From left, Jessie Homan, Dave Chew, Wiley Holbrooke, Will Plantz, Rowan Bourke, Morgan Bradley, Dave Nesis and Ryan Sprackling at the 2018 regional climbing championships in Grand Junction. The club is back in action after the climbing gym in the Telluride Intermediate School reopened recently. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Plantz)

The Telluride Intermediate School climbing gym is seeing its first action in over a year, as San Miguel County previously used the gym for COVID-19 vaccine storage. But in November, the gym was cleaned up, and adventurous members of the Telluride Middle/High School Climbing Club have been using the gym for its original purpose.

The club — which had been under the umbrella of multiple organizations, including Telluride Academy — has officially become an official school club, explained Chris Murray, the district’s athletic director. He credits volunteer coaches Dave Chew and Dave Nesis as the main motivators behind this change.

"Both Nesis and Chew were the driving forces behind the school district taking this on as an added activity for our students," Murray explained.

Superintendent John Pandolfo clarified that the club is not an official sport under the district's athletic program, but “it admittedly falls in somewhat of a gray area between club and sport.”

Chew, a Telluride local and avid climber, has volunteered as a climbing coach for over a decade through various organizations.

"The school is stepping up to unify everything under one roof and then figure it out from there. The school has been great in helping us really solidify the program. It feels pretty secure and long-term now, and that was the goal," he said.

Fourth-grade teacher Sue Hehir became the official school sponsor of the club. Teacher sponsors are required for all clubs within the school. While Hehir is the "official sponsor," she praised Chew and Nesis as the true pioneers behind the club.

"They are the coaches and are the reason it's happening. The kids love these guys, and they have rallied a bunch of other motivated climbers to be coaches and inspire our students to find the love of climbing," Hehir said.

There are many benefits to the school adding the climbing club as an official activity, like liability and transportation. It also opens up more options regarding the use of facilities, Murray said.

Chew and Nesis helped start the club long before it became an official school activity. About 11 years ago, Nesis and Chew were volunteering with the Telluride Academy and noticed after they had finished with the younger kids in the gym, high school students would come in and start climbing by themselves without a lot of guidance.

At first, Chew explained, they simply hung out with the kids and taught them the basics of climbing and safety protocol. After a while, more kids began showing up, and Chew approached the school about pursuing it as a club.

"I initially started as just someone who's showing people the skills needed to go outside and do it with your friends in a safe, secure way. A few years in, we started getting into competition climbing and the competitive side of the sport," Chew said.

In March 2020, along with the entire world, the gym was shut down. Chew and Nesis unofficially kept the club going and climbed with students outside on the Ophir Wall and around Telluride.

"It was cool," Chew said, "because then all the kids came back to the gym with a kind of different perspective of what climbing is, as a sport and as a life's passion."

To reopen the gym sooner, climbing club members, along with Chew and Nesis, helped prep the gym for climbing. Together they rebuilt a section of the wall, put down climbing pads and set up ropes.

As of right now, the club has around 25 members. The number frequently fluctuates due to all the other activities and sports Telluride kids are involved with, Chew explained.

One of Chew's favorite things about the club is seeing kids graduate high school, leave Telluride, and then come back and help teach the new climbers.

"Now we have a bunch of kids who are well out of college and have moved back to Telluride and are helping us coach the climbing team. It's cool to see it come full circle,” Chew said.

At the moment, the club is one of the only groups using the climbing gym. In the past, other organizations have used it for various activities and clubs. Pandolfo explained why the climbing club has access to the gym compared to other organizations.

"Because the climbing club is a school activity, it falls under our liability policy. Any outside organization would need to provide a Certificate of Insurance as part of submitting a facility use agreement. My understanding is that this may be challenging for some of the outside organizations," Pandolfo said.

Telluride High School Senior Ayla Kanow is excited to get back on the wall and climb again after the pandemic closure. Even though soccer is her primary sport, she joined the climbing club to stay strong and conditioned during the offseason and to join "a new community of athletes."

"I am so glad that this club is back up and running after COVID since it fosters such a great group of students who share a love for the place where we grew up. It really teaches us all about leadership, respect and perseverance," Kanow said. "I have gained great mentors and have hopefully become a mentor for some of the younger climbers."