Reaching New Heights, Vital Climbing Gym

By Caleb Remington

scene OG
Vital Climbing Gym in downtown Bellingham provides its members and visitors a place to practice climbing techniques and relax between workouts. Photo by Andrew Edwards.


Bellingham’s newest climbing facility, Vital Climbing Gym, provides its members with a place to climb 24-hours-a-day in the heart of downtown Bellingham.

The interior of the building is modern, with exposed wooden walls, stainless steel and bright colors. “This is literally an adult’s playground,” said General Manager Kaili Koo.

While the gym is open 24-hours-a-day to members, non-members can purchase a day pass to use the facility from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Vital is a bouldering-only gym, primarily because the gym is open 24 hours and staff is not there around the clock to supervise, Koo said.

Bouldering is a style of rock climbing with more emphasis on technique. There are no ropes involved and the climbing walls are fairly low to the ground.

Koo said bouldering is a bit more beginner-friendly because “you don’t have to learn some kind of intimidating knot [and] you don’t have to trust someone behind you holding the rope if you fall.” If a climber falls off of a wall at Vital they land onto a padded mat beneath them.

Bouldering provides “a really great replacement for exercising, just because it is a full body workout,” Koo said.

“I go to exercise, but it’s fun exercise,” said Whatcom student Rocky Rantz, 19, a member of the gym. He said he goes to Vital four to five times a week and it has helped him begin to lead a healthier lifestyle. Even though climbing is a full workout and taxing on the body, it still is a relaxing activity, he added.

“You don’t have to worry about people judging you on your skill,” and the staff and people at Vital are very encouraging and willing to help, Rantz said.

The great part is you can actually see yourself improving, said Rantz. “One day you can’t do a route, the next day you come back and do it. That’s the best part about it really.”

The gym offers, as a part of membership or a day pass, a slack line, free weights, and a stationary bike.

Vital also offers classes and workshops, including Bouldering 101, an introduction to climbing clinic for beginners, and Bouldering 202, a clinic “more focused on technique and footwork,” Koo said. Both cost $15 and are open to both members and non-members. The gym also offers yoga classes several times a week which are free for members and cost $5 for non-members.

Members and guests, many of whom are students, also have access to the couches, an espresso machine, free Wi-Fi, and a lounge with a fireplace if they need a place to work or study between workouts.

Koo said she met the owners of Vital Climbing Gym, Nam Phan and David Sacher, while in Southern California living out of her van being a “climbing bum.”

Phan and Sacher own three different Vital locations. In addition to their newest location in Bellingham, there are Vital gyms located in Carlsbad and Murrieta, Calif.

Koo said she asked Phan and Sacher if she could help around their gym doing odd jobs and scrubbing holds, the grips on the walls for a climber’s hands and feet, so she could climb at their gym for free.

Two years later the three decided to collaborate and open a climbing gym together in Bellingham. Phan and Sacher stayed in California and hired Koo to manage their newest location.

Construction on the gym began in February 2013. The building process was “quite the undertaking,” Koo said, as it involved turning a two-story motorcycle shop into a spacious, high-ceilinged climbing gym. Vital opened its doors to guests July 13.

Vital’s members vary widely in age. There is an age minimum of 5-years-old, but other than that, anyone can climb.

Koo said a couple in their 60s come to climb together at least once a week.

To ensure climbers don’t get bored with the climbing routes, the layout of the holds is changed at least once a month, Koo said.

Membership at Vital costs $55 per month and non-members can pay $12 for a day pass, which means they can climb from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Non-members can climb any time if they are accompanied by a member. Vital offers monthly memberships for students at $50 with a valid student I.D.

Climbing shoes are recommended and are available for rent at the gym, but tennis shoes are fine as well to begin bouldering, Koo said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *