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Climbers still need a hydraulic boom lift to reach the highest point of Freestone Climbing Gym’s six-story rope room, but the days of human-powered ascent are getting nearer.

“We’re open,” gym owner Walter Hailes said. “Not finished, but open.”

As the winter of 2017 keeps switching weather gears on athletes seeking workout options, the redesigned indoor climbing space has seen a steady flow of people appreciating its climate-controlled walls. Rope room aside, the bouldering area had more than enough space to accommodate the roughly 20 people exercising on an early Tuesday afternoon.

One of them was 5-year-old Zoe Wardwell, who spider-walked her way three mom-lengths above her mother, Alex Wardwell, without a pause. Bouldering walls don’t have rope belay systems, so don’t get much higher than 16 feet. But that’s still a disconcerting distance when it’s four times longer than you are.

“I don’t know if it’s the new building or New Year’s resolutions, but it’s busy,” Alex Wardwell said as Zoe down-climbed as easily as she ascended. “When I moved here from Wyoming four years ago, I didn’t know anyone. I think I’ve met 90 percent of my friends at Freestone.”

That community initially formed around a climbing gym at the former Missoula Athletic Club. When the parent business closed, Hailes said he was nervous about the viability of a stand-alone facility. But the 4,800-square-foot space that Freestone started at 935 Toole Ave. quickly hit capacity.

“We were looking for some place to put in a real ropes course, but there wasn’t anyplace tall enough,” Hailes said. “We had to build this.”

Constructing a 60-foot tower without any supporting floors inside poses interesting engineering challenges. The gaping space also requires impressive heating and ventilation systems. The building at the corner of Shakespeare and Defoe streets also houses Five Valleys Cross Fitness gym and the Moksha Aerial Studio Collective. As yet, all three operate separately, although they’re considering package discount ideas.

Among the regular crowd are about 25 competitors in the U.S.A. Climbing Association local club, led by Fred Rhoderick. The students, ages 8 to 18, travel across the western United States participating in indoor wall-climbing competitions in a season that runs from September to July.

“It’s an under-the-radar thing,” Rhoderick said of the “Defying Gravity” team. “That’s why having a climbing gym that really supports what we’re doing is so important.”

The bouldering walls range from vertical to 45- and even 60-degree overhangs. Hailes compared bouldering to sprinting or weight-lifting for its power demands, while the rope room will emphasize more of the endurance and aerobic aspects of climbing. The bouldering area has about 3,500 square feet of features, while the ropes area will present about 10,000 square feet.

When not running the climbing gym, Hailes does research at the University of Montana’s Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism program. There he studies how human bodies perform in tough environments like firefighting, warfare and endurance racing.

“This is more for fun recreation,” Hailes said of Freestone. “You get really fit, and you don’t have to run on a treadmill.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.