Kevin Vlach and Nick Olson have set out to bring the first-ever indoor climbing gym to Traverse City. Learn more about their journey and the work they’re putting into this new Northern Michigan business before opening their doors this August.
Kevin Vlach and Nick Olson’s paths have paralleled over the years, though it wasn’t until more recently that the two met each other and became business partners in a first-of-its-kind endeavor in Traverse City: an indoor climbing gym.
ELEV8 Climbing and Fitness, coming this August to Traverse City’s NOBO District, will offer climbing—with the tallest walls reaching 42 feet—various types of yoga, high-intensity interval training, aerial silks, slacklining and on-site child watch. Baked into the heart and soul of ELEV8 is the essence of the outdoor communities Kevin and Nick have discovered, and felt at home in, throughout the world.
“ELEV8 came from a search for a word that had connotations beyond just climbing—something that communicated the goals of our facility and the commitment we wanted to make to ourselves and the community,” Kevin says. “The alphanumeric component played into the climbing knot and fits into the location on Eighth Street as well.”
Photo by Dave Weidner
Kevin and Nick both grew up in Traverse City and went to the University of Michigan a few years apart. Upon graduation, they each ventured out into the world. Kevin moved to Spain, where he taught English and started skateboarding, surfing and rock climbing. From there, he moved to Colorado, where climbing continued to play a big role in his life.
“In Colorado, I kept involved in the vertical world,” Kevin says. “Between the ‘OG’ gyms and the new, modern gyms, it was interesting to see the change in approach to, effectively, the same product, and then, you start seeing that proliferate around the country. I kept track of that. I liked the scene and the community it could build. When I contemplated moving back here, I started looking into it more, drafted a business plan and reached out to vendors.”
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Following college, Nick moved to New Jersey, where he owned a Jimmy John’s franchise and started a bookkeeping and accounting business, which he ultimately sold to an automated software company. While there, he started slacklining.
“I got excited about that, helped organize some of the big festivals around the country and it’s been a huge part of my life for a while,” Nick says. “That community overlaps super strongly with the climbing community, so that’s why, when I got back up here [to Traverse City], I knew I wanted to help form that community.”
En route back to Northern Michigan, through slacklining, Nick connected with the community at an indoor climbing gym in Pittsburgh. It was there that he really saw the potential for such a space in TC.
Back in Michigan, Nick caught wind that Kevin was working on such a project and reached out to him—he was impressed, to say the least, that Kevin was ready to go with a detailed, 38-page business plan in hand. Conversation ensued, and he joined Kevin as a co-founder of ELEV8 about three years ago.
From there, finding the right space for an indoor climbing gym in Traverse City proved challenging.
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“There are two approaches,” Kevin says. “You can build from ground up, or you can use an existing building as is or maybe modify it. If you were to modify a building, by the time you put that money in, then you’ve paid for a new building in an old building.”
Kevin considered a bouldering-only space, as it’s a simpler model in many ways. However, he says, “I think that caters to a much more specific demographic, so it feels less inclusive. Plus, there’s so much more to that partnership on a rope, where there’s a belayer. You miss that partnership—and the trust and communication that come with it—in a bouldering-only space.”
Location was another key consideration when exploring how ELEV8 would come to be.
“The accessibility of our space is insane,” Kevin says. “We didn’t want people to have to drive out of their way to access us. We didn’t want to be isolated. We wanted to feed off of the energy within the city limits, among other neighborhoods and nearby businesses and schools.” Community is a large part of climbing, and it plays into nearly every element of ELEV8 and what Kevin and Nick envision for the space. The duo has plans to partner with Traverse Heights Elementary School and other schools and organizations in the community.
“I think kids just naturally want to climb,” Kevin says. “So youth will definitely be a core component of who we see using the facility. We intend to foster that and create relationships with the Boy Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters and local nonprofits.”
“This is such a social endeavor,” Nick adds. “People can be hanging out casually doing something, and this is something unique on top of it. That’s what people love. Climbing also spans so many age groups. There are people climbing in their 40s, 50s and 60s. It’s a means of staying fit and mobile.”
As for goals, Kevin says, “I want to provide a space for a thriving community and where we focus on safety and proper training. If people [who learn and train at ELEV8] think of climbing elsewhere in the world, I want them to be going about it correctly. I hope to have some gym-to-crag transition classes, so we can learn to be good stewards of the environment and the places where we love to go play. It would be awesome to host fun events, too. I want this space to be used. I want people to be in here doing what they like to do and having fun.”
Kevin and Nick also want to pay their professional team well, as they see ELEV8’s employees as long-term collaborators in building that community and want to create a positive environment all the way around.
In reflecting on the process of bringing this dream to life, Kevin says, “I fail to recognize just how much is involved. You just go about your day-to-day life—we have jobs and families and stuff like that—and you’re just trying to fit meetings in when you can. It’s a lot of little things along the way. I’ve enjoyed the process. I love throwing my energy at these types of problems and trying to come up with solutions. An architect can tell you what’s to code, and they’ve got some general design and flow ideas. But none of them have built a climbing gym locally.”
To learn more and get started, visit elev8climbing.com or @elev8climbing on Instagram.
Emily Hopcian writes from Bariloche, Argentina. emilyhopcian.com
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