By Shannon Leopold
Rock climbers have a reputation for humility. Alex Honnold, one of today’s greatest free soloists has been dubbed by fellow climbers as Alex “no big deal” Honnold for his overwhelming modesty. George Mallory, one of the first men to climb Mt. Everest, replied with a shrug and a “because it’s there” when asked why he wanted to make the summit in 1922. Howard Konishi, owner of Top Out, Santa Clarita’s first and only climbing gym, is no exception.
Howard, or “Howie,” as he’s affectionately known around the gym, has single handedly brought together a community of climbers within Santa Clarita. He’s based his entire management of the gym around it’s slogan, “Where Climbing and Community Come Together,” and it’s clear that Top Out has a special way of bringing people together because, in just one year, it’s membership has grown to more than 400 climbers.
Konishi grew up in West Garden Grove of Orange County, but it wasn’t until he was a student at UC Irvine in the late 90’s that his climbing really took off. After taking a beginner’s class with a friend, he was determined to improve. “Whatever I do, I obsess about getting better at it. So rock climbing was just one of those things.”
Rock climbing is often described as a cerebral sport. So, climbers are often quick thinkers, and don’t shy away from a mental challenge. So it’s no surprise therefore, that Konishi would once earn a living playing professional poker. “I did that for just over four years. I was playing over the internet.”
However, in February of 2011, the U.S. government shut down online poker sites on a day that would become deemed “Black Friday” by professional players. This forced Konishi to play the casino circuit for a few months only to decide that he didn’t like the atmosphere of casinos, and knew he wanted to be surrounded by positive people.
He decided then to focus on his love of the outdoors and began leading backpacking trips through Yosemite. “It grew on me that I really liked to expose new things to people.”
It wasn’t until July of 2011 that the idea of opening his own gym occurred.
“At the time, I had a membership at Rockreation in Costa Mesa and I knew that the market for climbing gyms was still growing. The demand of it just didn’t meet the supply.” So Konishi took out a map and plotted all the points within a three-hour driving radius where there were existing gyms, searching for pockets that may have potential. Santa Clarita was one of those pockets.
“Santa Clarita is very athletically minded, and it’s far enough away from metropolitan areas. There’s not as much stuff to do here for young adults, which is my main demographic,” he said. “It’s also nice that there are so many colleges around the area. From COC, which is one of the largest growing community colleges in the state, to Master’s College and Cal Arts, as well as Cal State, Northridge, which is only 15 minutes away,” he said. Knowing students would be using the facility, Konishi has implemented special pricing for students. Students can get a one-day pass for $14, $2 dollars off the regular price of $16 and a monthly membership for $65, down from $75. Top Out also offers a $7 matinee price Monday through Friday before three.
Konishi wanted to be able to provide Santa Clarita with a large facility that would be accessible to everyone and could last for years. “That was really my goal here, to create something long term and cultivate a community. I’m in it for the long haul.”
Konishi recognized that there wasn’t an existing climbing community and had big ideas on how to change that. “The thing with rock-climbing gyms, is that you don’t find success in catering to existing climbers. The whole secret for climbing gyms is to bring people in and then turn them into climbers. Which is ultimately what I wanted to do.”
Even with big ideas for the community, as a business, Top Out has exceeded Konishi’s expectations. “I figured that it would probably take a few months to break even. My projection was really within three to four months we might break even. However, we broke even our second month and haven’t had a losing month since.”
Beyond numbers, Top Out’s real success comes from Konishi’s unwavering determination. “Whenever I go for something, I just go for it, and I will not stop.” It’s with this mindset that Konishi has been able to build something great and truly the first of it’s kind within Santa Clarita. Of course if you ask him his secret, he’ll reply with a shrug, a smirk and tell you “It was just a matter of trusting my instincts, looking at my data, and just making the decision to go for it.”