If you live in Michigan and want to go rock climbing, there’s really only one good option: Leave Michigan. Sure, there are routes in the U.P., but if you’re going to drive six hours, go south to the legendary sandstone cliffs of Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Once there, you’ll find a ton of climbers from Michigan—far more than you might expect a climbing desert could produce.
“We’re not blessed with natural climbing rock features as much as other areas of the country, but we still have this passionate group of climbers,” observes Grant Farmer, a regular at the Red. When he asks the Michigan contingent where else they climb, they all say Planet Rock.
After years of hearing about the Ann Arbor climbing gym, Farmer hired on as its general manager in 2022. He estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 people learn to climb at Planet Rock every year.
Since it opened in 1999, the 22,000-square-foot facility off Jackson Rd. has cultivated the region’s climbing culture. Recent years have seen the construction of newer facilities, most notably DYNO Detroit, but Planet Rock is still the biggest gym with the tallest walls for hundreds of miles in any direction. That’s why hundreds of people visit every day, some from as far away as Cleveland. I speak from experience: Until recently, I was a climbing instructor there.
Our boss, Nick Cocciolone, transformed the climbing scene in southeast Michigan when he built the first Planet Rock in Pontiac in 1994. He seems like a down-to-earth guy when you first meet him, but the impression doesn’t last. When Cocciolone walks into the building, the instructors scatter. “Nick’s here!” a coworker once hissed at me. “Clean something!”
Cocciolone holds everything in his life to high standards, not just his employees. Like coffee. How many climbing gyms have an espresso machine? How many have a $25,000 espresso machine?
“If the machine is better than you will ever be, then whose fault is it if you pull a bad coffee? It’s your own,” Cocciolone explains. It’s the same with climbing, he continues. “There are some things, especially for example if you’re soloing, where there’s no second place.” His smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “If you fall, you’re dead.”
When you walk into Planet Rock, you’re greeted by an extensive gear shop. In one direction are the glass double-doors to the bouldering room, where climbers ascend walls up to fifteen feet high (and land thuddingly on a padded mat thirteen inches thick).
The other direction leads to a cavernous space with gritty gray walls up to fifty feet high. Brave souls methodically work their way up. A rope attached to their harness loops up through a pair of anchors hanging from the ceiling and then descends to the belayer, who yanks out the slack and shouts encouragement.
To the uninitiated, it must seem strange, even foolish. Why leave the safety of the ground?
For me, climbing is the purest form of competition: with myself. It tests my wits, my will, and my strength.
On the ground, my life is governed by my ever-growing to-do list. But on the wall, I’m not thinking about anything except how to get to the next hold. Clutching a hold in my aching hands, I contort myself to position my foot on a tiny nub, push into it a couple times to make sure I can keep my balance, and then spring up, snatching the next hold and heaving myself up another six inches. Nothing else exists. It’s just me and the wall as I climb in defiance of gravity and good sense.
This isn’t soloing: When I fall, my belayer catches me. Still, as I swing out into empty space, I find myself wrestling with frustration and an edge of panic at the empty space yawning up beneath my dangling feet. Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?
But I get back on the wall. And if I’m strong and clever and stubborn enough to make it to the top, I practically glow with the accomplishment.
This month, Cocciolone plans to start work on an 11,000-square-foot expansion into a wing of the building that currently sits empty except for twice-weekly yoga classes. He’ll move the gear shop there, along with the cardio and free-weight areas currently located upstairs. The remainder of the space will be built out with more bouldering, while the upstairs will transform into a hot yoga studio.
Cocciolone anticipates the work will take two to three months, and hopes to complete it before beginning his next big project: construction of a third location, in Grand Rapids. (The second is in Madison Heights; it replaced the Pontiac gym in 2014.)
If it all sounds ambitious, well, Cocciolone built a career out of defying gravity. But every climb, by necessity, starts at the bottom. For Cocciolone, climbing led him up and out of a tough time in his life.
It started with a couple years at Eastern Michigan University, followed by a three-year hiatus in California. Yosemite is a climbing mecca, but the sport didn’t hit Cocciolone’s radar until he came back to Michigan. He resumed his education at Schoolcraft but found “I didn’t really finish anything that I was interested in.” He ended up coaching gymnastics and working as a software programmer for a company that eventually laid him off. That’s when some old friends from the EMU gymnastics team suggested he try climbing. With no nearby rock features, they had to improvise.
“The first climbing that I did was here in Ann Arbor, on a lot of the buildings,” Cocciolone says. The term for that, he explains, is “buildering.” With his background in gymnastics, Cocciolone was a natural. But climbing was more than a workout: It gave Cocciolone a sense of clarity.
“Once you’re on the wall, everything seems to focus into the task at hand,” he says. “You can’t let go of your mental state for any amount of time.”
“At the time before the interweb, they would send out credit card offers in the mail, and you’d always throw them out. And then at one point,” he grins, “I started saving them.”
He applied for twelve credit cards over the course of a week, so the banks couldn’t cross-check, and then turned around and bought $57,000 worth of materials. The location he’d chosen was a junk-filled, eighty-seven-year-old warehouse in Pontiac with no electricity, water, or heat.
The owner agreed to let Cocciolone rent the space if he cleaned it out, so he enlisted a group of friends. His experience with remodeling houses, commercial maintenance, and mechanical trades came in handy; so too did personal loans from friends and family, as well as the financial support of his then-wife.
After ten months of construction, the first Planet Rock opened its doors on October 17, 1994. It “was like we opened a lemonade stand,” Cocciolone laughs. “A card table and chairs … just two-by-fours exposed, no drywall, no counters, nothing.” There was no credit card machine either; early visitors paid in cash.
What Planet Rock lacked in amenities, it made up for with its walls. The only other nearby climbing gyms were Inside Moves in Grand Rapids, which Cocciolone describes as “super-basic, flat walls and boxlike features,” and the Ann Arbor Climbing Gym, which maxed out at twenty feet. Planet Rock’s walls towered fifty-five feet, and had angles and undulations, the way real rock walls do.
Planet Rock started off with a small clientele of avid climbers, but eventually, word spread. Cocciolone attributes its success to word-of-mouth and cold Michigan winters.
“I always thought that there were a lot of people that didn’t have a whole lot to do in the winter besides ski. So they came climbing,” he says with a shrug. “It just kept getting bigger.”
According to Climbing Business Journal, in 1994 there were fewer than 100 climbing gyms in America. As of 2021, there were 591.
“It’s pretty amazing, the growth of climbing. And we never planned for that,” Cocciolone says. “Nothing was ever meant to be that serious when we built it, cause I only expected it to last for a few years.”
Instead, after five years, Cocciolone expanded to Ann Arbor. He built the new gym with the same undulating aesthetic, borrowing from some of his favorite climbing destinations in Kentucky, Texas, California, and further afield. A section that folds into a right angle before jutting out into an overhang is modeled, he says, on “a climb in Thailand called the Groove Tube.”
The shape of these walls has in turn shaped southeastern Michigan’s climbing culture. But Cocciolone doesn’t claim sole credit.
“I maybe opened the door, but certainly everybody that comes through it is shaping it,” he says.
Planet Rock’s team of route setters are a prime example. They’re the people who create fresh challenges by rearranging the brightly colored hand- and footholds that dot the fluctuating topography of the walls. The names they give their new routes are almost as colorful: “Pokémon Titan,” “Tummy Ache Survivor,” and “Mostly Dead Is Still Slightly Alive.”
A good route is so much more than a path from point A to B. It’s part physical challenge, part puzzle, with a touch of primal fear.
Route setter Cris Garcia calls it “functional art … I don’t like making something that has really good movement but then just looks bad.” He and his fellow route setters also draw on experience. Garcia, for example, has climbed extensively in the U.S. and Mexico, and recreates interesting moves on the walls of Planet Rock.
“I build this landscape that people get to have all sorts of different emotions on,” he says. “There’s a very childlike part of rock climbing where you just get to go play.”
Garcia is slated to begin a graduate program in teaching at U-M in June; in the meantime, he coaches Planet Rock’s Youth Team. According to Cocciolone, every year about a dozen kids on the Youth Team make it to the USA Climbing Youth National Championships.
Haesue Baik was one of them. She’s been climbing since she was nine and competed from sixth grade through her senior year of high school in 2021. That’s when she placed eleventh at Lead USA Climbing Nationals.
The U-M freshman attributes her success to “a very lucky combination” of good coaches, routes that complemented her climbing style, lots of training—and a climbing gym near her house. Baik says some of her teammates came from as far as Toledo three times a week for practice.
“I personally don’t think I would have been able to do that,” Baik says. “If I wasn’t within such a close distance to the gym, it’s probably something I would have tried maybe once or twice, but not enough to stay with the sport.”
Some former members of Planet Rock’s Youth Team have gone on to professional climbing careers, most notably Ann Arbor native Dylan Barks. In 2021, Barks climbed a Yosemite boulder route called Creature From the Black Lagoon—arguably one of the twenty most challenging bouldering routes in the world.
Barks is one of only eleven people who have climbed it. More people have walked on the moon.
But you don’t have to be an elite athlete to enjoy climbing. Through Planet Rock, Cocciolone has shared the sport with many thousands of people, including blind and paraplegic climbers, autistic children, and veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project.
What attracts this diverse audience to climbing, and what keeps them coming back, is something deeper than just a workout or a diversion during the winter months. “There’s a lot of importance in climbing that’s outside of climbing,” Garcia explains. “Climbing is 90 percent failure, and—I don’t actually like calling it failure, because I think it’s a misnomer. It’s not failure. … It’s all learning. You try a route, or a boulder, and you fall, and that’s just feedback. And then you get to go try it again.”
His words remind me of a signed poster of pro climber Lisa Rands that adorns one of the walls at Planet Rock.
“Fall down seven times,” it reads. “Stand up eight.”