When Chris Schmick saw the old grain silos, he had a
rock-climbing epiphany. "Immediately," says Schmick, "I thought
they'd be perfect. I could envision the whole thing right down
to the carpeting, and the vision was beautiful. Of course, this
was before I looked inside."
His discovery took place in January 1995, when Chris, then 26,
and his wife, Pam, 28, were seeking to relocate their tiny
indoor rock-climbing gym from a converted racquetball court in
Peru, Ill., to a larger structure somewhere near the
fast-growing college town of Bloomington. The Schmicks had
searched without success for nearly a year, and they were on the
verge of giving up when Chris drove through a semi-industrial
district of Bloomington and passed the 14 towering cement silos,
the former home of the Funk Brothers Seed Company. His mind
reeled. Here was a spot, he realized, that had the potential to
become the world's most dazzling indoor climbing center.
The silos, Chris learned, had been unused for about 15 years and
were about to be torn down. He resolved to purchase them. The
buildings were owned by an excavating company, and after Chris
inquired about buying them, he and Pam were allowed inside the
silos. "I walked in and I took one sniff," recalls Chris, "and
just shook my head and said, 'Oh, no.'"
"You can't imagine how bad it smelled," says Pam, rolling her
eyes. "Like a clogged sewer; like week-old baby diapers.
No--worse than either of those."
It turned out that the silos were abandoned but by no means
empty. Inside were thousands of pounds of rotten soybeans caked
to the walls, mixed with dead rats and pigeons, covering tons of
rusted machinery, and turned to goulash in standing water on the
floors. "Nasty," says Chris, "is an understatement."
Still, he could not abandon his vision. It was stronger than
fetid beans or decaying pigeons. So the Schmicks pinched their
noses, arranged financing of the deed with the excavating
company and took out a loan to fix up the place. (A dozen banks
rejected the Schmicks before one finally agreed to finance the
project.) Then Pam and Chris conscripted 20 of their
climbing-bum friends as a cleanup crew, promising no payment
except nightly pizzas and free climbing when the silos were
finished. The Schmicks also bought high-pressure water hoses and
rented a hydraulic platform lift and an industrial-sized dumpster.
Chris, a trained boilermaker who became addicted to climbing
while serving in the Army, hung from ropes and welded steel
beams to build an overhanging ledge that would create climbing
routes of world-class difficulty. Pam, who had planned on
pursuing a veterinary career until the day Chris brought his
cocker spaniel into her dog-grooming shop, attacked the beans
with the hoses. Aided by their friends, the Schmicks worked 14
hours or more every day for six months, throwing down a
Salvation Army mattress to sleep there each night. They removed
12 tons of rusty steel, six tons of rotten beans and all manner
of bean-processing equipment and machinery. Then they installed
more than 3,000 artificial climbing holds, bolting the rocklike
objects into the cement walls. And on Sept. 2, 1995, the Upper
Limits rock-climbing gym opened for business.
From the outside the place still looks like a cluster of worn
silos, gray and somber, rising high above the flat Illinois
prairie. The lot around the silos is weed-strewn and gravelly;
the railroad tracks running through the back of the property
haven't seen a locomotive in at least a generation. Only a new
entrance sign emblazoned with the Upper Limits mountain-shaped
logo signals that anything has changed. But inside is an
artificial Alps. Ropes dangle from the ceilings; harness-clad
climbers scramble up the walls, grabbing for holds, their grunts
echoing through the silos. The partners belaying each of them
stand on the floor, playing out the rope and exhorting the
climbers on. (Lifeguards patrol to ensure safe climbing and
"sentence" unsafe climbers and belayers to a $10 safety course.)
In one silo Pam demonstrates leg balance for a group lesson in
beginners' climbing technique, dancing along the wall with the
agility and effortlessness of a spider. In another, Chris works
out intricate moves on an expert route, teeth gritted, his
arms--biceps like baseballs--trembling from the effort.
The floors are carpeted and the lighting is soft. Rock music
plays through wall speakers. A rental shop offers beginning
climbers all the gear they need to learn the sport. Not a bean
or a pigeon feather can be seen or sniffed.
Doors have been cut into the eight-inch-thick silo walls so
climbers can wander from the vast entrance chamber--a former
bean-truck dumping station that's now equipped with a
cushion-floored bouldering cave and the tsunamilike
overhang--into the four silos that have been readied for use so
far. In these cylindrical towers there are more than 60 climbing
routes, with evocative names such as Dark Side of the Moon and
Wyatt's Burp. The silos are 65 feet high, more than twice the
height of most indoor climbing gyms.
The Midwest Nationals were held here last May, and other
competitions are planned. Chris and Pam have been interviewed by
media outlets as diverse as National Public Radio and Grain
Journal. Customers are streaming in from Chicago, St. Louis and
Indianapolis, all about 2 1/2 hours away by car. College
students provide steady business in midweek, when the fee is $9
for a day of climbing. On weekends it goes up to $10.50. Monthly
and yearly memberships are also available. Though the Schmicks
aren't exactly getting rich--they still drive a jalopy with
160,000 miles on it and work in the silos seven days a
week--they are gradually repaying their loans.
And Chris and Pam aren't done scheming. Only 25% of the silos'
available space is being used. The Schmicks are equipping a
110-foot silo with routes, and they've got an Everest of a climb
in the 145-foot grain-elevator tower, which they claim makes
Upper Limits the world's tallest rock-climbing gym. In winter
they'll dribble water on the outsides of silos until it freezes
a foot thick and offer ice-climbing lessons. They also built a
three-story apartment for themselves inside--where
else?--another of the silos.
"We've got tons of ideas," says Chris, grinning dreamily. "Maybe
we'll put bungee jumping inside one of the silos. Maybe indoor
sky diving. We've even thought of franchising Upper Limits."
"Everything's going great," agrees Pam. "Except for one side
effect: I'm never going to eat soybeans again."
Montana-based freelancer Mike Finkel is a frequent contributor
to Sports Illustrated.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO There are 60 routes from which to choose inside the cement tubes where soybeans were stored. [Climbers hanging from ropes inside silo]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Ice-climbing will be added as a winter challenge on the exterior of the former grain elevator. [Climbers on grain elevator]