We opened our doors in 1990. We pioneered indoor climbing in Canada.
Back in 1990, if you tried to investigate the Southern Ontario rock climbing scene, you would have found a splintered group of weekend warriors at the Bruce Peninsula, a few after-work “buildering” enthusiasts at Toronto’s “pumphouse,” and a couple of dusty rockclimbers’ organizations left over from the bygone era of Camp 4. The rock in the area has always been first rate but it was out of reach for city folks. They were impoverished times; even the C.N. Tower’s 25th Birthday seemed a passable excuse for a couple of hard-up locals to go for an illegal climb outside of the tower’s elevator shaft – any port in a storm.
The storm has since ended, and the ports abound. All told, there are several climbing gyms in the greater Toronto area, and a staggering 25 permanently installed rock climbing walls at schools, health clubs and entertainment centers from Oakville to Oshawa. This development, or “revolutionary breakthrough”, as one local climbing-scene chronicler put it, was spearheaded by Bob Bergman, his brother Brian and his wife Sharon.
The Bergman’s were committed climbers from the start. They built Canada’s first rock climbing facility only one year after their first exposure to the sport. It was a practical move first, and an entrepreneurial move only incidentally. The market for climbing in the city had not yet emerged; the “extreme sub-culture” blitz was not going to happen until five years after the original Rockhead’s Climbing Gym. Nevertheless, the small community of Southern Ontario climbers that did exist was sorely in need of a training facility for those long winter months. Joe Rockhead’s was the answer. When Rockhead’s opened its doors for business on June 30, 1990, a needed center of gravity for the local climbing community was established, and the seeds of our present urban climbing community were fatefully sewn.
In two short years, Canada’s first indoor rock climbing facility had accomplished a great deal. Rockhead’s fast became a meeting place for a community that was divided by debates surrounding the advent of modern sport climbing. The increasing popularity of “bolting” at local cliffs had rendered formerly unclimbable, sheer limestone faces as climbable. As a result, a new generation of sport climbers would emerge with a new set of priorities. The adventure climbing ethic of the old garde was supplanted by a new ethos of high performance, gymnastic climbing.
During the gym’s first two years, the Bergman’s hosted several competitions at both local and regional levels. Wisely, the competitions were always open to competitors from across Canada and the United States, who came in droves. Associations were also made with these neighboring communities during trips the brothers took to compete themselves. On their extensive travels, the Bergman’s forged relationships with like minded climbers who would carry the gym’s growing reputation as Canada’s premiere climbing facility across North America and into Europe. Bob and Brian would eventually follow their deserved reputation to a World Cup event in Nuremberg in 1991. Rockhead’s was slowly, but surely being taken up into the wider international sport climbing culture, and with it, the small community to which it was home.
The quality of the experience at Rockhead’s was top notch from the start, but the Bergman’s extensive travel and obvious passion compelled them to always be improving. Sharon had received her certification from the American Sport Climbing Federation (ASCF) to judge internationally sanctioned climbing competitions, and Bob and Brian were certified at the same level for competition routesetting. These qualifications were designed for high-level competitions, which Rockhead’s was hosting at least twice a year, but the expert environment was designed to benefit both top-level climbers and novices alike.
Rockhead’s would introduce a new routesetting method to the gym culture that would earn them a reputation as the best in the business. Routes would be set like outdoor rockclimbs: one per wall. But unlike the outdoors, the climbs could be changed regularly. The brothers would set several new routes every week to keep things fresh; a tradition that has been upheld at Rockhead’s to this day. With their extensive training in competition routesetting, Bob and Brian were able to prepare sophisticated, exciting, and even artful routes for climbers at all levels. Sometimes, entire sections of outdoor climbs were carefully recreated on the walls of the gym. If the climbers couldn’t make it to the cliff, the cliff would find its way to the climbers.
By 1992, the fringe sport of rockclimbing was starting to outgrow its quiet life in the margins and demanded a place in the mainstream. The world was starting to figure out how much fun it was to swing from the rafters and play like a kid in a jungle gym. Climbing was suddenly everywhere; in beer commercials and Esquire ads, in GQ, on the lips of a growing number of celebrities from David Lee Roth to Sylvester Stallone, and in all the living rooms of the country along with skateboarding, rollerblading and BMX thanks to the Extreme Games. The sport of climbing was growing to monstrous proportions and it seemed to need a bigger cage. So it was that Bob and Brian set to work on a gigantic warehouse space with 32 ft. ceilings on Fraser Ave. in Toronto’s Liberty Village. The new and vastly improved Rockhead’s opened its doors in November 1992 and the biggest and best rockclimbing facility in Canada was born.
The structure was mind-boggling at the time in its architectural complexity with more oblique angles than corners and more undulating surfaces than flat walls. The brothers built a facility that provided more interesting climbing surfaces and angles than many of the local cliffs that it was meant to emulate. One of the most obvious strengths of the new gym was its abundance of overhanging walls. From near-horizontal roofs to rolling bulges and sweeping waves, the structure seemed to defy gravity. To the uninitiated, the dangling bodies overhead on all sides must have been unnerving. But of course, the gym was built like a tank with an eye to safety as well as structural innovation.
As the millennium approached, the gym entered its golden years. The renovations continued without interruption throughout the late 90’s with additions and improvements to both the bouldering areas as well as the roped climbing walls. The Bergman’s built a labyrinth of bouldering walls and caves that provided a place for the expression of the emerging bouldering movement and lead-climbing areas that dwarfed the vertical terrain of the original location. The full potential of these new steep surfaces was explored and pushed by the gym’s growing number of genuine experts.
On the heels of this development boom, the Bergman’s used the momentum they had generated to pull off yet another Canadian first. A world cup routesetter was brought in from the U.S. to “choreograph” the most innovative boulder problems our climbing community would ever see at the country’s first ever Canadian National Bouldering Championships in 2001. The competition would act as a debut for the gym’s newest and most ambitious renovation to date. A full-scale structural makeover was undertaken to expand the gym’s already numerous bouldering surfaces. In the years that followed, this intense and dynamic style of climbing would become the new norm, and Rockhead’s would lead the way in providing facilities and climbers for its development. Between 2001 and 2003, the Bergman’s would stage three Canadian National Bouldering Championships establishing a Canadian competition tradition in the process.
Today Joe Rockhead’s continues its long-standing mission to introduce this unique sport and thriving culture to first timers with just as much dedication as ever. At press time, Rockhead’s has served over 1,000,000 people, beginner, and intermediate and advanced alike. Among these newcomers to the sport are visitors from Toronto’s ever-growing corporate community, hooked after an introduction through one of Rockhead’s many “corporate team building programs.” The gym has provided this needed relief from the office grind to executives and staff from Coca Cola to TD Bank to IBM. Rockhead’s was first to offer these programs and remains the surest bet for corporate events planners and open minded managers across the city. Rockhead’s is also the Toronto District School Board’s “go-to” gym for school trips, and the expert climbing world’s choice for effective training terrain with a friendly, supportive and diverse social atmosphere.
The gym has seen its members travel the world to competitions and cliffs where they have consistently impressed the international climbing community with their gracious spirit, and impressive fitness. For the locals, Rockhead’s has been nothing short of a wellspring of information sharing, productive training relationships and friendships. Its members have paired off to form everything from businesses to families and marriages. Now, past its 20th anniversary, Rockhead’s continues to be both a leading force in the climbing community at large, and a dear home for local climbers of all abilities and ages.