GadRock takes Gadsden to new heights

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GadRock co-owners Carrie Machen and Kate Wilson ascend one of their climbing walls at 1403 Rainbow Drive. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

If guests stand on the dock behind one of Gadsden’s most unique gems and let their eyes drift across the horizon, they will catch a glimpse of Horse Pens 40. 

A nature park atop Chandler Mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians, Horse Pens 40 generates worldwide attention every year for rock climbing, just 30 minutes from a gym that shares its same passion. While Horse Pens 40 invites visitors to experience the best of outdoor rock climbing, GadRock establishes a community in the heart of the city. 

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, GadRock owner Carrie Machen traded The Natural State for Sweet Home Alabama, moving to Gadsden as a first-grader and attending Eura Brown Elementary School. After graduating from Gadsden High School, Machen furthered her education at Auburn University where she pursued a degree in political science and economics. A brief return to The City of Champions yielded to years of adventure and travel with Machen’s husband, whose military career took them all across the nation as they lived in states such as North Carolina, Maryland, California and Alaska.

Though Machen always possessed an avid appreciation for nature and fitness, Young Life Camp Windy Gap, just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, first welcomed her to the immersive world of artificial rock climbing. While Machen was no stranger to recreational outdoor rock climbing, her introduction to indoor climbing walls sparked her interest further, with her family joining rock climbing gyms in their respective neighborhoods and discovering climbing communities in various towns. Machen’s two children – now ages 15 and 16 – inherited their parents’ passions, both climbing competitively and enjoying the sport together as a family.

When Machen’s husband retired and her family settled once again in Gadsden, Machen’s position at Back Forty Beer Company forged a friendship with a woman who would prove instrumental in GadRock’s inception – Kate Wilson. With Machen overseeing procurement and Wilson operating the accounting side of the business, the pair worked closely alongside one another for several years. 

A simple conversation between two friends served as the catalyst for Gadsden’s first “microgym,” coined as an ode to the duo’s Back Forty days. While the idea for an indoor rock climbing center brewed in Machen’s mind, when she shared with Wilson that her son (an enthusiastic climber) had nowhere to train, Wilson’s solution demonstrated just how alike great minds think. 

“Let’s open a gym,” she said.

Machen attested to the determined attitude and passion required to launch a venture like GadRock. As the daughter of entrepreneurs, Machen worked for her family’s business in high school, filling out paperwork and witnessing the sacrifices her parents made to own and operate a business. Machen channeled that sense of commitment and unwavering nature into GadRock, beginning with its location.

Though Machen and Wilson meandered through downtown Gadsden, envisioning the gym neighboring Broad Street, considering the height needed for climbing walls, no existing buildings would suffice. Then, Machen stumbled upon a lot with a dock overlooking Lake Gadsden, nestled in the Lakeview Professional Center at 1403 Rainbow Drive. Since no built space met their needs, Machen and Wilson would create one of their own. 

“The hardest part is just starting,” said Machen. “There’s going to be road block after road block and struggle after struggle, but you just have to determine that you’re going to do this, and don’t quit. If you don’t quit, you can make it to the finish line. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have some mistakes along the way, but you learn from them and keep going.”

“I wouldn’t be afraid to start something on my own anymore, but I feel very thankful that Kate came in, saw mine and my family’s passion for rock climbing and wanted to be a part of it. When I wanted to quit, she was gung-ho, and when she wanted to quit, I was gung-ho. We balanced each other out and we got to the finish line.”

“When we moved to Gadsden 10 years ago, I knew that I wanted to be involved in a business that would utilize our beautiful natural landscape,” said Wilson. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about rock climbing – but I have always loved being outside and fitness, so when Carrie and I started talking about going into business together and how a rock climbing gym was a dream for her, I knew this was what God wanted me to be a part of.” 

Collaborations between Chase Building Group, CDP Design, LLC and Massachusetts-based design company Rockwerx, Inc. transformed GadRock from an idea to a reality, bringing 4,500 square feet of climbing space to life. One of the gym’s feature walls ascends 40 feet high, with courses varying in difficulty as the artificial sets mirror outdoor rock formations. 

Machen’s and Wilson’s cordial character parallels the warmth GadRock’s staff radiates, welcoming guests to experience the sport in an accessible and fun manner. An orientation for beginners features a tour of the facility, with classes demonstrating the proper way to climb, rope skills and how to belay. Cheerful and helpful professionals appease any intimidation that might arise from newcomers, reinforcing the encouraging and relaxed environment GadRock facilitates. When the weather permits, massive garage-style doors lift to display unobstructed, breathtaking views of the shimmering lake. 

GadRock caters to visitors of all skill levels and climbing preferences, from lead climbing to bouldering to belaying. Lead climbers tie rope at the bottom of their route and as they climb, clip in at certain points to catch them when they fall. Belaying refers to the system that stops a climber’s fall, including rope, anchors, a belay device and a climbing partner or belayer. GadRock features automatic belays, as well, with children as young as two years old exploring different routes.

Top roping, a common form of indoor climbing, incorporates rope anchored from above and belayed from the ground below. While lead climbing and top roping both use harnesses and rope, bouldering uses neither. Instead, as climbers solve “problems,” and map solutions to their goals, rarely ascending above 20 feet, they place crash pads underneath them for protection, should they fall.

But GadRock offers more than just climbing alone. The multipurpose microgym features a large room designated for group fitness classes, birthday parties and personal training, with members free to use any of the equipment available. Its location on Lake Gadsden yields to an assortment of water-related activities, providing paddle boarding as another option for visitors to enjoy. 

“Paddling is really peaceful and restorative,” said Machen. “I think people really fall in love with paddle boarding. I get all of my great ideas when I’m paddling out on the water. I go out alone a lot, to sit out there, think and dream.”

Paddle boarders can select from five different classes: SUP Intro Tour, SUP Eco Tour, SUP Fitness Tour, SUP Yoga Tour or a SUP & SIP Tour. The Intro tour guides beginners in the basics of paddle boarding, while the Eco tour discovers neighboring wildlife and the lake’s history. The Yoga tour proves a relaxing and serene retreat on the water, as the Fitness tour raises participants’ heart rates for a solid and efficient workout. The SUP & SIP tour mimics the Eco tour in its fascinating exploration of tributary creeks at sunset, concluding with a complimentary beverage on GadRock’s dock. 

“Our number one mission is to keep fitness and training fun,” said Machen. “We want to encourage people to get outside and try those adventurous activities. [With climbing and paddle boarding] yes, you’re getting a workout and yes, you’re going to lose weight if you keep doing this, but it’s fun. We’re not a substitute for a gym, but we’re a fun alternative. You can leave here having felt like you’ve had a fun day, but you really worked your physical body very hard. You’re using your brain and solving problems along the wall while exercising.”

Machen shared that although climbing is a fun form of exercise, its benefits are paramount, especially concerning mental health. Unlike a typical gym where athletes might train with ear buds or seek a workout separate from others, climbing creates a community of collaborative individuals seeking to support and uplift one another. The constant challenges that arise while pursuing different routes inspire participants to further themselves to accomplish their objectives, with the comforting knowledge that positive reinforcement, advice and motivation are one cheer or round of applause away. 

“Climbing is such a needed thing for people, because basically climbing is failure after failure,” said Machen. “That’s how we learn. Most of the time, you’re not going to be able to walk up to a route and get it the first time. Especially the boulder area without the ropes, those are called boulder problems — it takes some time to figure out the puzzle. It’s wonderful for mental health.”

“One of the things I love most about GadRock is listening to young adults and children cheering for and encouraging each other, while trying to reach that next hold to make it to the top,” said Wilson. “It really just makes my heart happy!”

Machen shared that her personal motivation for GadRock resided in developing a different space in the Gadsden area to create a community to which her children desired to return. She felt that while there are several opportunities in Gadsden, especially for climbing — with Noccalula Falls and Horse Pens 40 just a short drive away — inaccessibility and the lack of knowledge hinder people from participating. 

“To go outdoor climbing, you have to know people,” said Machen. “They have all the equipment and know the safety [methods]. You find them, they mentor you and you get outside. When you have a gym in an area, you’re creating a community where that makes those types of activities accessible.”

Machen hopes that GadRock will serve as a catalyst — a spark for citizens to recognize the value that resides in their backyards, and the natural beauty of their county. Machen’s and Wilson’s transformative mission introduces climbing and paddle boarding as more than methods of exercise, but activities that ignite personal growth and nurture the betterment of the community as a whole. Through educating visitors and ensuring that guests understand the worth of Etowah County’s natural resources, GadRock’s purpose proves two-fold, enlivening a community to recognize its home as a treasure and preserve it for future generations. 

“There has to be a little bit of use for people to appreciate what needs to be protected,” said Machen. “I believe if we can get people out on the water and out on the rocks, they’re going to fall in love with the sport, they’re going to fall in love with nature, and those are the people who are going to be adamant about protecting those environments.”

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