Ascend: Mountain Climbing in The Wilds of South Side

Ascend is a stunning place to walk into. The first thing you notice is the literal indoor mountain that takes up the center of the 27,000 sq. foot space. It is at once intimidating and inviting, with bright colorful hand and footholds dotting every facet of the massive arching structure. It is joined by 4 more separate walls, all built by Walltopia, a leading manufacturer of climbing walls globally, with each one featuring different angles and heights ranging from 13 to 24 feet.

The facility also features a fully equipped and staffed Yoga center, a childcare center, a retail area with climbing gear, food and beverages, a fitness center for non climbers, locker rooms with showers and free, on site parking. All of this is housed in Pittsburgh’s South Side, an epicenter of commerce and culture for the city.

On Tuesday, March 14th, Ascend climbing gym opened it’s doors for the first time. It was the culmination of many years of dreaming and planning and hard work by Alex Bernstein, Paul Guarino and Aaron Gilmore.

Alex Bernstein started climbing around 10 years ago. He would climb in Pittsburgh with his father and sister while his mom would spectate. Around a year later, as they were visiting his sister in San Francisco and were visiting a climbing gym, his mom questioned, “Why doesn’t Pittsburgh have this?” A seed was planted. When Alex returned to Pittsburgh, he started planning. Between the business plans, financing proposals, and looking into real estate options, it was a daunting task. Time passed.

4 years later, after returning to the U.S. from getting his Masters degree in Austria, he wanted to start something new. He wanted to start something that “people get to enjoy in person and they’ll leave and can tell people about and smile and have a great time.” He wanted to make something tangible and real. The idea of the climbing gym returned. This time he sought out the assistance of fellow climber Paul Guarino and the two were joined shortly thereafter by Aaron Gilmore. Things finally started to come together.

According to Alex, the biggest challenges in putting together the gym have been finding the right real estate/location and the money to make it happen. Finding the right location for the gym was particularly difficult due to it’s unique nature. Size for a project like this is critical, and very hard to find, especially in the city. They had a few false starts, including landlords pulling out at the last moment and problematic zoning issues, but they finally settled on a South Side site 3 years in. The gym is funded by a combination of private investments, The Progress Fund and Enterprise Bank, and a loan from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

“The majority of the time it took was to raise the equity.” Says Jay Murgi, Relationship Manager at Enterprise Bank. “They were eager, very eager and they did whatever they had to do to get this to work.” Ascend started working with Enterprise in 2013, and Jay was there with them every step of the way. He recalled seeing the location when it was just an empty warehouse with CAD drawings on the walls. Once everything started to take shape and things actually  started to look like the drawings, he was impressed.

How has it been working with Enterprise? “Awesome.” Alex says. “Couldn’t have asked for a better bank.” He was surprised at the sheer amount of paperwork involved, but shared that working alongside Jay was a pleasure. “The process was not that bad for a loan and a project of this size.”

For Alex, the most satisfying part of the journey so far has not only been opening a climbing gym, but finding that it is so much more. “To give people a home and to be a hub for the community, not only the Pittsburgh community but also the south side community and the climbing community, we want this to be this hub of community and awesomeness.”

“We’ve been waiting for this moment.” “This is it, this is the dream being realized.”

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