Climbing business reaches its peak


Paulie Abissi, a sponsored climber who travels the world, is transitioning to ownership of the family business, Higher Ground. Photo by Michael Buck

When Higher Ground Rock Climbing opened 20 years ago, it occasionally had to deal with car break-ins and other petty crimes in the Monroe North Business District.

The district started to shift once the nearly vacant Berkey & Gay Furniture building was transformed into Boardwalk Condos and as other developments and renovations popped up in the area.

Now, Higher Ground will occupy a nice spot in the lower level of the new 616 Development called 820 Monroe, a mixed-use project that will renovate the building around the longstanding business.

Until recently, however, Paulie Abissi and his parents were afraid their business was going to have to find a new home. Abissi found out about the development around Christmas 2013 during a phone call from his mom.

“They initially said we could stay the last eight years of our lease, but then we’d be done,” said Abissi, who is transitioning to take over the family business. “But they came in and realized how established we were and said, ‘This is cool and unique, and downtown Grand Rapids doesn’t have another one of these.’

“They thought we’d be a good mix with what they want to do in this neighborhood.”

The developers might be on to something, as climbing gyms are trending upward. National television and print news outlets made rock climbing a hot topic when climbers Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell made a record-breaking 20-day ascent of Yosemite National Park’s Dawn Wall in January.

Men’s Journal ran an article asking “Are Climbing Gyms the New CrossFit?” while New York Times Magazine ran an in-depth feature on climbing star Alex Honnold, who negotiates some of the hardest climbs in the world without ropes. Honnold’s endeavors have earned him commercials with Squarespace and NorthFace. He also was featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 2011.

The sport has come a long way since Abissi’s father, Frank, started climbing as a 10-year-old Boy Scout and then carried out many first ascent climbs across the country during the 1970s. The first climbing gym opened in the United States in the 1980s, but Frank Abissi wasn’t far behind when he started Higher Ground in Grand Rapids in 1995.

“He would work 40 hours at odd jobs, plus the time here in the shop,” Paulie Abissi said. “Once he got to the point that he was making at least enough to just get by here, he quit his job in the human resources department at (Fifth Third) Ballpark.”

At the time, the business consisted of a climbing pro shop and vertical climbing walls. Six years later, Higher Ground opened its first bouldering room, which is climbing while following paths that never take a climber more than 10 feet or so off the ground. Three years after that, a second bouldering room was opened.

Abissi said climbing gyms used to be a place for people who already climbed outdoors, but now it’s expanding to people who are looking for a different way to stay fit and also for teambuilding activities.

He said climbing is much more engaging than a fitness activity like CrossFit. The sport offers a full-body workout including the brain, as “problems” presented in getting up the wall take time and effort to figure out.

“It won’t stay that exciting to throw a bar over your head,” he said. “We’re always changing routes, and there’s something new and unique every time a climber comes in the door.”

There are only two commercial climbing gyms in the area — Higher Ground and Inside Moves in Byron Center — but area colleges have also caught on to the trend. Grand Valley State University, Calvin College and Davenport University all have large climbing walls, as do some area YMCAs.

All together, there are just shy of 10 walls in the Greater Grand Rapids area, Abissi said.

Higher Ground now works with school groups and business groups on a weekly basis. Abissi said some of the groups just climb, but the gym also offers teambuilding opportunities. Recently, groups from Wolverine World Wide took part in climbing sessions.

“The kids generally don’t say much when we do teambuilding activities,” Abissi said. “The adults look deeper into it. They say, ‘We’re going to challenge ourselves today, overcome fears and trust issues.’”

Higher Ground also offers opportunities for organizations such as Hope Network and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital to bring in adaptive climbers: patients who have prosthetics or cerebral palsy and paraplegics.

Abissi has been climbing since he was 4 years old. He was so fascinated with the climbing walls that his parents would tie him to a stake in the ground so he wouldn’t chase his dad up the wall as his mother assisted with the ropes on the ground. He was 6 when the business opened, and he received his first climbing harness from a European company, Edelweiss. He’s never looked back.

Now, he’s a sponsored climber and travels across the world to do what he loves.

It’s not a posh life, by any means.

“This is not a lucrative business,” Abissi said. “It’s enough money to have a cool career and get by, but I’m never going to be driving a BMW or Mercedes to work.”

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