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Cornell alum launches climbing gym in Ithaca

While pursuing a degree at the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University, long-time climber Keith Liao, MBA ’19, spent much of his free time at the Lindseth Climbing Center on campus. After graduating, Liao 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 student, Liao was unable to resume climbing at Lindseth and the next nearest climbing gym was an hour’s drive away.

Keith Liao, MBA '19 and Beth Rosenliao '22 stand next to a newly constructed bouldering wall at Cayuga Climbs.

Seeing an opportunity to fulfill his climbing needs and that of the local community, Liao decided to establish his own climbing gym. Cayuga Climbs is scheduled to open later this month at 53 Hall Road in Ithaca, New York. The first climbing gym in Tompkins County, Cayuga Climbs will feature 15-foot walls and 2,000 square feet of routes for bouldering—the practice of climbing without a rope. Each climbing area will feature safety mats and 14 inches of foam to protect climbers. 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.

The reception Cayuga Climbs has received from locals has been overwhelmingly positive, and that is important to Liao who is trying to establish not only a climbing gym, but a community.

“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—a sport that has long been dominated by men.

Liao is also committed to making his climbing gym welcoming to beginners with the intention of growing the climbing community in the region.

“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,” said Liao.

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. There are also plans in the works for a climbing camp for kids this summer.

Cayuga Climbs recently joined Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, a community business incubator located in downtown Ithaca and affiliated with Cornell. According to Liao, Cornell’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, in particular the relationships he has maintained over time with Cornell faculty and mentors, including Tom Schryver, executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) at Cornell and Susan Fleming, entrepreneur in residence at CREA and Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, has been important in his entrepreneurial journey.

"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.  

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