When Michael Rosato began bouldering 10 years ago, there wasn’t a single climbing gym in Birmingham. Like many Alabama teens, he got his first taste of bouldering on natural rock.
“I started climbing in high school,” say Rosato, a coach at the First Avenue Rocks climbing gym in Birmingham and brand ambassador for climbing shoe manufacturer Scarpa. “A friend told me about the boulder fields in Hoover, and I imagined some strange landscape—a big, blank field with boulders in it. I was born in Birmingham, and I had never heard of anything like that.”
Intrigued by this odd terrain, Rosato joined his friend on a climbing trip to Moss Rock Preserve, and the sport hooked him immediately.
Over the past decade, bouldering has grown steadily but slowly in Alabama, partly because local climbing crags are chock full of very difficult routes, and the learning curve is steep. But, as Rosato notes, the bouldering scene is on the precipice of dramatic growth.
By the end of summer, Birmingham will gain two new indoor climbing gyms—High Point Climbing and Fitness and Birmingham Boulders. With these additions, the city will have three indoor climbing facilities, including First Avenue Rocks.
As the gyms draw more people to climbing, Rosato hopes the bouldering community will maintain its friendly vibe. “The thing that’s special about the Birmingham bouldering scene is that it’s more like a family,” he says, explaining that he and his fellow climbers connect on a very personal level, support each other, and readily welcome newcomers to the sport.
It was this sense of community that sustained Rosato in his early days of climbing.
"Baby Mike" is Born
Rosato overcomes the "Speedbump" at Hueco Tanks, Texas. — Jeremy Foley
As a teenager, Rosato was agile and athletic, but he avoided high school sports. “Because I was shorter and skinnier, I was self-conscious about my build,” says the five-foot-seven athlete.
However, he found his comfort zone in bouldering. On the rock, Rosato realized a natural gift for controlling his wiry frame. But, more importantly, he discovered a group of Birmingham climbers who quickly became his friends and mentors.
“They were all 10 years older than me, but they brought me in and showed me the whole lifestyle aspect of climbing,” says Rosato, noting that group members treated each other as comrades rather than competitors. “Every person in the group had their own goal to achieve, and the whole idea was to encourage your friends to succeed at whatever they were doing.”
As the youngest member of this climbing family, Rosato was nicknamed Baby Mike, and, at 26, he still goes by that name.
With the support of his fellow climbers, Rosato’s bouldering skills improved quickly, and he would eventually conquer the most difficult routes in Alabama. At the same time, his fellow climbers’ encouragement deepened his love of the sport.
“Any amount of [passion] I have for climbing, I owe to them,” Rosato says.
A Family Feel
As a brand ambassador for Scarpa, Rosato travels throughout the U.S. to test shoes and produce photographs and videos for social media campaigns. During his travels, he’s noticed that climbers in Birmingham differ from those he sees elsewhere.
“Out West, they’re more driven by how far they can get with the sport,” he says. “At a crag, all people are talking about is climbing, and that’s fine. But, when we go out climbing, that’s the last thing we want to talk about.”
“We value the lifestyle aspect almost more than the sport itself,” he continues. “You typically go bouldering with a handful of friends, and you spend a fraction of that time on the rock. We spend the majority of the time sitting around, laughing and talking about our daily lives.” As they gather around the campfire to share tales, they also share their favorite Scotch or whiskey.
But Rosato also points out that this group, close as it is, places an emphasis on welcoming newcomers, too. “If we see someone who starts to become a regular, we’ll approach them and help them in any way,” he says.
The Next Generation
Many newcomers to climbing—especially bouldering—are younger people. As a Scarpa ambassador, Rosato spends plenty of time with kids who aspire to be the next climbing star, but he’s noticed a troubling trend among these up-and-comers.
“As bouldering becomes a lot bigger and more flashy, a lot of kids on climbing teams just want to get sponsored and get free stuff,” he notes. “That’s how they measure success.”
Instead, Rosato wants to instill in up-and-comers the camaraderie and friendship that shaped his relationship with climbing. So, five years ago, he helped launch an after-school climbing program at First Avenue Rocks. The program now serves at least two dozen youth who participate in beginner, intermediate, or advanced classes. Seven are members of a competitive team that travels throughout the Southeast.
While the travel team is a more competitive atmosphere, Rosato always reminds them that climbing is about more than making the podium—it’s about building friendships and exploring the outdoors.
“I tell them, if at any time you don’t want to do this, let’s go outside.”