Gary Rall has been climbing since he was sixteen. Originally from the Midwest, he became enamored by Oregon’s mountain ranges. Young Rall bounced from skiing to climbing within a year after looking upon Mt. Hood from a chairlift and thinking: I want to climb that.
He didn’t know why—but the feeling stuck. So he joined the Mazamas, a local nonprofit mountaineering group, and learned how to rock climb. “I think the same fascination is there for everybody,” Rall says, “We get a lot of people moving in from out of town that never had as close a proximity to a big, beautiful mountain like we do.”
While a love of outdoors often brings people to climbing, the Northwest’s oft-inclement weather pushes the sport inside. Both Rall and a Washington contemporary raced to build the nation’s first indoor rock gym. “He beat me by six weeks,” laughs Rall, “So now I’m the second-oldest climbing gym in the country.”
Though the sport was once adventure-seekers only, it has grown exponentially, spurred by Southern Oregon’s Smith Rock, the first major sport climbing spot in America. Olympic–level climbers flocked to the spot, and Rall speculates the who’s-who of climbing rubbed off on us.
After nearly 28 years, climbing has become almost mainstream. Athletic clubs take on elements of climbing gyms, and climbing gyms adopt an athletic club approach. Portland Rock Gym boosts its craggy offerings with a yoga studio, weight lifting space, a café operated by the owners of healthy food favorites Prasad and Harlow, and an outdoor guide service that takes beginners outside to the Columbia River Gorge via PRG's Gym-to-Crag program.
Now the expansion, five years in the making, results in over 10,000 square feet of additional climbing, youth-oriented climbing walls, and new bouldering that hits 17 feet in height—a far cry from the old 12 foot top-out, made possible by 17 inches of foam floor below. “We’ve really pushed the bouldering limits. You get that tingly feeling when you get off the ground a ways, but you don’t really worry about getting hurt.”
Still, some things never change, and Rall has had the same pitch since 1988 when the gym opened: “Climbing is the easiest way to trick yourself into getting a good work out. You’re so enthralled by the act of trying to defy gravity, that you don’t realize you’re engaging all your core muscles.” It seems like we’re all just catching on.
Portland Rock Gym’s remodeled space is open and ready for climbing at 21 NE 12th Avenue—what are you waiting for?