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Odyssey Climbing + Fitness scaling its way to the top

The only facility of its kind north of Milwaukee set to open soon

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January 26, 2023

ASHWAUBENON – Whether you’re a beginner trying to learn the sport of rock climbing, or a seasoned veteran looking to brush up on your skills, that often meant a trip down to the southern part of the state.

That was until now.

Odyssey Climbing + Fitness, located at 686 Mike McCarthy Way in Ashwaubenon – the only facility of its kind north of Milwaukee.

“There’s a handful of climbing facilities in both the Milwaukee and Madison areas, but that’s it,” Co-founder Sam Howard. “North of Milwaukee, there is nothing. Both Ben (Ganther) and I felt this was needed in Northeast Wisconsin.”

The co-owning duo said with fewer than 10 dedicated indoor rock-climbing facilities in the state, the goal of Odyssey Climbing + Fitness is teaching safety and fun.

“Like any sport, the more you practice, the more you gain the skills needed to be safe and have fun,” Ganther, a 2010 Notre Dame Academy (NDA) graduate, said. “It’s probably not a good idea to climb at Devil’s Lake State Park (in Baraboo) without having the tools to be successful. Hopefully, Odyssey Climbing can help you reach those goals.”

Climbing vision
Though now the co-owner of a climbing facility, Ganther said he didn’t come from a climbing background.

“I didn’t start climbing until I was 24 or 25,” he said.

Instead, Ganther said he focused more on academics and playing hockey and baseball at NDA.

“The vision (for Odyssey Climbing) started about four years ago,” he said. “Sam is married to my sister and has been climbing for more than 20 years. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison after Notre Dame and then moved to Milwaukee. While living in Milwaukee, Sam got my whole family involved in climbing.”

Ganther said when he and Howard would come to Northeast Wisconsin to visit family, they noticed a void in terms of rock climbing.

“We’d pack our climbing gear, assuming there’d be a place (in Northeast Wisconsin) like we had in Milwaukee,” he said. “We’d Google ‘climbing gym’ in Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh – there was nothing. That was the seed that got everything rolling.”

Odyssey Climbing + Fitness co-owner Ben Ganther said there are fewer than 10 indoor rock-climbing facilities in the state. Here’s a look from the ground up at one of Odyssey’s 47-foot-high climbing walls. Submitted Photo

Howard, who has climbed outdoors in Arizona, California, Colorado and various spots in the Midwest, said he was lucky to grow up in a climbing family.

“My father taught me,” he said. “A lot of my summers were spent at Devil’s Lake climbing – outside first and then in the climbing gyms in Milwaukee, from a young age on. It’s always been a piece of my life. Ben and I joke that I’ve built a pyramid of climbers beneath me. For me, mentoring people into the sport is a big thing.”
 
Moving forward
Ganther said taking the thought of opening a climbing gym and making it a reality are two totally different things.

“We started looking for a building in earnest in 2019,” he said. “We started having those conversations, with the goal of opening in summer 2020 – in time for the (Tokyo) Olympics, which had climbing as a competition for the first time.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We also had a few other sites fall through,” he said. “We were looking at spots from Appleton to Green Bay.”

In late summer of 2020, Ganther said they began working with the Merge Urban Development Group out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa and “everything clicked from there.”

“We don’t own the building where Odyssey is located, but Merge’s vision aligned with ours – it’s been a good fit,” he said. “From there, 2021 was spent designing the space and getting the financing figured out. Ground was broken in September 2021.”

Howard said while things were being designed and built, he and Ganther spent a lot of time marketing the idea of a climbing gym in Northeast Wisconsin.

“We went into a community-building mode,” he said. “We attended farmers’ markets and portable wall events – we showed up with our Odyssey booth to tell people who we are.”

Howard said there is always a risk of owning your own business but said the reaction from the community so far has been good.

“We have a high degree of confidence in what we’re doing because there’s a demand for it in the area,” he said.

Ganther said he and Howard are eventually looking to open more climbing gyms in Northeast Wisconsin.

“Hopefully, there will be three climbing gyms (in the future) in this area,” he said. “If you look at the demographics of Northeast Wisconsin, you might see people from age 2 to 92 doing rock climbing – it’s a lifelong sport. Hopefully, we can organize some high school teams and go to competitions, too.”
 
The facility
With 12,000 square feet of total floor area, Ganther said Odyssey Climbing offers almost 10,000 square feet of climbing surface area.

“There are two different buckets of climbing we’ll offer,” he said. “We have roped climbing and bouldering.”

Ganther said bouldering has shorter walls – up to 14 feet – and is more athletic, powerful and shorter.

“You climb without a rope, so if you fall, there’s a crash pad beneath you,” he said. “It’s also more conducive to beginners because you don’t have a rope. We’ll have six different color sets of holds on the bouldering wall, and those colors represent what route you’re supposed to climb. You can also ab lib.”

Howard said roped climbing is more technical and methodical, with walls up to 47 feet high.

Odyssey Climbing + Fitness co-owner Sam Howard scales one of the climbing walls. Howard said climbing has been one of the focal points of his life for as long as he can remember. Submitted Photo

“We have three different forms of roped climbing,” he said. “Those walls are the tallest commercial climbing walls in the state. Like bouldering, there are different routes you can take. We’ll have classes people can take to learn the different techniques.”

Howard said climbing inside compared to outside is “different,” but said it also prepares you for the real thing.

“When climbing inside, the holds are the same color and right in your face,” he said. “Being outdoors is more difficult because (the course) isn’t as clearly marked for you. The techniques and the processes you’ll learn in the gym will directly translate to the outdoors. It doesn’t have to translate to outside climbing if you don’t want it to, though. If you only want to climb inside, that’s perfectly fine.”

However, if climbers are interested in giving outdoor climbing a try, Ganther said indoor training isn’t enough.

“If you want to climb outside, we recommend doing so with people you trust,” he said. “Just because you learn all the techniques through us, that doesn’t mean you’re ready to climb outside by yourself. Climbing is a mentorship sport – that’s how I got started. Sam had the knowledge, the gear and the know-how. I had been climbing regularly at a gym, but if it weren’t for Sam, I wouldn’t have known how to climb outside.”

The duo said Odyssey Climbing will also have a fitness area.

“(It) will be like other traditional fitness offerings – cardio machines, weight racks, mats for core work, etc.,” he said. “If you want a traditional fitness component within the climbing gym, it’s there for you. Membership will also include yoga classes.”
To learn more about memberships – including rates and programs, visit odysseyclimbing.com.

TBN
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