When Chris Schmick saw the old grain silos, he had a rock-climbing epiphany. "Immediately," says Schmick, "I thought they'd be perfect. I could envision the whole thing right down to the carpeting, and the vision was beautiful. Of course, this was before I looked inside."
His discovery took place in January 1995, when Chris, then 26, and his wife, Pam, 28, were seeking to relocate their tiny indoor rock-climbing gym from a converted racquetball court in Peru, Ill., to a larger structure somewhere near the fast-growing college town of Bloomington. The Schmicks had searched without success for nearly a year, and they were on the verge of giving up when Chris drove through a semi-industrial district of Bloomington and passed the 14 towering cement silos, the former home of the Funk Brothers Seed Company. His mind reeled. Here was a spot, he realized, that had the potential to become the world's most dazzling indoor climbing center.
The silos, Chris learned, had been unused for about 15 years and were about to be torn down. He resolved to purchase them. The buildings were owned by an excavating company, and after Chris inquired about buying them, he and Pam were allowed inside the silos. "I walked in and I took one sniff," recalls Chris, "and just shook my head and said, 'Oh, no.' "
"You can't imagine how bad it smelled," says Pam, rolling her eyes. "Like a clogged sewer; like week-old baby diapers. No—worse than either of those."
It turned out that the silos were abandoned but by no means empty. Inside were thousands of pounds of rotten soybeans caked to the walls, mixed with dead rats and pigeons, covering tons of rusted machinery, and turned to goulash in standing water on the floors. "Nasty," says Chris, "is an understatement."
Still, he could not abandon his vision. It was stronger than fetid beans or decaying pigeons. So the Schmicks pinched their noses, arranged financing of the deed with the excavating company and took out a loan to fix up the place. (A dozen banks rejected the Schmicks before one finally agreed to finance the project.) Then Pam and Chris conscripted 20 of their climbing-bum friends as a cleanup crew, promising no payment except nightly pizzas and free climbing when the silos were finished. The Schmicks also bought high-pressure water hoses and rented a hydraulic platform lift and an industrial-sized dumpster.
Chris, a trained boilermaker who became addicted to climbing while serving in the Army, hung from ropes and welded steel beams to build an overhanging ledge that would create climbing routes of world-class difficulty. Pam, who had planned on pursuing a veterinary career until the day Chris brought his cocker spaniel into her dog-grooming shop, attacked the beans with the hoses. Aided by their friends, the Schmicks worked 14 hours or more every day for six months, throwing down a Salvation Army mattress to sleep there each night. They removed 12 tons of rusty steel, six tons of rotten beans and all manner of bean-processing equipment and machinery. Then they installed more than 3,000 artificial climbing holds, bolting the rocklike objects into the cement walls. And on Sept. 2, 1995, the Upper Limits rock-climbing gym opened for business.
From the outside the place still looks like a cluster of worn silos, gray and somber, rising high above the flat Illinois prairie. The lot around the silos is weed-strewn and gravelly; the railroad tracks running through the back of the property haven't seen a locomotive in at least a generation. Only a new entrance sign emblazoned with the Upper Limits mountain-shaped logo signals that anything has changed. But inside is an artificial Alps. Ropes dangle from the ceilings; harness-clad climbers scramble up the walls, grabbing for holds, their grunts echoing through the silos. The partners belaying each of them stand on the floor, playing out the rope and exhorting the climbers on. (Lifeguards patrol to ensure safe climbing and "sentence" unsafe climbers and belayers to a $10 safety course.) In one silo Pam demonstrates leg balance for a group lesson in beginners' climbing technique, dancing along the wall with the agility and effortlessness of a spider. In another, Chris works out intricate moves on an expert route, teeth gritted, his arms—biceps like baseballs—trembling from the effort.
The floors are carpeted and the lighting is soft. Rock music plays through wall speakers. A rental shop offers beginning climbers all the gear they need to learn the sport. Not a bean or a pigeon feather can be seen or sniffed.
Doors have been cut into the eight-inch-thick silo walls so climbers can wander from the vast entrance chamber—a former bean-truck dumping station that's now equipped with a cushion-floored bouldering cave and the tsunamilike overhang—into the four silos that have been readied for use so far. In these cylindrical towers there are more than 60 climbing routes, with evocative names such as Dark Side of the Moon and Wyatt's Burp. The silos are 65 feet high, more than twice the height of most indoor climbing gyms.