Cayuga Climbs is one of the latest companies to join the Rev: Ithaca Startup Works community. The climbing gym—the first of its kind open to the general public in Tompkins County—is scheduled to open its doors on May 15 at 53 Hall Road in Ithaca, New York, featuring 15-foot walls and 2,000 square feet of routes for bouldering, the practice of climbing without a rope. Cayuga Climbs is conveniently located in a cluster of other sports and fitness businesses, including Ultimate Cheer and Tumble and the HitZ Baseball.
Keith Liao, founder of Cayuga Climbs, is a long-time climber who spent much of his free time at Cornell University’s Lindseth Climbing Center while pursuing his MBA at the SC Johnson College of Business. Following his graduation in 2019, Liao briefly relocated to Denver, Colorado—a city where climbing gyms abound—for a position with Booz Allen; however, upon returning to Ithaca in 2020 to work remotely, he found that his options to engage in one of his favorite pastimes were limited. No longer a Cornell student, Liao was unable to resume climbing at Lindseth and the next nearest climbing gym was an hour’s drive away.
Like a true entrepreneur, Liao saw an opportunity—he decided to establish his own climbing gym and grow the climbing community in the Ithaca area.
“I want to build a strong community, particularly between Ithaca-area locals and students. When I was a student at Cornell, I definitely sensed a disconnect between the students and the rest of the community, and there was a lot of tension around that,” said Liao.
“Building a gym where everyone has access and are able to interact during a shared activity is priceless. With bouldering, you climb up on your own, and then while you’re sitting and resting at the bottom, you end up chatting with people—I have met a lot of my own friends that way.”
Creating a welcoming climbing environment for everyone is important to Liao and it shows in the details. The logo for Cayuga Climbs—designed by his wife, Beth Rosenliao (née Fleming) ’22, a student at the Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine—features the silhouette of a woman bouldering—significant for a sport that has long been dominated by men.
Liao is also committed to making his climbing gym a welcoming place for beginners, citing his own early and less than desirable climbing experiences:
“The first time I stepped foot in a climbing gym, it smelled like feet, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do, so I just left.”
To entice bouldering beginners, Cayuga Climbs plans to provide affordable beginner passes that include rentals and personalized training, so patrons can feel comfortable and confident before bouldering. Each climbing area will feature safety mats and 14 inches of foam to protect climbers when they land. The space will also include a fitness area and table tennis for patrons to use between climbing, and a retail space where climbing shoes and other essential gear can be rented or purchased. Additionally, there are also plans to launch a climbing camp for kids this summer.
The reception Cayuga Climbs has received from locals has been overwhelmingly positive and Liao expressed gratitude for the support he has received within the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, including guidance from Cornell faculty and mentors, such as Tom Schryver, executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) at Cornell and Susan Fleming, entrepreneur in residence at both CREA and Rev.
“Being able to learn from other entrepreneurs and receive guidance from accomplished faculty and mentors has been instrumental in providing me with the drive and confidence to embark on this venture. It’s nice to know that I have a network of very experienced entrepreneurs and professionals to bounce ideas off or to ask for advice,” said Liao.
The grand opening of Cayuga Climbs is tentatively scheduled for May 15 with starting hours of operation being 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Individuals interested in staying up to date on Cayuga Climbs’ opening, pre-opening tours, and early membership sales are encouraged to visit www.cayugaclimbs.com or follow Cayuga Climbs on Facebook for updates.