CoMo Rocks indoor mountain climbing fitness center to open in Columbia

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David McGee and Wil Palmieri have scaled countless rock faces and touched the top of too many rock walls to count.

But engage them in conversation about the sport they love, and they talk more about people than peaks or personal bests.

You remember how the light shone in the eyes of a new climber; Describe the trust that people learn to place in others – and themselves – at the end of their tether; Remember cheers that surrounded a climber, spurring them on and sealing their experience.

For McGee and Palmieri, “climbing” and “community” are words that cannot be clearly separated. That’s why the couple is opening CoMo Rocks, a 9,400-square-foot rope climbing and bouldering gym at 205 E. Nifong Blvd., Suite 120.

As with any business starting out in the pandemic, the schedule is fluid as the pair adjust expectations to meet vendors and builders where they are. But they hope to open CoMo Rocks in the first quarter of 2022.

They achieved a significant step Thursday by posting photos to social media as colored grab bars found resting spots along the gym’s first routes.

The climb

Like all two climbers, McGee and Palmieri followed different paths to their passion and eventual partnership.

McGee built his first climbing wall in his college dorm and met his wife at a gym he helped set up in Springfield.

Palmieri learned to climb with his sister and then explored the sport from a variety of angles while criss-crossing the country for college and career. He enjoyed significant stint at Vertical Endeavors, a Twin Cities gym that’s one of the most popular in the country.

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A self-proclaimed “gym rat,” Palmieri described his partner as a climber who’s ready to face the elements.

Among other things, what they have in common is a language of wonder that has not diminished with decades of experience; McGee is “in awe” at how rock climbing has shaped life around him, while Palmieri has used a form of the word “magical” on several occasions to say what rock climbing has given him.

The two met in a climbing community in the middle of Missouri that is already rich in people and places.

“There’s hardly a city in the Midwest that offers so much rock climbing within a 20-minute drive,” McGee said.

That breadth of options, coupled with the lack of a dedicated hub, means meeting like-minded people in all sorts of places, Palmieri said.

“To this day there have come climbers from the woodwork who have climbed here as long as I have it that I have never met. I’m shocked every time that happens,” he said.

McGee and Palmieri met at climbing competitions and quickly fused their visions of starting a gym. Little did they know that through seizures, launches and a pandemic, the process would take more than five years. Numerous possible locations offered themselves and then dissolved.

“It’s almost depressing driving around town and looking at all the different projects we’ve been so close to. But still, it’s not depressing because each didn’t work out for their own reasons,” McGee said. “…We trusted that the right doors would open at the right time.”

Along with a third partner who eventually left the project to pursue another opportunity, McGee and Palmieri circled April 2020 on their calendars. Ready to start building a facility from ground level, the pandemic hit and development stalled, McGee said.

Always up for a challenge, the two exercised holy patience until they found the right spot. With every disappointment, McGee lived by the credo, “If not this, then something better.” Although sometimes it was difficult to imagine anything better than the last missed opportunity, he admitted.

With every setback, the motivation to keep going was crystal clear.

“It’s the people it will serve,” Palmieri said.

“It’s not about us. It’s not about the business. It’s for the community,” McGee said, echoing the sentiment.

Watch the walls go up

CoMo Rocks hired Entre-prises, an Oregon-based company that built climbing walls for the Tokyo Olympics, to outfit their space. At the end of this 3 1/2 week process, McGee marveled at the evolution to precision of wall building technology.

CoMo Rocks plans to serve numerous climbing populations by offering various programs, including adaptive climbing options. Bouldering, climbing without a rope at relatively low altitudes, can satisfy both novice and master climbers.

For the new climber, bouldering often creates a sense of belonging.

“Rather than just you and your partner being on either end of a rope, there’s often a small group of people all cheering. … It just happens naturally,” McGee said.

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It’s wrong to assume that height and height alone will challenge the experienced climber, McGee added. Creating “bouldering problems” by setting unique routes across a face puts the best climber to the test — even at ladder height, he said.

A legendary climber like Alex Honnold, subject of Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, might not struggle with most routes in CoMo Rocks — but one or two would certainly challenge him, McGee added with a laugh.

McGee and Palmieri invited experienced route setters from across the region to create their first trails. CoMo Rocks will employ a full-time route setter who plans new points and completely turns routes every few months, McGee said.

He described route setting as both a science and an art, as professionals encourage a natural flow by using different postures and making the route difficult without simply planning a series of long routes.

Building a sports culture

Ultimately, McGee and Palmieri invite a culture of trust and communication. McGee plans to keep his job, so Palmieri will be largely responsible for creating this culture as the owner and operator.

He stressed the importance of building a welcoming environment through shared knowledge and patient mentoring. There’s also a direct link between security and happiness, he said; When climbers learn to share and manage risks, their joy increases.

There is always something new to learn about climbing, so good listening is paramount, Palmieri added.

In a healthy fitness culture, people who have never been interested in team sports learn to compete against themselves — and find strength in looking out for their fellow climbers, affirmed McGee and Palmieri.

“You don’t have to be an incredible athlete… to get all the physical, mental and even emotional benefits of rock climbing,” McGee added.

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With a “if you build the walls, people will scale them” mentality, Palmieri said common spaces emphasize the importance of coming together as a community.

There “you tell and hear stories that reflect who we are or where we want to be,” he said.

The differences between people, their experiences and even their politics darken a little in community venues, he said. This is how he imagines CoMo Rocks.

“It’s pretty easy to bypass all of that in a place like a gym where you’re there to do one thing together,” Palmieri said. “And I think those are really important places in a community. … They are places to heal, they are places to become aware.”

Follow the gym’s progress at https://www.comorocks.com/ or through their social media channels.

Aarik Danielsen is the features and culture editor of the Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] or by phone at 573-815-1731.