Zak Wood
The Spot’s Welcome Back Bash goes down on Monday.

If you go

What: Welcome Back Bash

When: 5 to 9 p.m. Monday

Where: The Spot, 3240 Prairie Ave., Boulder

Cost: $7 for climbing, burgers and Avery beer

More info: facebook.com/spot.gym

When Dan Howley moved to Boulder from New York after finishing college 16 or 17 years ago, his bouldering gym, The Spot, wasn’t even a speck of chalk dust in his twinkling eye. He wasn’t a climber then.

“Within the first month of moving out here, a guy I was living with had a (climbing) rack on his couch,” Howley said. He knew what it was — he had a relative back home who’d climbed in the Gunks. “I said, ‘you’ve got to take me out!'”

Howley’s been a climber ever since.

Whether you’re new to climbing or have been at it for years, you’re invited to The Spot’s annual Welcome Back Bash, this evening from 5 to 9 p.m. Though the event’s name implies that it’s for students (and Howley estimated that about 70 percent of Spot members are), it’s for everyone. One of his goals when he opened The Spot in 2002 was to make it fun and friendly for all.

“We’ve been able to introduce climbing to a lot of people,” he said. “Bouldering is very, very social. People of all abilities can gather together and work in the same environment, the same wall.”

“We wanted it to be a community center in a lot of ways, a place that people call home.”

That very sentiment is what I’ve experienced at The Spot. I meet new people or finally banter with a climber I’ve seen around but have never talked to. Then we all cheer each other on as we throw ourselves at plastic holds until we fall off — while techno pumps in the background.

(Any time I hear techno now, I have the Pavlovian thought, “It’s like I’m at The Spot!”)

In the ’90s, Howley hung out at a shop called Mountain Sports and, in his words, dished out bad advice to customers. So they hired him and taught him a thing or five. Later, he moved on to Neptune Mountaineering.

“Working in these outdoor specialty shops, I saw the growth in the sport — more crash pads, more chalk pots, more bouldering guidebooks,” he said. “It was just clear to me, the writing on the wall was, the growth in bouldering is substantial, and the industry isn’t keeping up.”

When he started telling people he wanted to open a bouldering gym, some suggested he start small with this dubious enterprise. Others said, “Bouldering only? That’s crazy talk.”

“And these were people who cared about me,” Howley said with a laugh.

“But I kind of drank my own Kool-Aid, and I believed if we built it, they would come.”

At the time, Boulder’s Colorado Athletic Training School (CATS) had climbing, but it was also a gymnastics facility (and still is). The Boulder Rock Club was open then, too, but it had roped climbing and bouldering.

In fact, Howley said, when he and his supporters (like that friend who’d left his rack laying on the couch, Dan Smith) started writing the business plan for The Spot, there weren’t any bouldering-specific gyms in the country. (One opened in Salt Lake City before The Spot opened.)

Now, “our gym is bigger than ever, our member numbers are higher than ever, the popularity of the sport is bigger than it’s ever been.”

That popularity will be on display tonight. Last year’s Welcome Back Bash was a bouldering melee.

The Spot expanded in 2008, 2010 and will expand again, though Howley won’t say how or when.

“Let’s leave that as a teaser,” he says. “We’ll wait and see.”

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