The owner of Freestone Climbing Center is in the midst of transforming a huge vacant warehouse on Missoula’s Westside into a massive new indoor climbing gym and fitness center, which will roughly double the size of the current facility.

By next year, there will be a 50-foot-high, 10,000-square-foot rope-climbing wall, 35,000 square feet of bouldering surfaces for every skill level, an 8,000-square-foot CrossFit space, a regular full-service gym with treadmills, bikes and weights, remodeled bathrooms and an aerial arts studio next door. The new location is at 1200 Shakespeare St., just south of the railroad tracks and west of the Scott Street Bridge.

Walter Hailes opened Freestone in 2011 in an old warehouse on Toole Avenue next to Draught Works Brewery. Now that the lease is up and Draught Works is opening a canning operation in the space, Hailes decided the time is right to expand. In fact, that was his intent all along.

“The first gym was really just a test,” he said. “We said, 'Let’s not spend a ton of money, but let’s get it climbable and make it nice and if people come and climb, then we can build a rope gym with more amenities.' We wanted to make sure there was a climbing market before we sunk a whole bunch of money into a building that has only one purpose without enough climbers to get it going.”

The climbers came out en masse, and Hailes said his customer base has expanded every year. The new facility will be one of the largest in the state, and will put Missoula on the map as a destination for indoor climbing enthusiasts who want to continue to recreate during the snowy winter months.

“It’s a nice big warehouse, and the goal for that space is to be there for a long time,” Hailes said. “We’ve joined up with MASC, which is an aerial arts studio, and 5 Valleys CrossFit is in there currently and they are going to expand their space. So it’s basically going to be an alternative sports collective. We’ll have a rock climbing gym on one end, CrossFit in another part and then aerial arts with all kinds of circus-type performance arts. You can do hula hoops, yoga, ballet and bars. Any kind of movement. All of this will be together.”

From the beginning, Hailes wanted Freestone to be a community center for climbers, which is why he built a lounge and offers free Wi-Fi.

“It’s a place where you see friendly faces and come in and climb,” he said. “We have really good routes and really friendly people at the front desk and assistants that help you if you are new to the sport. A lot of people meet friends here that then take them climbing outside. That’s the goal. It’s an alternative to gyms where everyone is just on a treadmill with their headphones in.”

Finding a location in Missoula that’s tall enough for a climbing gym is not easy, Hailes said, but finally he found the old Zip Beverage warehouse. A construction crew from Mast and Co. Builders, comprising many climbers, is working to complete a new roof that’s tremendously taller. In fact, the new space feels cavernous compared to Freestone’s current digs.

“The layout will be more spaced out and there will be more light and more airflow in the building,” Hailes said. “We made it work in the old space, but certainly there are things that are going to be improved. We’ll have an HVAC system that will be pulling new air in – sweaty climbers will appreciate that.”

Hailes knows that sometimes people still want to hit a treadmill or lift weights, so he’s going to offer that as well.

“Our long-term plan is to have fitness classes and yoga classes and offer something for every part of the market,” he said. “Kids can climb with the youth program while people come in and take a fitness class on their lunch break, and then you have a place to shower off and go back to work. Or one day you can climb, and the next day you can do a yoga class. We want to have something for everybody.”

The new rope-climbing area will have both auto-belay and companion-belay stations, although Hailes said it’s generally safer if people climb with a partner. He’ll have staff members available to help keep an eye on everything. The advantage of rope climbing is the athlete doesn’t have to ever hit the ground, unlike bouldering which relies on a super-padded floor.

“It’s a little challenging with bouldering, because every time you have to fall to the ground,” he said. “Some people, because of knee injuries, can’t really boulder. But with a rope you don’t hit the ground. So a lot of older people can continue to climb that way.”

When Hailes was a younger man, climbing at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, climbing was a male-dominated sport.

“I would say nine out of every 10 climbers was a guy,” he said. However, in the last decade, more and more women have taken to the sport. Hailes said his clientele is a diverse mix these days, although he believes University of Montana students make up a big chunk. Either way, he says the popularity of the sport is skyrocketing and he’s comfortable making a big business investment like this.

"When we first opened, I already knew everyone who walked in the door,” he said. “It was a hard-core group of climbers that showed up right at the start. And a year and a half later I didn’t know anybody. It was all new climbers. And that’s perfect. And we’ve been basically developing new customers since then.”

Climbing is something that hooks you for life, Hailes explained.

“Climbing is something you can do forever if you are smart about it,” he said. “And you always have nice days inside. It’s a good sport to get into really long-term.”

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