I‘m scaling a 30-foot indoor rock climbing wall—in jeans and a button-up, because I’m an idiot—and all I can think about is empty space. Air, grass, an open field, an unobstructed view. A break from the monotony of more apartment buildings, more condos, more student dorms, more grocery stores, more mixed-use developments, more stuff. That’s what used to be here, below my feet and all around me: nothing.
“Keep going!” a voice calls from below. “Climb with your legs, not your arms!”
I’m climbing with my legs and not my arms at Adventure Rock MKE, a hulking new indoor rock climbing facility on North Avenue, overlooking the North Avenue Bridge and the Milwaukee River. The voice belongs to Craig Burzynski, the general manager of Adventure Rock. I check the colored grips around me, tug at the tether that holds me, and glance up at the contraption that holds the tether. Jesus, am I really doing this? Yes, I’m really doing this.
I continue to climb. My knees are shaking. I’m sweating. I finally make it to the top. I’m done.
“So, um, how do I get down?” I call to Burzynski.
“Just let go!” he hollers. “The system will catch you!”
Right. The system. Something called an “auto-belay” system. That contraption at the top of the wall. The contraption that will slowly lower me to the ground. I vaguely remember Burzynski explaining how it uses the same technology as elevators. Or magnets, maybe it has something to do with magnets. I have to let go. I’m suddenly Indiana Jones, tired and weary from his search for the Holy Grail, making a leap of faith into the abyss. The colored grips are my lion’s head, the ground below me is, I dunno, Sean Connery.
I sigh. I let go. The system will catch me. And sure enough, it does.
On Saturday, September 17 and Sunday, September 18, Doors Open Milwaukee will offer the general public unprecedented access to more than 150 area buildings, businesses, churches, schools, hotels, breweries, and city halls. Adventure Rock MKE will be included. Though tour members won’t be able to actually climb the 18,000 square-foot climbing facility (due to time and space constraints), they will be able to check out everything else: the 43-foot climbing walls, the areas behind the climbing walls, the second-level “bouldering” area, and the 46 one- and two-bedroom Mandel Group luxury apartments attached to the gym’s east- and south-facing sides, each starting somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,200 a month. Remember Mad magazine’s old slogan, “Cheap!” Yeah, the opposite of that.
Ahead of Doors Open, Burzynski is walking me and Historic Milwaukee’s Grace Fuhr through the twists and turns of Adventure Rock. He gives us the history of the company (the original Brookfield location has been in business for 18 years), explains the different colored routes snaking up the walls, details the shorter “problems” scattered throughout the bouldering area, and offers us a peek behind the scenes. I’m impressed: Watching the two dozen or so early-afternoon climbers—many of them young children—I keep picking up on a pleasant “early ’90s skate park” vibe. People hang out between climbs, watch the more experienced climbers go for broke, and egg each other on. There’s a pro shop where would-be-climbers can buy harnesses, shoes, and chalk bags. Though my familiarity with rock climbing begins and ends with occasionally watching American Ninja Warrior, I dig Adventure Rock’s atmosphere, and the quiet sense of camaraderie that seems to echo through the place. It’s kind of great.
And yet…I find my mind drifting back to that empty space. Just last year—before the climbing walls, before the harnesses, before the luxury-priced rent and the luxury-priced views—the site where Adventure Rock now stands was a gloriously open and empty field. It was a field where people threw frisbees, walked their dogs, or simply hung out. It was a field I walked through nearly every day on my way home from my old job at A.V. Club Milwaukee. It was a field that offered a chance to take a moment and enjoy some nothingness before the distinct somethingness of the East Side and Riverwest. As the site began to develop, and as it was revealed that a rock climbing luxury apartment building would be taking up residence, I scoffed. A rock climbing luxury apartment building? Really? This is what Milwaukee needs? No more, please…
And yet…I also remember scoffing near two decades ago, in 1998, when the adjacent Humboldt Yards were being developed into a Jewel Osco. I wasn’t alone: Neighbors passionately protested the development of the site, bemoaning the encroachment of corporate awfulness and the loss of precious green space. But “progress,” as it’s wont to do, marched on and the Jewel was built, eventually becoming a Pick ‘n Save. (Years earlier, the site was home to the Normal Pipkorn Company, a sand and gravel business that opened in the 1920s and closed in 1983.) But now, in the light of present day, the fight over the site seems silly, futile, quaint. After all, it’s just a grocery store, and a grocery store scores of people frequent every day. But still—a rock climbing luxury apartment building? Come on…
And yet…I find myself back at Adventure Rock, two weeks later, tackling its walls and courses and problems on my own. Despite a lifetime aversion to anything remotely physical (I know this will come as a shock, but I was never really an athletic kid), I find myself seriously enjoying the sports’ mix of accessible physicality, mental gymnastics, and subtle thrills. I find myself slowly working my way up to harder routes, trying to get better. I find myself dialing up YouTube rock climbing tutorials late at night. I find myself considering an Adventure Rock membership ($50 a month, $75 for the first month). I find myself soaking in the atmosphere, enjoying the quiet, savoring the new, contained emptiness between me and the ground.
I find myself climbing with my legs and not my arms. I find myself letting the system do its thing. I find myself taking a breath, finding my footing, and moving forward.