From Helsinki to Mexico City: A Long Way to Open a Climbing Gym

Helsinki is 6,125 miles from Mexico City. Yet for Finnish climbers, Ben Koponen and Juha Kurikka, it wasn’t too far to open their dream gym. 

Even if Ben had never been to the country before.

They arrived in Mexico City in the summer of 2017, not really knowing what to expect.


From Roots in Finland

Ben likes emerging climbing communities, apparently. 

He grew up in Finland during the rapid rise of the sport in the early 2000s, learning on the hard granite of Nummi, just outside of Helsinki, at Falkberget, and farther afield. Finland won’t be mistaken for cliff-laden destinations like France or Spain—most of the country tops out under 656′ tall—but that hasn’t stopped locals from seeking out the best of what’s around. Or from becoming some of the top in the world, like Nalle Hukkataival, one of the strongest boulderers today. 

Bouldering exploded onto the scene with the discovery of Vaasa in 2000. The boreal forests which cover roughly 75% of the land, offer enchanting solitude and barely touched bouldering potential. This is the environment that Ben grew up in: The thrill of finding undiscovered places, the dedication to develop something new, and the ruggedness to endure long winters (though I’m told the climbing season makes the wait worth it).

Perhaps there’s something about the eagerness to get outdoors post-hibernation that’s blossomed a strong climbing culture. Ben estimates there’s about 120,000 in the country whose total population is one-quarter the size of Mexico City.

(If you’re interested, you can watch the documentary, “Cold Rock,” to learn more about the history of climbing in Finland).

As climbing gained in popularity, so did the demand for indoor options.

From dust to dyno. Photo courtesy of RockSolid.


The First Time Around

Today, there are eight climbing gyms in Helsinki, or about one for every 8,100 citizens.

Ben ran a gym in 2011 when things were on the upswing. But he and his partner were a bit early.

“It was growing, but not that fast and my partner lost interest. So we decided to close it down,” says Ben. “But I was always telling my friends, ‘Some day I’m going to open another one.’”


What About Mexico?

Juha was looking for a change and proposed the idea: “What about a climbing gym? And what about in Mexico?,” recalls Ben.

“I thought about it for two seconds… Let’s go!,” he says, laughing.

Ben had never been to Mexico before, but Juha had spent 6 months there in 2015, then went on a two week fact finding mission in early 2017.

“We wanted to know: What is there? Is there any potential? Is this just a crazy idea?,” Ben jokes.

Upon Juha’s return to Finland, an unfortunate snowmobiling accident resulted in 3 bed-ridden months with a broken leg. Turns out an exercise in immobility is a good opportunity to hatch a business plan.

They were on the move to Mexico City later that summer, crutches and all.

A ray of light portends what’s to come in an old dusty print house. Photo courtesy of RockSolid.

Sprinting to Stop

“The nice thing about Mexico is if I want to open a book store, I can get it up and running a week later. That’s basically what we did here: I rented the space from a friend, ordered about 1,000 books, built the shelfs, and put up a small sign on the window.” 

That was how it was described to me by El Jefe at Librería La Comezón in Querétaro. I heard other iterations thereof, from opening a pizza shop to starting a crash pad company. You can basically just start, and move things along quickly.

That wasn’t the case with RockSolid.

“We didn’t know anything about the city,” begins Ben. “The first thing we did was to print a whole bedroom wall-sized map. We marked all the schools, the Metro lines, bus lines, etc. to get the idea of what the city was about.”

They started searching uptown around Polanco then moved south. Sometimes they’d show up to a listing found online to find nothing resembling the pictures. Other times the location just didn’t work. Eventually, they uncovered an old printing factory that had gone defunct 6 years earlier. 

Legal work took four months. Wood they had pre-bought for the buildout had been sold to another customer, so they had to wait for new timber to be cut and dried. And then construction took longer than expected.

“Eight months of building and before that, one year of planning and finding a place,” says Ben.

“We opened RockSolid on July 6, 2019,” he declares, beaming.

It was the biggest gym in the country at the time. 

An international crew gathers for a Reel Rock showing. Photo courtesy of RockSolid.


A New Home

“I’m really happy to be a part of the community here in Mexico,” shares Ben, reflecting on the opening of the gym and of his time so far. “I felt home from the moment I came.” 

They’re just in the beginning, not even a year in since opening. But Ben seems pleased with the progress.

“It’s been good. Super long and rough journey, but it was all worth it.” Just like winters in Finland.

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