The Story Behind a Tempe Gym Championing the Climbing Community

Climbmax owner Sean Shelton setting climbing holds. (Photo by Robert Gundran)

By Robert Gundran

September 28, 2023

Owner Sean Shelton says building the Climbmax gym back up on the other end of the peak of COVID-19 pandemic has been hard work.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “the third place” in the 1980s. It was described as a place where people can congregate at low or no cost that is not home (first place) or work (second place).

A third place can be a bar, coffee shop, public park, or main street. Oldenburg said third places are extremely important to local democracy and community vitality.

Sean Shelton, owner and operator of Tempe rock-climbing gym Climbmax, is looking to put together a third place for climbers and people who may be interested in climbing.

Entrance of Climbmax (Photo by Robert Gundran)

“I want this to be a place for the community,” he told The Copper Courier. “That to me is priority No. 1.”

A monthly membership at Climbmax is $45, cheaper than many other Valley climbing gyms. The gym is in the corner of a business park just off Priest Drive, tucked behind a host of car dealerships, a Costco, and an IKEA.

READ MORE: Escape the Heat at These 7 Indoor Rock Climbing Gyms in Maricopa County

Climbmax opened in Tempe in 2005, and Shelton has been there since the beginning, though not originally as an owner.

“I was one of the original builders and first investors,” Shelton said. “All of this was built by hand. There were five builders originally and we pulled it off in a year.”

Climbmax Owner Sean Shelton setting climbing holds. (Photo by Robert Gundran)

He said Climbmax started out as one of the more popular indoor gyms for climbers, but eventually the business got taken over by the building’s owner.

“I don’t want to speak ill of him,” Shelton said. “But he’s not a climber and I don’t think he knew what he had or how to make it work. I think the climbing community wrote it off because when I came back it was a ghost town.”

The previous owner sold the business over to Shelton in late 2021, and he’s been working to improve the gym back to its original luster and coax the climbing community back into its doors.

“I’m not trying to compete with Alta [Boulders & Fitness] or some of these newer gyms that are around because they have a different offering and a different way of looking at things than we do,” Shelton said. “Our identity is through the community itself. Our identity is built through camaraderie and that sort of family bond we have here.”

A Unique Workout

Rock-climbing gyms are unlike any other type of gym. First, most people are on the walls and not the floor. Second, climbing engages your entire body in a unique workout. At a climbing gym you’ll engage every muscle, including grip strength.

The hobby is similar to standard gyms, though, in that it’s all about self-improvement. There is no competition but yourself. It’s all about climbing higher or taking on a more difficult climb than the day before.

“It doesn’t necessarily advertise itself as that, though,” Shelton said. “It has a way of beating your ego in a different way. Most people are just coming in here to have a good time, and that takes the pressure off from even having to think about self-improvement.”

He compared it to yoga and martial arts in that climbing can be somewhat viewed as a discipline as opposed to a competition, activity, or hobby.

Main climbing room at Climbmax (Photo by Robert Gundran)

Building the Gym Back Up

Shelton said building the gym back up on the other end of the peak of COVID-19 has been hard work.

He wasn’t the primary owner and operator of Climbmax during the peak of the pandemic, but he still had to deal with the fallout.

“Things are changing here,” he said. “We’re getting things fixed. … We’ve got good climbs here. It’s run by a climber. All those things help. At the end of the day this was a gym built by climbers to teach people how to be climbers.”

Shelton said the gym also has new setters, which are people who work or volunteer at rock-climbing gyms to move the rocks, or holds, to different places on the wall to create a path for people to climb.

Part of the difficulty in getting the gym back to where it was is that things are different in 2023 than in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

“The marketing is different,” Shelton said. “We have to keep up with social media, which I hate. I don’t like posting. … We have to make sure that Climbmax has relevance in the community at all times. It’s a challenge.”

Shop at Climbmax (Photo by Robert Gundran)

Shelton said he’s not looking to make Climbmax a lucrative business venture, but he is interested in making it as successful as possible in bringing people to the climbing community and getting people interested in rock climbing.

“I don’t care about being rich,” he said. “For me it’s about the love of climbing. You can’t build this thing with five people and not build bonds and find out how the climbing community operates. It has a special place in my heart.

Climbmax Rock Gym


1330 W. Auto Drive #108, Tempe

Hours: Monday to Friday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. | Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 7 p.m

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  • Robert Gundran

    Robert Gundran grew up in the Southwest, spending equal time in the Valley and Southern California throughout his life. He graduated from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in 2018 and wrote for The Arizona Republic and The Orange County Register.

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