesday and Thursday, its his favorite part of the job. For Hudson, who owns Elevation Bouldering Gym, setting new routes is a creative release and an abstract art form.
Hudson, 34, has been climbing since high school. He discovered the sport during an ill-fated field trip. “We were supposed to go climbing outside.” Says Hudson, “But it rained, so we went climbing indoors instead.” At the time, climbing gyms were relatively rare and Hudson immediately fell in love with the nuanced challenge of decoding and then moving through complex sequences of plastic holds.
As Hudson continued to climb he began to experiment with making his own routes. He quickly developed a love for routesetting and the unique creative challenges it offered.
Elevation, Eugene’s newest climbing facility, opened in 2017 and focuses exclusively on bouldering. In this discipline, climbers scale relatively short routes, eschewing ropes in favor of padded floors. Sometimes bouldering routes, or problems are only a couple of moves long. The focus is on physical difficulty and complexity.
An important part of Hudson’s decision to open a bouldering only gym was the social aspect it affords. “Bouldering creates the most opportunity to talk to other people simply because your close to the ground, you can just sit in a circle and talk and come and go as you please.” Hudson explains “You’re not literally tied to one other person like you are with a rope.”
For Chuck Woodward, a local attorney, and central figure in the Eugene climbing community, there is a special joy to bouldering. “Its a pursuit of self improvement,” he explains, “no matter your skill level, there’s a transformative experience, not only when you progress and grow as a person but when you see others do the same. When you put in that kind of effort and its not competitive it tends to create a very supportive environment.”
While Eugene has always had a substantial climbing community, they haven’t always had a place to gather like Hudson imagined Elevation becoming.
Since at least the seventies, Eugene has been a gathering place and training ground for climbers. Alan Watts, who would go on to pioneer the bolting techniques that protect the vast majority of modern climbs and establish hundreds of cutting edge routes at Smith Rock, cut his teeth on the technically demanding cracks and faces of Skinner’s Butte.
An abandoned basalt quarry, the columns were for years the center of the Eugene climbing community. Centrally located, accessible, and boasting an impressive density of high quality crack climbs, Skinner’s Butte represented an ideal place to train and meet other climbers. In that regard it foreshadowed the explosion of climbing gyms that was about to sweep across the country.
In 1994, only seven years after the opening of the country’s first indoor climbing facility, the Crux Rock Gym opened just a few blocks from the columns.
The Crux’s combination of an intimate size with steep, challenging terrain quickly brought it a well deserved reputation for being a gym that consistently produced strong, skilled climbers. It’s youth team regularly sent competitors to the national, and sometimes even world, championships.
At the same time, features like a well attended weekly women’s night quickly build a tight knit community.
This community insured that Crux would always have a stable clientele and before long, the gym’s owner, Ron Vickery, began to shift his time and focus to his other business venture, Ron’s Island Grill, a local chain of Hawaiian teriyaki restaurants.
Throughout the early 2000’s Crux began to slide further and further from the cutting edge of climbing facilities. “I would say that the community was under-served. I don’t want to throw the owners under the bus really” explains Woodward, “Because I think they were limited by the space. In striking a balance between bouldering and roped climbing they had to make compromises.”
The gym’s bouldering walls were too small to support the intricate, and dynamic style of bouldering that was gaining popularity. At the same time, its rope walls, which had been designed at a time when simulating the texture and character of real rock was in vogue, were far too featured to accommodate the new generation of large, interesting holds.
Whatever the cause, climbers became increasingly dissatisfied with Crux. For years Hudson dedicated a great deal of effort to trying to improve the gym. “I was heavily involved with the setting.” Says Hudson. “And even helped them build a new bouldering wall at one point.” But, his larger vision of what the gym could be, and what the community needed largely fell on deaf ears.
Against this backdrop Eugene’s climbing community began to dream about a new space to gather in, a gym that could support the new approaches and significantly larger community that 25 years of meteoric growth had brought to the sport.
In 2014 Hudson moved to Portland to assist with the construction of the Tigard location of The Circuit, a chain of bouldering gyms in the Portland area. While there he assumed a major leadership role in the construction of the facility and experienced many of the unique challenges of getting a climbing gym off the ground.
Building a gym of his own was something that had always been in the back of Hudson’s mind. But, the experience of helping with the Circuit build brought the dream within reach. Even before the Circuit opened Hudson began laying the groundwork for the gym that would become Elevation.
Once the Tigard Circuit opened, Hudson returned to Eugene armed with the confidence that he could build the gym he had dreamed of. Supported by veterans of the Circuit build and many Eugene climbers, he began in earnest the search for a building that could support a modern bouldering gym.
One of the best available locations was, by chance, across the street from Crux. At first this caused Hudson some concern, he didn’t want to step on toes or hurt their business.
After consulting with various gym owners around the country two things became clear. First, Because Crux offered roped climbing and Elevation would not; there was room for the two gyms to coexist and serve different segments of the community. Second, the sport was growing at such a rapid pace that gyms going out of business was all but unheard of.
His concerns assuaged Hudson moved forward. By early 2017 construction had begun and in November of that year, Elevation Bouldering Gym opened.
“I first met Michael when he was on the junior climbing team at the Crux.” Says Woodward. “It’s been a joy to watch him grow from a teenager into the business owner he is today. I’m grateful to be able to call him a friend.”
Hudson believes deeply in the idea of not just creating a space for people to climb but a space where the climbing community can find a home. One of the ways he achieves this is by using Elevation as a venue for roughly quarterly parties, giving Eugene’s climbers a place and reason to gather together. One of these events is the Halloween themed “Dino Dyno” costume party.
In climbing terminology a dyno is when a climber jumps completely clear of the wall in order to cross a large gap between holds. In 2018 a climber dressed as a T-Rex took part in Elevation’s Halloween themed dyno competition and “The Dino Dyno” was born.
Hudson remains positive and energetic about the future of Elevation and the community that calls it home. And with good reason, with climbing making its debut in the 2020 Olympics, the current wave of growth is showing no signs of slowing down.
Despite this rosy forecast, Hudson’s goals for the gym’s future are decidedly down to earth. While he’s unwilling to rule out the possibility of a opening a second gym offering roped climbing sometime in the future, Hudson isn’t exactly drawing up plans. Instead he’s focused on smaller, more practical improvements. An after work bouldering league, setter exchanges with gyms across the country, and maybe some slight changes to the gyms terrain.
At the end of the day Hudson’s focus is on living in the community he’s helped build. “Sometimes I find it hard to come in purely to climb,” he says “ But that’s only because there are so many great people to talk with. So that’s a trade off that I’m happy to make.”