Climbing higher

Note: This story was originally published in the Winter 2016-17 issue of Berry magazine.

Marc Heileman teaching rock climbing in gymIn the climbing business, there’s always another peak on the horizon. Just ask Marc Heileman (93C), whose 26-year journey transformed a hobby into a passion, a passion into a business, and a business into a growing mission to help others experience the exhilaration of scaling new heights. 

“Climbing’s the perfect metaphor for life because it promotes enthusiasm about setting goals and persevering,” he explained. “You don’t have to artificially inflate someone’s self-esteem when they’re climbing. Even making it halfway up a wall is difficult, so people get this real sense of accomplishment when they can reach a goal.” 

Once the ninth-ranked competitive climber in the United States, Heileman today is founder and owner, with wife Gaylene, of Treadstone Climbing Gym in Columbus, Ga. He also serves as an outdoor leadership trainer and designer/builder of climbing walls and gyms, boulder rooms, and ropes-course “outposts” in other states and nations. 

His business is burgeoning: In addition to being a source of recreation and fitness training, the Columbus gym also is a hub of activity for companies, churches, schools and military groups interested in leadership training and team-building exercises. And the Heilemans are in the initial stages of franchising Treadstone as well as scouting locations for other gyms they will operate. 

The adventure begins

Marc Heileman rock climbingClimbing wasn’t always on Heileman’s radar. Growing up in Angleton, Texas, he knew nothing about what was then a niche sport, much less that it would play a central role in his life. Things changed when he enrolled at Berry while on a National Guard assignment in Georgia. A single class on the campus ropes course got him hooked. 

“It’s impossible not to be enthusiastic about climbing,” Heileman said. “It’s a real accomplishment to be at the top of a rock wall and know you did this all yourself. Plus, nothing in climbing is standardized; it’s different every time you do it. So you can enjoy the process of getting stronger and accomplishing your goals without locking yourself in a basement somewhere and lifting weights. Climbing takes you beautiful places you couldn’t go otherwise.” 

Heileman channeled this excitement into his first post-graduation job, helping run climbing activities for the WinShape Wilderness program on Berry’s mountain campus, in addition to building his own skills scaling such lofty peaks as California’s 14,505-foot Mount Whitney, Africa’s 17,057-foot Mount Kenya, and more recently, the 3,000-foot vertical wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan, a favorite of experienced climbers. 

His upward trajectory took a serious turn in 1998 when an accident on Mount Whitney claimed the life of good friend and climbing buddy Jeff Wingo (93C). Although Heileman wasn’t present when the accident occurred, it affected him tremendously, causing him to reflect more deeply and channel his athletic passion into service. 

“Jeff’s climbing career was very closely intertwined with mine, so when we lost him, I dedicated myself to preserving his memory with my own work,” Heileman said, pointing out that the boots Wingo wore during the accident now hang in the Treadstone gym as a reminder of this commitment. 

Risk and reward

Heileman’s entrepreneurial spark ignited late in the 1990s when he was working as activities manager at an Atlanta church gym. Asked to expand the activities offered, he responded with: “Why not start a climbing program?” “How?” would have been an appropriate next question. The sport was still so unknown that very few contractors had the knowledge to build what was needed. So he did it himself, drawing on his own knowledge and experience to build a rock-climbing wall, bouldering room and ropes course that in 2003 became one of the first church-based climbing programs in the United States. 

About the same time, Heileman authored an article on the value of rock climbing for personal fitness that was featured on the cover of an industrywide fitness management magazine. The article encouraged gym operators to bring rock climbing into their facilities, and demand surged. 

“I don’t know how important I was to that sudden popularity,” he said. “But I was finding my niche in spreading the word about climbing. It felt good to help popularize the sport in ways it hadn’t been before.”

Encouraged by growing demand, Heileman launched his company, originally called Cliff Dweller Rock Walls. It was a risky proposition considering the industry’s infancy, and he had to craft a business plan from the ground up. Soon, however, he was building rock-climbing facilities as far away as Kenya. 

“It took a lot of hustle in those early days to convince people rock climbing was viable,” he recalled. “But I just took every chance I got to build climbing walls. I couldn’t walk into an empty building without visualizing one. I even walked away from a salaried job to do what I was passionate about.” 

In 2012, Heileman and his wife opened Treadstone, and the couple has been reaching for new heights ever since. In addition to planning for new facilities, he hopes to spend more time on his own climbing career and is looking for ways to expand his role as a consultant: He currently does significant work as a leadership-training consultant for Chick-fil-A operators, a role that brings him full-circle to his first climbing job for WinShape, an organization created by Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy and his wife, Jeannette. 

But Heileman’s first priority always is to spread the joy that climbing has given him. 

“At Treadstone, we’ve got a Christ-centered mission to help people written into the business plan,” he said. “But we also want to give people the confidence that comes from achieving a goal. Sharing that sense of capability through Treadstone has been a great experience. I’m more excited about climbing now than the day I started.”

Editor’s note: Maxine Donnelly (16C) wrote this feature while serving as a student writer for Berry magazine.