Owner of Santa Rosa’s Vertex Climbing Center sees ‘problems’ as drivers of success

Before Vertex Climbing Center owner Gorden Cooley started solving “problems,” known in rock climbing lingo as solutions to meet a goal, he overcame a big personal one as a kid.

While growing up in Rohnert Park, Cooley, 37, was overweight and bullied.

He joined the football team in high school and naturally, he said, chuckling about it now, was selected to play on the offensive line. Think “Blind Side,” the book by Michael Lewis that explores the hard journey of professional offensive lineman Michael Oher.

“I was made fun of, so I played football and got more confident. It turned out to be a cascade of positivity,” he said.

At age 20, Cooley discovered climbing at the gym he now owns.

Much the same way Oher surrounded himself with people who inspired him, Cooley has worked to create an environment there that brings people together.

After becoming involved in the sport in 2004, he took a job three years later as a personal trainer at the Santa Rosa fitness center. That is when he met his longtime girlfriend, Sarah Cleveland.

“I felt I didn’t have a purpose for my fitness until climbing. It gave me focus,” he said, adding friendships and connections to the mix.

Many gyms, especially in San Francisco, have developed massive, sprawling climbing centers as they’ve gained in popularity, netting 7.7 million U.S. participants, according to 2018 research conducted by the American Alpine Club.

Six years prior, Cooley specifically took over a Santa Rosa gym on Coffey Lane. It was small, about 6,000 square feet, compared to many climbing gyms that span more than 20,000 to 25,000 square feet.

“Within the climbing gym industry, there’s the desire for going bigger and more corporate,” he said.

Instead, Cooley relishes “doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing” as a means to run a business. Although he mentioned doing well, Cooley declined to say the amount of revenue he raked in last year.

“What I love about smaller gyms is the feeling of connectedness,” the Sebastopol man said, adding that a common dialogue there starts out: “Have you been on any adventures lately?”

Cooley said it’s difficult to climb a wall at his gym without feeling compelled to talk to the person close by doing the same thing.

As Cooley prepares to celebrate in December his 10th year in the fitness business, Vertex has signed on more than 400 members averaging at least a once-a-week visit. And two regulars, youth climbers, placed at the USA Climbing Nationals competition two weeks ago in Illinois, he mentioned.

But in his eyes, the sport is more commonly about the friendships than it is the competition.

“You’re bringing people in to collaborate — not compete — to achieve a goal, whether it’s a 25-foot-tall climbing wall or a 14,000-foot peak in the Sierras,” he said. “It’s all about sharing and inspiring.”

Outside the gym, his most inspiring memory included climbing Royal Arches at Yosemite National Park, a 5.7- rated cliff rising above Yosemite Valley near the Ahwahnee Hotel that’s considered a classic climb. Lots of “problem” solving that consumed the day made the excursion stand out in his mind, Cooley said.

He hopes to find his next big pursuit in Kings Canyon National Park, adjacent to Yosemite.

Granted, climbing as an activity and sport comes with inherent danger. The threat is lessened when you’re hooked to a rope and anchored by another person.

“It’s like a metaphor for life. You can fail, and that’s OK,” he said.

Show Comment