By Lorraine Wilde
Bellingham fifth grader, Jake McNeely, is a little smaller than some of his classmates, but that hasn’t gotten in his way. In fact, Jake discovers his strength and passion at least four times a week at Vital Climbing Gym, a unique community filled with mom-approved role models. With hard work and the support of his new friends, the sky is literally becoming the limit for Jake.
Jake began climbing at Vital in August 2013 after first trying outdoor rope climbing. “I didn’t like rope climbing at first because you have to count on someone else to hold you. I like bouldering because I can trust myself more than the rope,” explains the sweet ten-year old.
Vital has no ropes, but instead covers the floor surface with two-foot-thick pads, while enforcing a clear safety policy to protect its members. “There aren’t a lot of injuries at Vital, because you intuitively find your own comfort level, so you learn to trust your gut, find your own limits, and push and expand them at your own pace,” explains Jake’s mom, Nancy McNeely.
With upbeat tunes in the background, the inviting, friendly atmosphere is ideal for individuals and families with a wide range of skills and stamina. In addition to extensive climbing walls, the gym has free weights, a slack line, aerobic exercise equipment, a quiet room and kitchenette, and ample table space for down time. “It’s a perfect hangout for teens who gather here in the early evening and college students who arrive later that study and climb late into the night,” describes Vital Crew Member, Rosi Green. In fact, Vital’s 24/7 approach is part of what makes it unique among fitness spots in our area. “Members have access around the clock with a door combination so they can come when it suits their schedule and their comfort or introvert/extrovert level,” explains Nancy.
After becoming a member for several months, Jake chose to sign up for additional biweekly Team Practice for youth age 10-18. “Climbing relaxes me and takes my mind off anything stressful, like homework or missing my sister who’s away at college,” confesses Jake. Team practice offers structure and challenge through small groups, but includes a lot of free-choice and exploration, with student-specific guidance by skilled instructors on self-challenge, technical terms, safety, and etiquette. “I love Vital because it allows kids a constructive way to test their limits, vent excess energy, and exercise in a safe space full of positive role models of every age and skill level, both male and female,” beams Nancy. “It’s as if Jake has a gym full of big brothers and sisters. Students pass by and say, ‘Nice work, Jake’ or ‘Hey dude, did you decide on your science fair project?’ There is a culture of support and encouragement without being intrusive.”
There’s no chance of boredom either. Gym managers provide constant challenge by changing one of five sections of the climbing wall each week, setting new routes with a range of difficulty. “My favorite is when I’m one of the first people to climb a new route,” explains Jake. “I’d love to become a forerunner, a person who tests the new runs before anyone else. So far, they’ve only let me set the color rating on a new route.” Vital uses a voting-based color-coded rating system developed on-site ranging from green for beginners to black for experienced climbers with freakish strength. Routes are marked near the floor by colored paper and members provide feedback and vote to help set the difficulty rating that can easily be translated to the outdoor standard ‘V’ scale. “When a climber can conquer routes of a certain color and then advance to the next, they feel confident and successful,” emphasizes Nancy.
With his effort, Jake has gained the confidence to participate in several climbing competitions across Washington and Oregon. “Competitions help you see how you are on a scale with 90 other people. It’s like a gauge so you know how you’re doing. Also, it’s just fun,” Jake points out. Travel has also allowed him to meet new people, including a few of his climbing heroes. Jake met World Champion climber, Daniel Woods, at the Portland Boulder Rally in October. “He’s not that tall, only 5’ 7”, but he’s one of the best climbers in the world. I’m not tall for my age. But how big I am doesn’t really matter.”
But competitions are still just play for Jake. “I love that he has a place to be competitive with himself, without having to be competitive—it’s not in his nature,” adds Nancy. Like a human spider monkey, Jake has been placing regularly in his 10 and under age group. Next year Jake will move up into Youth C, the 11 to 13 age bracket. Says Jake of the move, “That will be an even greater challenge. But you have to be 14 to compete at the world competition. I can’t wait.”
“We’re looking forward to outdoor bouldering with friends we’ve met here when the weather improves,” notes Nancy. Jake is also looking toward the future. “My dad is going to install beams and holds so I’ll have an indoor overhang in my room. I can picture myself rock climbing for…well, forever.”
1421 North State Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
Public hours open seven days a week from 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.