Rock-climbing gym 5.Life on overcoming challenges of its own

Business and rock climbing are similar, Vertical Adventures is finding.

Steve Wartenberg
For Columbus CEO
Alexis Roccos and Mardi Roberts, co-owners of 5.Life, photographed in the Vertical Adventures rock climbing gym.

Overcoming adversity and mapping a route to success are a few of the reasons Mardi and Matt Roberts and their four children fell in love with rock climbing. This led them to a friendship and eventual partnership with Carrie and Alexis Roccos, owners of the Vertical Adventures indoor rock-climbing gym.

For Alexis Roccos, the fear factor is motivational. “If you never put yourself in a situation where you’re not a little bit afraid, it’s hard to grow,” he says. All these skills were needed as the entrepreneurial couples worked their way through the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic and came close to a lockdown-induced free fall.

Vertical Adventures rock-climbing gym

The Roccos opened Vertical Adventures, Columbus’ first indoor rock-climbing gym, in 1994. The timing was right, as climbing was becoming a thing, and the first wave of indoor facilities were opening. Throw in the proximity of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, one of the nation’s top climbing destinations, and the gym took off. “We outgrew the space pretty fast,” Alexis says. “We knew if we wanted to grow, we had to build something bigger or someone else would come to town and build something bigger.”

The Robertses discovered rock climbing during a 2008 family vacation in Colorado. When they returned home, they found Vertical Adventures. “You have mentors who teach you,” Mardi Roberts says of the Roccos (who have two children). “They took us to Red River Gorge and were our guides.”

Over the next few years, the couples began what Mardi calls a courtship. “We flirted, we started dating, we got engaged and, in April 2013, we made it official and got married,” she says. The new business partnership was rebranded 5.Life. The 5. refers to the Yosemite Decimal System that rates climbs, with 5.0 being the easiest.

“It seemed like a good fit,” Alexis says. “They brought business knowledge—Matt is an agricultural economist and Mardi has a marketing background. We had the climbing background.”

“Our role was business development,” Mardi says, adding Matt was the numbers cruncher. “Matt likes to say he works to get us into debt, and the rest of us work to get us out of debt.”

Alexis Roccos photographed in the Vertical Adventures rock climbing gym.

5.Life expands

The new, larger Vertical Adventures on Kingsmill Court opened in November 2014 and cost $2.4 million. The “old” Vertical Adventures, located about a quarter mile away, was initially used for youth classes. It closed in August 2021, “a victim of COVID,“ Mardi says. The new gym, with 44-foot-high ceilings and 15,000 square feet of climbing space, seems huge but is about average for a climbing gym. Once again, business boomed and there was a need to expand.

5.Life opened Chambers in June 2018 and Bloc Garten in May 2021. Both are indoor bouldering gyms. Bouldering is rock climbing without ropes, done at lower heights and with mats for the inevitable falls.

A bigger launch was Climb Nittany, a full-scale, $4 million rock-climbing gym in the State College, Pennsylvania area. “We opened twice. The first time was November 2020, then there was a lockdown, and we re-opened in January 2021,” Mardi says.

Pandemic puts growth on pause

It’s early 2020, business is booming, Bloc Garten and Climb Nittany are under construction, and then …

“On March 15, we laid off everyone except for three employees,” Mardi says of the impact of the pandemic and statewide lockdown. “That was the hardest thing we ever had to do, but we knew if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have anything for them to come back to when we reopened.”

The past two years have been a scramble for survival.

“If it weren’t for the [Paycheck Protection Program and Employee Retention Tax Credit], we wouldn’t have made it,” Alexis says.

Business is still off at Vertical Adventures by about 20 percent from pre-pandemic times, but the cash flow is once again positive, Mardi says.

Plans to expand are on hold for now, but Mardi still dreams. “Columbus is vibrant and growing, there is definitely a demand,” she says. “This sport is about to explode, and we don’t have enough ropes in Columbus to meet the demand.”

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.

5.Life

5.life

Addresses: Vertical Adventures, 6513 Kingsmill Court; Bloc Garten, 512 Maier Place; Chambers, 1165 Chambers Road (all in Columbus); Climb Nittany, 328 Discovery Drive, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania

Business: Indoor rock-climbing, bouldering and fitness

Founded: 1994

Top officers: Co-owners Carrie and Alexis Roccos and Mardi and Matt Roberts

Employees: 105

Revenue: $3.1 million in 2021