Zion Climbing Center looks to give back to community

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published November 18, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 16, 2012 at 10:23 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Kim Smith works her way up a climbing wall at the Zion Climbing Center while Heather Jones belays her. The center offers several 17-foot top-rope climbing walls and two bouldering rooms.

— After sundown during the week, downtown Searcy isn’t exactly buzzing.

But at 118 N. Spruce, the lights stay on until midnight every night, lighting up the painted window sign. The Zion Climbing Center is open for business.

The center, which opened in a different Searcy location eight years ago, has been in the downtown warehouse for five years now. Though it started as a for-profit climbing center, over the past two years, the center has gone nonprofit.

“The primary reason we went nonprofit was to make

everything cheaper for people,” said Sean Hudkins, center co-founder and now-executive director. “We were able to lower prices, and now memberships have gone up quite a bit.”

When Hudkins was growing up in Springfield, Mo., he would climb at a local gym with his brothers on a half-price night. The experience stuck with him, and when Hudkins, who had attended Harding University, returned to Searcy after graduate school, he and several friends decided to start a climbing center.

The mission of Zion is not only to provide a spot for exercise, but to serve as a sort of ministry for the volunteers who work there.

“We try very specifically to not be an in-your-face, church-and-steeple place,” Hudkins said.

But they do aim for Zion to be a welcoming, safe place built on a Christian faith.

When Katie Kirkpatrick first came to Harding as a freshman from Ozark, Mo., she didn’t find her niche right away.

“I was looking for a community,” said Kirkpatrick, now a senior. After volunteering at the center during a kids’ climb, Kirkpatrick began coming to Zion every day after school just to do her homework.

“We’re such a tight-knit group, and everyone is really supportive,” Kirkpatrick said. “Everyone wants to see you succeed.”

On any given night, students from Harding, neighborhood kids, church youth groups or teen birthday parties can be found learning the ropes in the multi-room climbing space. Tucked away in the back portion of the cavernous warehouse space, Zion features two tall walls of around 20 feet, surrounded by shorter, angled walls and “caves” for bouldering.

“In bouldering there are no ropes, and you’re not climbing as high,” Hudkins said.

The floor at Zion is padded with crash mats and scraps of artificial turf. Although the walls are not as high as many other commercial gyms, the difficult angles throughout the center — some at 45 degrees — offer experienced climbers the chance to increase upper body strength and practice tougher horizontal moves.

Climbers at Zion on average range from ages 14 to 25, with around 100 climbers having full-time memberships. Daily passes are also available for $9 a day. While most of the climbers with passes are Harding students, people from all over the Searcy area come in for daily climbs or parties. The center is staffed by 16 trained volunteers, and Hudkins, who is at the center every night.

The center tries to engage kids from the area as often as possible. In January, the center will re-launch a Wednesday-night program when kids can come and climb for a few hours and get a free meal, Hudkins said.

“The volunteers love getting a chance to engage their hands and head into giving back to the community,” Hudkins said.

The nearest climbing gym to Zion is the Little Rock Climbing Center, over an hour away, Hudkins said. When junior Nicholas Hulett came to Harding from Colorado, he was surprised to hear there was a climbing gym in Searcy. Hulett translates the work he does at Zion into his frequent outdoor climbs and has seen a big payoff.

“Absolutely, I’ve improved,” Hulett said. “I’ve jumped four number grades in the climbs I can do. You get a lot stronger.”

Currently, Zion takes more than $20,000 a year to operate, Hudkins said. While the role of executive director doesn’t pay yet, the center’s board of directors is working to get Hudkins on a salary. For now, the focus is on keeping up the climbing facilities and adding heating and air to the warehouse as soon as possible. Hudkins and his wife purchased the building a little more than a year ago, with plans to build a cafe and music venue in the remaining sections by January.

“Zion is where my heart is,” Hudkins said.

More information on Zion’s rates, hours and mission can be found online at zionclimbingcenter.org or by calling (501) 492-9227.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com

Associate Features Editor Emily Van Zandt can be reached at .

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