By Amy Geiszler-Jones - Photography by Aaron Patton
Editor’s Note: CEO Spotlight is a recurring monthly feature on CEOs, presidents and business owners in the Wichita area.
The climbing routes at Bliss Bouldering & Climbing Complex change up every couple of days, offering new challenges to the complete novices and the experienced climbers, the preteens to the active boomers, who decide to tackle the walls. It’s kind of like life in that way.
It was one of life’s toughest challenges – the loss of a loved one – that led to David Kortje and his family opening the gym in northeast Wichita two years ago.
It was the best way the family could think of to honor Caleb, one of the Kortje’s sons who had fueled the family’s passion for climbing and was an “all in” kind of person – the kid who didn’t go to recess if he struggled with schoolwork, who achieved the 4.0, who earned Eagle Scout status, but who in 2012 couldn’t overcome his most significant challenge of dealing with depression.
The Kortjes used Caleb’s college fund as seed money to start Bliss. The gym’s name comes from one of Caleb’s favorite sayings – follow your bliss, which he’d always intended to have tattooed on his body. Just days after Caleb’s death, Kortje had it tattooed across his own chest.
A sense of adventure
“Our family has an adventuresome approach to life,” said Kortje, as he recalled how he and his wife, Sandra, who share a love of the outdoors would take their three kids on family vacations centered around skiing, biking, hiking and climbing. When Kortje, a Nebraska native, finished his family medicine residency at what is now Via Christi Hospital St. Joseph in 1992, the couple had planned to move to Colorado to be closer to such activities. But instead, Kortje opened a practice in Wichita. He spends about 35 hours a week now at his practice at South Wichita Family MedCenter, and another 35 running Bliss.
When Caleb was a freshman in high school, a friend invited him to climb at a local YMCA. After that, he couldn’t stay off the walls. When Caleb’s coach, who was training him to do rock climbing competitions, moved away, Caleb turned to Kortje to join him in training and competition.
“I bought like six books on coaching, training and climbing,” said Kortje, pointing to the books that still sit on a bookshelf in his Bliss office. “It was a lot of fun, and we really started to appreciate one another. If I didn’t try hard enough, he didn’t pull punches with me.”
They traveled to several gyms around the country in their shared passion, often wishing they could find something similar in Wichita.
Before he died, Caleb posted the music video of Linkin Park’s “Leave Out All The Rest,” where the narrator asks that those left behind to “Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed.” Kortje said he made a commitment at Caleb’s funeral to do that.
Bouldering and climbing has been peaking as a recreation activity in the U.S. in the past 10 years or so, said Kortje.
It was by design that the Kortjes built the area’s only full-service climbing gym.
“We wanted a gym that was a legacy to Caleb and to be successful we had to be big enough.” It had to be all in, just like Caleb.
Bliss caters to both bouldering, which is a pretty athletic form of climbing without the use of ropes, and climbing, which is usually done with ropes to protect and help the climbers as they scale massive edifices. At Bliss, the top rope and lead climbing walls tower 40 feet in the air – four stories high. The bouldering area is 15 feet tall.
Bliss also includes other training amenities, like cardio equipment and total body workouts with bootcamps. It also has both youth and adult programs and it fields competitive climbing teams, as well.
It was by providence that the Kortjes have the team to run the facility. Kortje and his wife are the co-owners. Daughter Alisha has a master’s in exercise science and is Bliss’ program director, while son Josiah, who is working on a marketing degree, is the gym’s marketing director.
One of Caleb’s attributes was to offer encouragement and to revel in another person’s success on the wall, not just his own. That’s why the gym staff love having people of all ages, abilities and sizes check out its facility.
“It really is available to almost anyone, from those who weigh 30 pounds to 300 pounds, from 4 to 80-year-olds,” Kortje said. “It’s not just for stud climbers.”
It’s not unusual to see gym visitors of various ages and mixed levels of abilities having a go at the walls.
More than 12,000 visitors have been through Bliss, which opened in November 2015. Experienced climbers love the gym because new routes, created by changing the positions of the hand holds, are set three times a week. Bliss has four route setters on staff who can set more than 100 different routes on the wall.
While climbing is a physical challenge, it’s a mental one, as well. You have to be prepared for failure, said Kortje, who has authored two men’s self-help and improvement books. The walls can be metaphor for life, challenging you to figure out which path to take and to keep trying until you get to the top.
“And when you hit that last hold and are on the top … you feel like you can do anything,” Kortje said.
Bliss Bouldering and Climbing Complex, 11114 E. 28th St. N., is open 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and noon-6 p.m. Sundays. Pricing ranges from $16 day passes to longer term packages.