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Lehighton’s Cathedral Rock Gym won’t reopen

Twenty-five years ago, Doug Jugan was getting frustrated when he was looking for a building to buy to start a rock-climbing gym.

“I was ready to give up,” he said.

Now, after 25 years of operating the Cathedral Rock Gym in Lehighton, the Jim Thorpe resident is giving it up. Since he was mandated to close his nonessential business, Jugan has let go of his staff and decided it would be highly improbable to resume operation under the guideline restrictions imposed by federal and state governments.

Stairway from heaven

After graduating with bachelor degrees in psychology and sociology from Moravian College, Jugan’s journey to his rock-climbing business began on the road not taken. He was a paramedic and a medevac flight nurse for 10 years. Later he was an emergency management coordinator for hospital systems across the Lehigh Valley and northeast Pennsylvania.

“I also worked with FEMA in coordinating disaster and pandemic plans,” said Jugan.

In 1989, he built his own house in Beltzville, where he lived until moving to Jim Thorpe in 1996. A year earlier, he and a business partner looked for an adequate building to start a rock climbing business, although his partner thought something in food services would be more profitable.

“I’ve been climbing walls since 1980 when I was a member of the Grotto Club at Moravian,” said Jugan. It’s been a thrill ever since.”

After their search nearly ended for a business site, the Realtor mentioned an old church that was for sale in Lehighton.

“It was the United Wesleyan Methodist Church and it was still active with about eight members,” he said, “so they consolidated three parishes and built a new church which made this one available. I checked it out and with some work, the building was doable.”

When he called his partner to tell him he was going to build his rock-climbing gym in a 153-year-old church, his partner said, “Are you doing drugs or drinking?”

On April 1, 1995, Jugan began renovation of the 4,000-square-foot church. The pews and religious items were removed. Stained-glass windows were kept. The highest wall measured about 25 feet. Many rock walls stand 40 feet tall.

“I put in different angles and corners which made the climb very challenging,” said Jugan, “and there were two safety features - pop roping, in which a climber “pops” from one hold to another while suspended from a rope, and bouldering, where you step from hold to hold with a safety mat underneath.”

A blessing and a curse

That October, the Cathedral Rock Gym opened on weekends for business with a focus on family fun and kids of all abilities.

“Just through word of mouth and a few posters, we were popular for birthday parties, Boy Scout events, team building, and family bonding.”

They also had a wall for children with autism and special needs.

We had climbers from 2 and a half to over 60 years old.”

Jugan’s income “paid the bills,” but he took an offer from what he thought was a reputable source to rent the building for weekdays. Much of the place had been destroyed and the furnaces needed replacement. He closed for repairs.

In April of 2018, the Cathedral Gum had reopened for business again.

‘A knee-jerk reaction’

On March 16, the Cathedral Rock Gym was forced to close for good due to what Jugan says was “a knee-jerk reaction” to the coronavirus pandemic by both the federal and state governments.

“COVID-19 didn’t shut me down,” he said. “The overreaction restraints put into place did.”

Based upon his years of experience in the health and hospital services, he believes that the economic ruin that will follow this pandemic will be far greater than the health issues brought on by the virus, which he contends largely affects nursing home patients.

“For me to stay in business, I’d have to limit my customers, sanitize the 2,000 holes in the wall after every climb. And then when the next spike comes in the fall, does that mean I’d have to close again? I go back and forth with this decision. I’ve even thought of making my business nonprofit and tax exempt and I could save $4,000 in yearly taxes. I don’t think I could get that approved.”

A safety net to catch the fall

Doug Jugan is a self-made man and the considerate side of this entrepreneur who estimates that 20,000 customers have climbed his rock walls is significant.

“Living in an economically depressed area where there are many single mothers with young children, I did my best to keep my prices down.”

He’s donated his time and money to several community causes during his tenure at the rock gym, which he says was the first of its kind built in the country into a church building.

“I’m heartbroken over this,” he said. “I hate to have to close after all the hours of construction and time spent helping so many families enjoy my place.”

His “place” will go up for sale and the price will be right for anyone who wants to buy an old church/rock climbing gym.

Not only is Jugan self-made, he is self-sufficient. He owns a 46-acre tract of land on the New York - Canadian border.

“I’m thinking of fixing up my 1978 Ford Bronco and moving up there to build a log cabin.”

From restructuring an old church to repairing an old vehicle, Jugan is about to build himself as new life.

The Cathedral Rock Gym won't reopen because the owner says it will be too hard to sanitize. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Doug Jugan opened the Cathedral Rock Gym in this former church in Lehighton.