Climbing gym can make your workout rock

Jennifer Bona demonstrates a climb at the Stone Age Rock Gym in Manchester.
Jennifer Bona demonstrates a climb at the Stone Age Rock Gym in Manchester.

Let's be honest here. While we should all vow to be better people, most of our New Year's resolutions center around ourselves and our self-image. I will lose weight in 2012. I will exercise more.

All that physical activity we think we want to do, though, just can't drown out the small voice in our heads that grows louder the farther you get away from Jan. 1 — "But it's so cold out. What's wrong with staying under the covers all winter?"

By February, any residual resolve is gone. But it doesn't have to be like this. To really get a good workout without even realizing it, head to a magical place on Adams Street in Manchester, where the climate is controlled and where two friendly mutts will casually watch you scale the walls like Spiderman.

It's the Stone Age Rock Gym, one of only a handful of indoor climbing gyms in Connecticut. You'll never know it's winter out. You'll have so much fun you won't even realize you're exercising. And by summer, you'll be a pro ready to tackle an outdoor climb.

Run by Kevin West and his girlfriend Jennifer Bona, the gym is unassuming from the outside — a warehouse structure, it shares space with CJ's Pellet Depot and Maid Brigade — but surprisingly spacious inside. There are 4,500 square feet of textured climbing walls for top roping (where you're secured to a rope while your partner belays, or feeds you rope and ensures you don't fall should you lose your grip), lead climbing (where you're secured to a rope and clip the rope to carabiners along the way) and bouldering (no rope, and you climb mostly sideways rather than up).

In December, West and Bona introduced a new attraction to the gym: indoor ice climbing, now up and running. Climbers use a pick on the holds, which mimics the experience of navigating icy terrain. The couple also acquired the recently shuttered Connecticut Rock Gym in New Haven and reopened it Feb. 1 as Stone Age Rock Gym New Haven.

West and Bona, the Manchester gym's only two full-time staff, are both certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. The gym also staffs about 20 part-timers, including instructors, route setters and behind-the-counter help.

In all, Stone Age boasts 19 top rope stations, 6 lead climbing areas and about 80 bouldering problems. (Don't call them bouldering routes or they'll spot you as a novice.) The gym changes climbing routes every 8 weeks or so to keep things interesting for regulars.

Most popular and best for beginners is top rope climbing, which Bona said makes more intuitive sense than climbing sideways, as is required in the more challenging art of bouldering.

"For somebody who's new to climbing, going up is totally natural to the human body," she said.

The gym is open to young and old, able-bodied and those with disabilities alike. The couple has worked with people with special needs, and, in one case, someone with atrophied legs.

While the two say anybody can climb, safety comes first. Before you even touch the first climbing hold, the gym will insist on a top rope safety/belay course ($35), where you and a partner will learn to strap on a harness, tie the rope securely to the harness and use a belay device. Belayers must be age 13 or older.

The gym rents all the gear you'll need, from the shoes ($5) harness ($4), belay device ($1.50) to a chalk bag ($2). Once you know what you're doing, you can get a day pass ($15.25) and climb until you pass out. For those interested in climbing socially, check out a Meetup group that meets Monday nights

Hobby turned business

West, 39, hadn't always thought of rock climbing as a business. An environmental science major in Maine, West first tried oyster farming before he walked into a rock gym in Philadelphia and was taken by the atmosphere.

"Within 30 seconds of walking into the gym, I said, 'Oh my god, I gotta do this,'" West said.

He had tried rock climbing in high school and was already attracted to outdoor sports, having guided canoe trips in Maine. Climbing indoors had a unique appeal — West liked the social environment and the intellectual challenge.

"It requires you to think," West said of rock climbing. "So it's not just your everyday workout. … Each route is like a puzzle."

A Connecticut native, West bought what is now the Stone Age Rock Gym in 1997 from two guys who started it as the Ragged Mountain Outdoor Center in 1993.

Bona, 37, entered the picture three years later. An astronomy/astrophysics and geoscience/geophysics major at Penn State, Bona started climbing in college but stopped for a while. When she moved to Connecticut, she saw an ad for the Stone Age Rock Gym and decided to check it out.

She walked into the gym as a customer and met West. The two started dating in 2000.

Today, Bona runs a summer camp for children ages 11 and older. In addition to the gym, the two also lead canoe and outdoor climbing trips in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine.

Stone Age Rock Gym

Winter hours are noon to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends

195 Adams St., Manchester;

91 Shelton Ave., New Haven

(860) 645-0015


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