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Climbing Culture

North Mass Boulder Brings a New Era of Fitness to Central Indiana

Writer / Seth Johnson
Photographer / Michael Durr

Growing up in Indianapolis, Elliott Steward and Zach Donovan had their fair share of adventures.

“We were best friends growing up in elementary school and middle school, playing in the woods behind our house, doing slumber parties and all that stuff,” Steward says.

Now, the pair of longtime friends has embarked on a new expedition as the co-founders of Indy’s North Mass Boulder fitness center. Located near the north end of Massachusetts Avenue, the 52,000-square-foot facility features a bouldering gym, yoga and group fitness studios, co-working spaces, a full-service cafe, a bar and much more. Designed with the intent of making fitness more communal, North Mass Boulder offers several membership packages for adults and kids alike.

North Mass Boulder

After graduating from Indiana University, Steward moved out to Seattle in 2010, where he eventually stumbled upon a climbing gym near his home.

“When I moved out there to the Pacific Northwest, I set a lot of goals for myself in terms of outdoor climbing, and to help achieve those goals I found a climbing gym in Seattle that was convenient to go to,” says Steward, who still calls Seattle his primary residence.

After spending some time at the gym, Steward was quite drawn to the community he found through climbing.

“I quickly got attracted to the lifestyle and the community of people that were attending that gym,” Steward says. “What I learned is that the climbing community is really a lifestyle that people identify with very strongly. That really resonated with me. Going to that gym was super convenient and fun, first, but the people attending there were super cool and that’s what kept me going back.”

Upon having conversations with the owners of that Seattle gym, Steward eventually made it his dream to start a climbing gym of his own one day.

North Mass Boulder

“I started talking to a lot of people who had done this before – other gym owners across the country – and I made up my mind that I was going to do it, even before we had all the capital raised, and even before we had a building in place,” Steward says. “I was just really lured by the difficulty of the task of getting this done. I was fueled by so many people doubting me and telling me that it would be really hard, and that I probably wasn’t capable of doing it. That was the perfect medicine for fueling this project.”

In order to make his aspirations come true, Steward searched far and wide for the perfect building to house his grand climbing concept. Fittingly, he came across the perfect location in his hometown of Indianapolis.

“We spent about a year and a half looking for spaces as far north as Milwaukee all the way down to Atlanta,” Steward says. “I was super attracted to Indy because it was my hometown, and I wished this concept would’ve been available to me when I was growing up. I ended up finding this space.”

“I remember the first time I walked through it looked very, very different,” Steward continues. “There was no electrical whatsoever, hence why there are so many windows in here – because it was all illuminated with natural light. There was no plumbing. I think they had one toilet in this entire building. It was super crazy to come in here, but I knew it had the structure to turn into a place like this.”

With a building in their grasp, Steward and company began raising capital and teamed up with an architectural firm to bring their fitness center to fruition. After about 18 months of construction, North Mass Boulder was created. The COVID-19 pandemic had little impact on its opening.

“We started construction prior to COVID,” Steward says. “We opened on June 19, 2021, and it kind of felt like things had somewhat returned to normal. So COVID really didn’t impact us. It didn’t delay our construction really at all. It didn’t hurt our business model and delay us from opening. In fact, I would say it created a pent-up demand for connection, community, and being active outside your house.”

North Mass Boulder

In reflecting on the future of North Mass Boulder, Steward says he ultimately hopes to cultivate a climbing community like the one he found in Seattle, where fitness fosters friendship.

“Our whole concept is based around community, and particularly around movement,” Steward says. “We say we’re a third place. The home is the first place, your work is your second place, and your third place is wherever you go to connect with your community. We wanted to create a radically inclusive space for the community to come feel safe and connect with each other around movement.”

North Mass Boulder is located at 1411 Roosevelt Avenue in Indianapolis. For more info, visit northmassboulder.com.

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