From the ocean to the “mountains,” St. Augustine isn’t just for surfing.
By Maiya Mahoney and Cameron Gurgainus
“Out of this notebook will come a climbing gym in St. Augustine,” Eric Hires wrote in the first page of his notebook that would bring to life Stone Climbing, a dream 13 years in the making.
In 2008, visions of one day opening his own climbing gym in St. Augustine began in Paula Holanchock’s entrepreneurship class his senior year at Flagler College. Hires began this semester-long team project that never fully left his mind.
Taking the steps to make this dream a reality, Hires made attempts to open a climbing gym in 2012 and again in 2015, finding the right moment in 2021.
“I stopped saying, “I might start a climbing gym,” or “I think I’m going to start a climbing gym.” I started saying “I am,” Hires said. “I think the timing is perfect because the town’s grown enough and climbing has grown enough that it can support this facility now.”
Hires’ mission is to build a positive environment for the community of St. Augustine to climb and learn skills to succeed on and beyond the walls of Stone.
“We want it to be a place where people get strong and our goal is to not create gym climbers, but to create people that train here to go outside,” he said. “It’s a place where people can plan adventures and have amazing life experiences.”
This has rang true to St. Augustine locals and visitors who have come and supported Stone so far; the atmosphere Hires and his team have made is beyond their expectations.
“People are saying how welcoming and included they feel; they love the energy in here and want to bottle it up and take it with them.”
Cassie Picard, a senior at Flagler College and a member at Stone, has always had an interest in joining a climbing gym, but had not found anything convenient enough until now.
Her favorite part of going to the gym is the community aspect. She has not come across anyone who has not readily introduced themselves and became an immediate friend.
“You usually get a group of folks cheering on whoever’s on the wall, giving advice and rooting for you when you get to the top,” she said. “You might come into the gym alone but you definitely won’t be climbing alone.”
Climbing since he was 16, Hires has been to some of the “wildest, most beautiful” places, as well as face to face with near death experiences. Climbing in Red Rocks, outside of Las Vegas, Hires descended over 1,000 feet in a snowstorm, with the 22 hour adventure ending at 3:30 a.m. He describes this thrill as being “good-scared” when you get that feeling of fear.
“People are scared of [climbing] because of the danger aspect, but I think that’s part of what makes it great,” he said. “It helps you feel alive, and it helps you connect with your humanity and your mortality.”
Always searching for an adrenaline rush, Hires also believes climbing helps with mental health and gives individuals the ability to go out and be in touch with nature, which in return is good for the body and soul. In addition to climbing, Hires also surfs and believes both climbing and surfing help people get in shape and gain self-confidence.
“[Surfing and climbing] are both activities at the intersection of art and sport. What you’re trying to do is make things that look incredibly difficult, seem very easy, graceful and flowy,” he said. “When you’re climbing outdoors, they help you connect with nature; because when you’re surfing, you’re riding an energy force of nature in the form of a wave. In climbing, you’re interacting with an energy force of nature in the form of rock.”
Putting people and the environment first before profit, Stone has joined 1% for the Planet where 1% of Stone’s gross sales every year go toward supporting environmental non-profits. On the national level, Stone has partnered with the Access Fund and locally with the Matanzas Riverkeeper.
“The Access Fund helps keep climbing access to areas; they really work to advocate for climbers and for public land, and being good stewards of the public land that we have,” Hires said.
The Matanzas Riverkeeper hits close to home for Hires because it is an organization that works to keep the water fishable, swimmable and drinkable; it also keeps other figures liable for their actions who are looking to build.
“We use the river a lot, so it’s important for us to keep that as clean and pristine as possible,” he said. “They keep developers accountable that are wanting to develop along the river or in the Matanzas River watershed, and make sure that’s being done in a sustainable way.”
Stone offers five climbing areas and the “Grom Grotto” for younger children. “The Timo Wall” is dedicated to those struggling with mental health and to the memory of Timothy “Timo” Maddox, a friend of Hires. Inspired by Hires’ love for surfing, “The Wave” wall was designed after Teahupo’o, a village in Tahiti known for its surf break. Other climbing areas include “The Prow,” “Zen Wall,” and the “Central Pillar of Frenzy.”
“For beginners coming, don’t be afraid of being embarrassed. Everyone falls, everyone’s learning,” James Sellers, a Stone team member said. “The strongest climbers in the world are always still learning something new about themselves, about their strengths and weaknesses and are still growing.”
Offering single day passes, memberships, various classes for different levels, and even yoga, Stone is building a climbing community in St. Augustine; seeking adventure, connecting with nature, and fostering inclusiveness. Classes include covering the basic techniques of climbing for beginners, lead climbing and belaying, and advancing one’s skills in climbing movement or anchor building.
Day passes are $18 with rental shoes, harness, and chalk bags available for rent. Individual monthly fees are $80/month with a $50 initiation fee and $140/month for families with a $75 initiation fee. Students, teachers, farmers, and military are eligible for 10% off their monthly dues. Member benefits include full gym access, unlimited yoga, special rate classes, 10% off at the Kookaburra Coffee located inside Stone, and one guest pass per month.
With a desire and drive to open a climbing gym, Hires’ written words came to life. From pen to paper to reality, dreams do come true.
“There’s power in words and the things we speak and intentions; if you start speaking about things they will happen in a positive manner,” Hires said. “I think that can help you achieve what you’re trying to achieve.”
To learn more about Stone Climbing: https://stoneclimbing.com/