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For the Grotto's more recent members and guests, climbing today looks a lot different than it did many years ago. Today, smartphones provide regular documentation of our gnarly sends, and the wonders of modern streaming services provide an eclectic sonic backdrop on any given evening (and trust us...some odd songs have been played). But The Guelph Grotto has been around since before the flip phone was invented (for those interested, this was the Motorola StarTAC, released on January 3, 1996).

The Grotto began its journey in November of 1994, and so we have more history than most gyms. As we open our newly expanded facility, we thought this the perfect time to take a trip down memory lane, and explore all that the Grotto has been over years past.

The Building & the 20th Century

Back in the early 1900s, our facility (left) served as a farm equipment and engine manufacturer, later switching to furnace and refrigeration. The engines produced were for Gilson, a Guelph-based company.

The iconic shape of the building (an inverted triangle) served as a natural funnel for rising smoke. In our current gym, looking from the back towards the desk you can see the windows that used to open to release built-up smoke!

The Late-20th Century

Dave's (the owner) passion for climbing came from his frequent visits to Toronto's Joe Rockheads (1989) with his friends. When first invited to the climbing gym in the late-'80s as a post-work activity, Dave was hesitant, as he couldn't imagine getting much joy from climbing.

"I really thought it would be stupid to climb up a wall. It was peer pressure...It was just one of those stupid male things I guess" (Mercury, 1994).

Soon after his first couple of sessions, he was hooked. Visiting Joe Rockheads multiple times per week, Dave needed a place a little closer to home for rock climbing.

Having always wanted to own his own business - either a fitness facility or a restaurant - Dave loosely planned a climbing gym with his friend Pat. While getting Tim Hortons one day in late 1993, they saw the building space we've come to love all these year's later. Dave and Pat knew the building (above, right) was a perfect fit for their vision.

At the time, none of our current plaza friends existed, aside from Some Place Safe. The Grotto was one of the first businesses in the plaza.

Dave, his late father Narci, Pat, and their friends spent countless hours building the climbing gym in an empty warehouse. When talking about the climbing walls, Dave said "these walls were never meant to come down" giving you a sense of just what went into tearing down, and then building back up, the facility for this new expansion.

Opening with various climbing walls throughout the space, the Grotto was officially born in November of 1994. As one of Ontario's first climbing gyms, the Grotto had the chance to build an ideal climbing community.

Throughout The First Decade

Through its first decade of operation, the Grotto was a classic '90s gym. Since climbing had yet to become an established sport, the atmosphere was a lot different. Climbing walls were often plain wood with mismatched holds, rules weren't as strict (left), and the community was full of climbing gym rats.

*In no way do we ever encourage or tolerate the actions of the photo to the left.*

The Grotto was enough of a success that Dave dedicated his career to the Grotto, ultimately opening up the portable wall program in 1998. This program was aimed at making climbing more accessible to communities outside of Guelph, that may not have access to climbing gyms. The portable wall has traveled as far as Lion's Head to bring climbing to rural towns.

Climbing gyms in the ‘90s had a very specific demographic - young, frugal, free-spirited people. At the time, they were the innovators of rock climbing. Since becoming mainstream, climbing gyms are much more professional (yet still free-spirited) and diverse with climbers. Nowadays, gyms are more involved in both the community and the competitive world.

In 2004, around the time of the Grotto's 10th anniversary, Dave decided it was time to renovate the Grotto to what we have all known. Bringing in modern walls (at least, modern for that time), the layout and design of the gym changed drastically. It included the iconic top-out, or the "bird's nest," and the 50' ceiling climb that we will miss in our new facility.

If you look at photos from over the years, you may not see much of a difference aside from a few coats of paint and some stairs. A lot of the Grotto's changes were internal - from event hosting, to community outreach. Our music changed from the radio to Spotify, community events are now posted on Facebook and Instagram, and we've expanded more of our programs to the outdoors.

Our Dedication to the Industry

The Grotto has a lot of industry firsts for the Canadian and Ontarian climbing community, and we are dedicated to continuing this trend as climbing changes. Some of our iconic industry firsts include:

  1. Implementing e-waivers (saving thousands of pieces of paper)

  2. Offering an aerial silks programs

  3. Featuring a fully-padded gym

Our goal is to continue improving the Grotto and its climbing community in the coming years, and to create a community gym like no other! We have recently put in countless hours to design and implement policies to ensure the Grotto remains (and improves as) an inclusive and accommodating gym for the Guelph community. While the history of the sport of climbing may have its imperfections, the Grotto can be a positive force for the future - and that is what we're dedicated to being!

A Lost Piece of Our History

One person that every member of the Grotto knew and loved was Narciso (Narci). Narci [Nar-Chee] was a huge contributor to the Grotto's history. From the day that the Grotto first leased the space until his passing, Narci was at the gym whenever possible.

Narci was Dave's father, who immigrated to Canada in the '50s. Not knowing much English, he spent most of his time working in a hands-on career. Upon retiring, he decided to spend more time with his family - and the Grotto was part of that family. As a hands-on person, he frequented the Grotto not to climb, but to help out with cleaning and fixing. He always left the Grotto in better shape than when he came in.

Upon his passing in 2012, the news impacted many members of the community who knew him. A lot of members attended the visitation to pay their final respects to their good friend. Narci was more than a family man, he was an integral part of the Grotto. His popularity can be proven by the famous "The Grind" shirt from the late 2000s, which featured Narci and became one of our best-selling shirts of all time.

Narci would spend countless days at the Grotto with his son Dave and the two of them would build, clean, or just hang out with the members. Without hesitation, Narci would visit the Grotto to help out where he could, even if it meant Dave had to occasionally come back afterward to fix his mistakes. If Narci was here during the expansion, we expect he’d be yelling at (motivating) the Walltopia staff telling them what to do (we're not kidding!).

You may recall this sign from outside of our gym, created by Narci!

The Roaring '20s

The Grotto first announced its expansion in June of 2021... but rumors were spreading well before that. To be honest...we started those rumors. We're such gossips!

Now in our sixth month of 2022, the Grotto's expansion is complete. Now our story of the Grotto's history becomes its present! We can't wait to welcome everyone back, and for our community in Guelph to help us write our next chapters.

Post-Expansion Goals

The Grotto's expansion is here, but that does not mean we won't keep changing! We want to maintain the welcoming community presence that the Grotto was initially conceived with. Anyone can climb, so everyone is welcome. We have a vision of fostering a climbing community where everyone is welcome, regardless of experience or ability. The Grotto is a safe community space where diverse individuals gather for the common benefits climbing has to offer. There are many more items on our wishlist for the new gym, but we want to move one step at a time. We’re looking forward to great things in 2022 and the every year after that.


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