What’s to Love: For climbers, especially with kids, it doesn’t get much better than here in the Portland area. We have some world-class bouldering and climbing gyms all within a 15 mile radius of downtown Portland. Opening November of 2011, The Source Climbing Center in downtown Vancouver, WA is the latest addition to the climbing community. Beautifully designed, The Source was built from scratch and offers a totally separate area for young children and beginners interested in climbing.
Upon arrival at The Source, I was given a gym tour and orientation directly from owner, Michael Lary. During our tour, I signed waivers and checked-out all the different areas of the gym including the children’s area, adult bouldering area, lead climbing area, auto-belay, and learned more about the gym rules. Since I had previous climbing experience, I was asked to demonstrate tying-in and belaying. If you can demonstrate those skills, you will be able to climb and belay on your first visit.
If you and/or your kids are absolute beginners or need to freshen-up your skills, The Source has some great programs to get you off on the right foot. Climbing 101 is a good option, if you want to start climbing without having to learn how to belay other climbers. In Climbing 201, you’ll learn how to tie-in, belay, and various climbing techniques. If you don’t want to take a class, bouldering and auto-belay-climbing are the best options. My video clip below shows the bouldering area and the auto-belay in action.
Overall, this facility is hard to beat. It’s incredibly clean and well-managed by a very friendly staff. While not a “kids’ gym,” The Source put a lot of thought into building a facility that is family-friendly, especially when considering all the options for young climbers. This climbing gym will make you feel safe and welcome, and your kids will have a good time learning how to climb. Here is a 3-minute video clip of our climbing adventure.
Caveats: The facility does not have its own parking lot. Parking around the immediate block is all coin-operated-meters, which can really be a hassle if you don’t have change. The parking structure located across from The Source is not an option during business hours. I recommend parking a block to the east (not a hassle!) where they have credit card meters like you see in Portland. After metered-hours and on weekends, you shouldn’t have a problem with street parking around the facility.
If your kids are under 12 and experienced at bouldering, they will be limited to the upstairs kid/beginner area. The adult bouldering area is too dangerous for small children during normal hours. Exceptions to this rule may be made on a case-by-case basis depending on experience, how busy the gym is, and other factors. Check with the supervisor before heading in that direction with kids.
Distance from Portland: About 8 miles from downtown Portland. Here is a Google Map.
Recommended Ages: Climbing is a sport that transcends age and gender. The world’s best female climbers are just as good (if not better) than their male counterparts. If your child seems a bit shy or appears to lack confidence, give climbing a try! Kids are natural climbers, and many local kids can climb as hard as adults.
Please note: Kids 14 and under must be accompanied by an adult (19 years or older) AT ALL TIMES while in the gym! Unsupervised kids are not only in danger of hurting themselves, but they may also cause accidents with other climbers. Make sure you understand the rules and standards for supervision. This is not a drop-off-your-kids-destination, except when enrolled in specific youth programs.
Parental Stress Factor: Climbing can be very relaxing, both indoors and outdoors. It can also be incredibly distracting and stressful when things get crowded. When it’s crowded, your stress level will probably go up accordingly. Keeping track of your kids and making them stay with you will probably be your most stressful task on your visit. Make sure you’re up for this task!
If you or your kids are a bit freaked-out by heights, stay upstairs on the smaller walls where things are not near as intimidating. The best way to keep the stress factor under control is to keep your kids busy climbing. If you want to climb, it’s best to hit the gym with your buddies without kids. When you’re with your kids, you’ll want to focus on letting them climb while you supervise. Auto-belay may be a good solution to joint climbing (see Family Tips below).
Physical Difficulty: Generally, climbing is as hard as you want to make it. However, even the simplest of boulder problems can be very difficult for newcomers. I think bouldering is one of the best forms of exercise.
Family Fun Factor: If your primary focus is on making sure your kids climb to their hearts’ content, your family will have a really good time at the gym. If there is a lot of struggle between adult and kid climbing, the family fun factor may plummet considerably. To increase the likelihood of a pleasant experience, I recommend showing-up (hours) right when the facility opens on a weekday (preferably) or a weekend. Most likely, you’ll have much of the place to yourselves until you get your bearings.
Pet Friendly: Definitely not a place for a pet, but you will most likely see the owner’s sweet dog while visiting.
Weather Considerations: Great on a rainy day and fun all year round! As I’ve said many times, gym memberships are so great to have during the winter months. It will get you and the kids out of the house, even after dinner.
Insider Info: While Portlandia is running wild, Vancouver is quietly building a family-friendly downtown/city featuring some hip hangouts. Don’t roll your eyes until you give it a try! Things are happening in Vancouver. The town has a new library, a downtown farmer’s market, an impressive network of paved bike paths, a challenging disc golf course at Leverich Community Park, the fun Salmon Creek Trail, and of course, the awesome indoor skate park “Ripzu.”
Their water fountain has a spout for filling up water bottles so make sure to bring your own. Snacks are available at the counter – a small assortment of Clif bars and Snickers. They also have drinks: Gatorade, Sobe, and Sierra Mist soda.
They do not restrict outside food, healthy snacks are great and welcome for small children. Please keep food off the carpeted areas.
Make sure to check-out all the programs The Source has for kids. You may want The Source to host your next birthday party as well! The upstairs area can be reserved from 3-5PM on the weekends. Parents are welcome to bring cake and food for hosted birthday parties.
Before or after climbing, I recommend getting some Nathan’s hot dogs at “Pop Culture,” which is located just north of the climbing gym on Main Street. They have an amazing collection of specialty sodas. Your hot dog (or hamburger) will be served-up on a Frisbee with chips, don’t worry, they won’t throw it to you!
I’m a big fan of Pop Culture – their food is great, and the owner books local high school bands to play at the venue on Friday and Saturday nights. In my opinion, this deserves big props. Please support this business!
When you’re finished at Pop Culture, head right next door to “Ice Cream Renaissance” for locally roasted coffee, local desserts, and homemade ice cream! This little place was a pleasant surprise – nice to the kids, let us taste everything, and the ice cream was really good too!
Family Tips: This was the first time I’ve ever been able to climb (roped) with my kids. I’ve always acted as their designated belayer, which can be a real drag if you want to climb. Kids under 12 years are not allowed to belay…period. Although they may be perfectly capable of demonstrating the technique, something as important as belaying cannot be trusted to kids under 12 years.
Auto-belay to the rescue! I was able to climb right next to my 8-year old son at the same time. We were both on auto-belay, and it was so much fun! I didn’t have to worry about trying to find someone to belay me, which is difficult with kids. Granted, there are only three auto-belay systems that serve a limited number of routes, but it does provide opportunities that might not be readily available at other gyms.
If your kids (12 and under) want to climb, but you have little interest yourself, consider the “Climb on for Kids” time at The Source, which is 9am to noon on Saturdays (extended to Sundays as well throughout the summer). In this program, you pay a flat-rate for gear rentals, day pass, and one of their staff members will belay your child (2 climbs to the top).