Climb the walls

In Seattle's rock-climbing gyms, families are finding new ways to play
Kathryn True

These rainy days, you're likely to see more kids dangling from multicolored climbing walls than swinging on schoolyard monkey bars ― especially as the popularity of indoor rock-climbing gyms with programs geared to families is on the rise.

Pleas by parents even recently prompted REI in Seattle to lower its 4-foot height restriction by a foot to allow preschool climbers to "peak out" on the in-store 65-foot Pinnacle.

"Bouldering together is a bonding experience," says Kirt Hodges, programs director for Vertical World Seattle, who helps parents and kids get started. Many gyms have bouldering areas where beginners can build strength and confidence and experience the thrills ― and spills ― before roping in to the faux-rock wall.

"One thing I love about climbing is that it can take traditional notions of who is the athlete in the family and turn them on their head," says Hodges. "Often someone who doesn't consider themselves an athlete comes in here and is a natural."

Because climbing is about strength-to-weight ratio rather than brute force, children tend to be very strong for their size. Hodges notes that for this reason climbing can be valuable in developing self-confidence for kids ― especially those who haven't felt successful in other sports.

Anyone can drop in, rent some shoes, chalk up, and play around, says Hodges. "If you're old enough to walk, you're old enough to climb."

WHERE KIDS CAN CLIMB

Edgeworks Climbing At this Tacoma gym, family nights are the third Friday of each month ($15, $10 ages 17 and under, additional family members $5 each; $5 shoe rental). Two-day family camps (May-Aug) include climbing classes and an outdoor-climb field trip, plus gear. INFO: 253/564-4899.

Federal Way Community Center Ages 3-6 tackle the climbing pinnacle on Fridays (4-5); ages 6-10 can do 2- to 3-hour daily open climbs, or sign up for a youth rock-climbing class. INFO: Open-climb fee: $7.62, $4.90 ages 13-17, $3.81 ages 12 and under; $3 equipment rental. Youth classes: 7-8 Tue; $30 members, $42 non-members per course; reservations required. 253/835-6900.

REI At 65 feet high, downtown Seattle's REI Pinnacle is the third tallest indoor climbing structure in the world. The store recently changed its height restriction, making it easier for families with small children (3 ft. and taller) to climb together. Routes vary from easy to expert (rope climbing only; $5 members, $20 nonmembers per climb, including equipment rental). A climbing class for ages 8-14 is held on Sundays (5-7; $15 members, $30 nonmembers, including equipment rental). 206/470-4086. In Redmond and Alderwood Village, the height minimum is 4 feet. INFO: Redmond: members free Sat-Sun, $20 nonmembers daily; call 425/882-1158. Alderwood Village: 12-4 Sat-Sun only; members free, $20 nonmembers; see above for website or call 425/640-6200.

South Bellevue Community Center Home of the Crag, a 33-foot climbing wall. INFO: 2- to 3-hour climb sessions: 3:30-5:30 Mon-Fri, 10-1 and 1:30-4:30 Sat; $6 residents, $7.50 nonresidents. Parent/child (ages 6 and up) classes: 9-10 Sat; residents $20 per pair, nonresidents $24 per pair. 425/452-4240.

Vertical World Kids can't get enough of the bouldering room at Vertical World Seattle, where they can climb up to 14 feet high sans ropes. Belay sessions for up to four people ($45 per hour). Kids' programs at all Vertical World gyms include year-round youth climbing groups and holiday and summer break camps. Bremerton offers a monthly "dine and climb," when kids clamber and chow down pizza while parents take a breather ($25). INFO: All gyms: Day pass $15, $10 ages 14 and under; Seattle: 206/283-4497; Bremerton: 360/373-6676; Everett: 425/258-3431; Redmond: 425/881-8826.