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Vital Climbing Gym

Bellingham’s new hangout

By Ian Ferguson, photo by Kaili Koo

A reasonable drive from both the North Cascades and the granite walls of Squamish, Bellingham is a popular home base for climbers. The only downside used to be a shortage of places to train during the long rainy season.

With the addition of Vital Climbing Gym, open since July on North State Street, Bellingham climbers can now train all year long – and around the clock.

Vital’s Bellingham location is the third such gym opened by owners Dave Sacher and Nam Phan. They opened the first Vital in Carlsbad, California in 2010. The laid-back vibe and unique founding principles of their first gym quickly caught on, and the two owners opened a second location in Murietta, California.

Bellingham, with its sizable climbing community and lack of a dedicated climbing gym, was deemed a perfect location for Vital number three. The chosen space was once a Harley Davidson dealership. Construction crews removed most of the main floor, leaving a mezzanine looking out onto a two-story climber’s playground.

Vital is open 24-hours to people who buy a membership. Non-members can climb during business hours from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. for $10 per day, but members can also key in after hours to climb unsupervised. They can choose their own music to play over the speakers, stay as long as they like and even bring a non-member friend, as long as they put the $10 day pass fee in the collection slot.

Vital is a bouldering gym, meaning the walls are short (16 feet) and the ground is padded so climbers don’t need ropes or harnesses. Participants can climb safely without supervision, but Vital employees have to trust that members aren’t trashing the place or letting in freeloaders.

So far, Bellingham climbers have followed the honor system and then some, according to manager Kaili Koo.

“The owners have been kind of blown away by how supportive the climbing community is here,” she said.

A quick glance around the gym reveals the diversity of Bellingham’s climbing ecosystem. Just as a watering hole in the African savannah attracts a wide array of species, Vital has attracted a mix of people. There are sport climbers and boulderers from Western Washington University, weekend warriors who trade office desks for Squamish granite, kids of all ages discovering the sport (parents, too), random people stopping in to try something new, grizzled alpine climbers and local guides all sharing wall space.

Casey O’Brien, a guide for American Alpine Institute, said Vital makes it possible for all those groups to meet up. “It’s a common place for climbers from all the different communities in town to mix and mingle,” he said. “It’s a great space to hang out with friends, climb and meet new people.”

Vital Climbing Gym – Bellingham is located at 1421 N. State Street. For more information visit vitalclimbinggym.com/Bellingham X