Not Your Average Climb 19

Kristan Joice, Entrepreneur and 
Owner, ClimbZone White Marsh

The preferred direction for a career move is up. Kristan Joice took that to heart, stepping 28 feet straight off the ground for her recent return to full-time work outside the home.    

Just before Thanksgiving, Kristan, an Anneslie mother of two, opened ClimbZone White Marsh, the nation’s second ClimbZone—the original is in Laurel, Maryland—and the first franchise to open for the New Zealand-based company. A steep departure from traditional rock climbing gyms, ClimbZone doesn’t have brown or beige walls, amoeba-shaped hand and foot holds or spotters holding ropes. 

At ClimbZone White Marsh, climbers ages 2 to 82—Kristan’s 78-year-old mom can do it—climb 83 colorful, detailed “art walls” while strapped into an auto-belaying apparatus that works on a hydraulic system. 

“When you let go and push away from the wall, the hydraulic system lowers you at a constant rate to the ground, whether you are 40 pounds or 270 pounds,” Kristan explains. “Anyone can climb, no prior experience necessary. We give you a harness, teach you how to clip in and out, go over safety rules, and you’re off and climbing as high as you want to go.”

Test your mettle on the armor of a giant knight or scale Honest Abe on his perch in the Lincoln Memorial. Climb a wall of glistening donuts and do your best “King Kong” when you reach the top of the Empire State Building. From the Chesapeake Bay-themed wall to the light-up fruit in Carmen Miranda’s hat, each custom wall is made by the company’s Rosedale production facility and in-house art department. And every wall is available to any climber during the three-hour sessions.

“Most walls are designed for anyone to get at least 8 feet off the ground, but they’re so detailed that you want to see what’s coming next, what will light up when you touch it,” Kristan says. “The next thing you know, you’re at the top.”

Like her climbing center, Kristan’s journey to her new career was unexpected. A culinary school-trained chef who has worked in catering, Kristan had no prior experience climbing or owning a business. She’s spent the past decade at home with son Roland, now 14, and daughter Annabel, 12. Before motherhood, she worked for an international sales and manufacturing company. 

It turns out it was her role as a mother that uncovered the entrepreneur in her. Like most parents standing on the sidelines of their children’s sporting events, she made small talk with the other parents of the players on her son’s 2013 Towson Spartans recreation league football team, which was co-coached by her husband, Joe. Conversations led to a friendship with Tiemi and Liesl Kenrick, builders and designers of the country’s first ClimbZone.  

The Kenricks, who had moved from New Zealand to build a family recreational center on the East Coast, asked for Kristan’s help with staffing at the Laurel location. “It gave me something to do and get my skills together,” says Kristan of her part-time job. Before long, she was hooked. And so was the public. 

“By the end of the first year, tens of thousands of people had come through the door, and we were beating all the numbers in New Zealand,” Kristan, who had become a ClimbZone instructor, then manager, says.

When the company was considering franchising, she half-joked that she should open a Baltimore-area franchise. 

It took about four months from saying the words to signing the papers, with lots of conversations in between with her husband.

“It was a big leap, but to have something that is my own is so exciting,” she says. “I’m good at building a team, and I know the area. It’s been interesting learning what I didn’t know and finding out that I can do it.”

The biggest challenge was finding a space expansive enough to house the climbing walls, bouncy structures, gaga ball pit, party rooms and more. She and her partners stumbled on a sweet location: 30,000 square feet in Ruxton Chocolates’ new headquarters and home to Mary Sue Easter Eggs. (Yes, the smell of chocolate often wafts through Climbzone White Marsh.) 

Amenities include light refreshments for sale, a policy that allows outside food and drink (but no alcohol), a child-only play area, party rooms and more, but no Wi-Fi. 

“When you offer Wi-Fi for guests, people sit at the tables and scroll through their phones. We want people to put on a harness and climb. It’s not about holding on, it’s about letting go,” she says, citing the ClimbZone tagline, words that have inspired her own climb.