Why This Chapel Hill Gym Has Become a Hot Spot for Climbers

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Progression Climbing has created “a small but strong climbing community” for families

By Madison Roberts  |  Photography by Beth Mann

At 9 years old, Theo Kornylak is fearless. Without any harnesses or ropes and just a cushioned mat beneath him, Theo places both feet on blue footholds and reaches one hand out for a hold to the right, hoisting himself up the climbing wall. Theo has “sent the projects,” (which, in the gym’s vernacular, means to climb a route) at Progression Climbing many times before. He moves up and down almost effortlessly, but he still smiles triumphantly when his feet plant on the mat after he’s made it to the top and back. The next wall over, Theo’s twin sister, Rebecca Kornylak, watches their older brother, Sam Kornylak, 16, climb. Two walls down, on a steeper edge, their mom, Vera Kornylak, attempts a climb of her own.

“It’s sort of like a sophisticated playground,” says Andrew Kornylak, the kids’ father, who works as a photographer specializing in outdoor and climbing images. “Everyone is at their own level, but it’s really fun for the whole family to be able to come here and just climb, even if the routes are easy.”

Andrew Kornylak at Progression Climbing
Climbing became an integral part of Andrew’s lifestyle when he met his wife.

The Kornylaks visit Progression Climbing, a 3,500-square-foot facility that touts itself as Chapel Hill’s “first and only bouldering gym,” two or three times a week. The gym offers a variety of routes on walls as high as 15 feet that are meant to mimic outdoor bouldering and range in difficulty from V0 (the easiest) to V12 (the most difficult). Climbers don’t use ropes here. All of the walls are angled at different levels of steepness and have soft mats underneath to cushion anyone who falls.    

Vera was the catalyst for her family’s interest in climbing. She began rope climbing in junior high and kept up with the hobby. She practiced on indoor rock walls and then used those skills to go outdoors. When she met Andrew in college at the University of Chicago in 1992, she introduced him to the sport, as she had recently taken climbing lessons at a school in the Grand Teton National Park. Andrew asked Vera to a party, but she countered with an invitation to go rock climbing. He says he declined but soon realized his mistake and all that he missed. “After that, I figured I’d better learn how to climb, or we’d never get to hang out!” Andrew recalls. Climbing soon became an integral part of their lifestyle.

“We went climbing in Yosemite for our honeymoon,” says Vera, who now works for the Environmental Protection Agency. “We’d been doing it for so long that it was natural for us to introduce it to our children.”

Sam was 3 when he first went climbing, and Theo and Rebecca were 5 when they were introduced to the sport, with their parents seeking out family-friendly gyms for them to practice. When they moved to Chapel Hill for Vera’s job, they stumbled upon Progression Climbing, which was more intimate than gyms they were used to.

“I think a small gym like this suits Chapel Hill really well because there is a small but strong climbing community here,” Andrew says.

On Saturday mornings, people of all ages fill the gym parking lot starting at 9:30 a.m., a good 30 minutes before Progression Climbing opens. “Chapel Hill is becoming a hot spot for climbing, and the popularity of bouldering has risen because it’s fun, accessible and family-oriented,” says Rose Fields, manager of Progression Climbing. In the afternoons, you can find children as young as 5 on the walls, teenagers climbing with their friends or adults simply trying to get in a core workout.

Twins Rebecca and Theo Kornylak at Progression Climbing
Twins Rebecca and Theo Kornylak, 9.

“When we first started climbing, it was almost seen as weird,” Vera says. “Not many people did it. Now, we run into a lot of families here. It’s one of the few sports you can do as a whole family and actually talk to one another. With everything else, like cycling or running, you’re moving too quickly.”

“It’s social,” Andrew adds. “Everyone watches people try the routes and cheer for one another. It’s kind of like a skate session.”

For the Kornylaks, the gym is not only a way they bond as a family and make friends, it’s also how they practice climbing for outdoor adventures.

“We’re sticklers for safety,” Vera says. “Climbing is fun, but it can be really dangerous if you’re inexperienced.”

“There is almost a lifetime of skills you need to learn in order to go climbing outside safely,” Andrew adds. “That’s what makes it worthwhile. If you could just go outside and do it exactly the way you can in a gym, you wouldn’t feel like it’s a worthy thing to do. Moving in three dimensions is really fun. You get that in here, and you can get that outside [of here], if you prepare.”

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