Izzy Detherage of the Yale Climbing Team


You might think gripping holds on a cliffside would give you a rush of adrenaline. Not if you’re doing it right, according to Zachary McLaughlin. “It’s a constant battle of staying out of that fight or flight mode and staying focused and just paying attention to exactly what you’re supposed to do,” says the manager of City Climb, New Haven’s only indoor climbing gym. When he’s out climbing on a real cliff, he says, “everything else just disappears.”

McLaughlin isn’t the only one who finds a groove on the wall. Late on a Thursday afternoon, City Climb is rocking. Several kids in the after-school program are “top-roping”: climbing with a harness tied to a rope that runs through an anchor at the top of the wall and down into the hands of a staff member. Three students from Yale’s climbing team are practicing, two of them calling out encouragement to the third. In the bouldering area another climber, rope-free, clings to holds on the ceiling like a real-life Spiderman. The vibe is high-energy, low-pressure. Everyone seems to be having fun.

McLaughlin describes the gym’s culture as “always encouraging. Everyone’s welcome. I kind of equate it to Cheers, where it’s ‘everybody knows your name.’ I think that’s important, that our staff is, if not friends, very friendly with everyone who walks in here.”

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City Climb opened five years ago, taking over the business from an earlier climbing gym. McLaughlin says the focus has shifted to a “family approach” with the aim of creating “a social center for people in the area to be able to come and get together.” The climbing community, he says, used to be like a small town. Now climbing has become an Olympic sport, slated to make its first appearance in Tokyo in 2020. “We’ve gotten a lot more attention,” McLaughlin says, “and the industry is exploding.”

In addition to after-school climbers, City Climb hosts a special Kids Club, which feeds into Rock City Crew, the gym’s competitive youth team. “We try and help grow not only as athletes but also as individuals. So, we do a lot of… making sure they always use encouraging behavior, follow the rules, that sort of thing,” McLaughlin explains. The competitive team, for youth aged 8 to 17, travels throughout southern New England.

City Climb is also open for birthday parties and camp, school, church, scout and office groups. Members of the CT Rock Climbing meetup convene on Mondays. Classes in climbing basics, belaying and lead climbing are offered, and many serious climbers show up several times a week not so much to learn but to practice.

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Elements range from the “birthday wall”—“very simple, just like a ladder”—to more challenging routes with holds that are smaller or harder to grip. Challenge is also provided via steeper angles or routes that require the climber to “twist around or get your foot real high,” McLaughlin explains. One challenge you won’t find built into City Climb’s wall is the reach from one hold to the next. Routes are set to be climbable for anyone over four feet tall. “You’ve got to try and make a route that works for everyone,” McLaughlin says.

He gets up on the wall with his drill and moves the holds constantly, creating new routes so that every three months or so, the entire gym—all 5,500 square feet of wall space—is a new experience. “We try and keep up a pace where people will have something new to climb just about every time they come in,” he says. In addition to straight-up climbing, the gym also offers a “systems wall” for working out specific muscles and improving grip strength and a slack line for practicing balance—and for fun.

After all, fun is what it’s all about. McLaughlin left a career in graphic design to run City Climb, and he’s never looked back. He encourages others who come in to keep their minds open to the possibilities.

“I just tell them I started this later in life,” he says. “People do this until they’re 80 years old… We have paraplegics in here. There’s no real excuse as to why you couldn’t do it.” When parents come in with birthday parties, McLaughlin encourages them to harness up, too. “You never know,” he says. “This could be the thing that you find now that you love for the rest of your life.”

City Climb
off Winchester Ave between Division St and Munson St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 2-11pm, Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-6pm (check the website for special holiday hours)
(203) 891-7627

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image #1 depicts Izzy Detherage, a member of the Yale Climbing Team. Image #2 depicts Zachary McLaughlin.

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