Personal elevation at climbing gym

Gym presents climbers with tests of athleticism, impromptu engineering

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter


photoBryan Caldwell, a climbing instructor at The Source Climbing Center, congratulates Kai Cathcart, 10, of Camas on and October climb at The Source in Vancouver.

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The Source

• What: A climbing gym in downtown Vancouver that recently passed its first anniversary.

• Where: 1118 Main St.

• Hours: Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

• Cost: Adult, $12 a day, $55 a month; Student/youth, $10 a day, $45 a month; $3 for a harness; $4 for shoes; $2 for chalk bag.

• Information: 360-694-9096,,

photoKelli Kappler of Vancouver starts to climb a route on the bouldering wall at The Source Climbing Center in downtown Vancouver.

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photoJeff Balderree of Portland helps Kelli Kappler of Vancouver solve a "problem" on a climbing wall at The Source Climbing Center in downtown Vancouver. "We are all feeding off each other to finish," Balderree said.

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photoClimbing holds come in a variety of shapes, sizes and textures, meant to represent climbing sites around the world.

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Hanz Kroesen sifts through a bucket of climbing holds like a kid looking for the right Lego piece.

They’re stored in a room behind the bouldering wall at The Source Climbing Center where you’ll find the steel crossbeams and plywood frame that support the concrete slab on the other side.

As the main route-setter at The Source, Kroesen creates problems he knows people can solve.

“It’s an interesting art, route-setting,” Kroesen says.

Kroesen unbolts all of the holds and strips off every bit of tape, wiping the concrete slab clean before he starts route-setting. The new holds are organized by color, shape and size into neat little piles on the floor. Big holds, buckets, handles and jugs in one pile, and smaller holds, crimps, chips, pockets and pinches, in another.

With one foot on the wall and one foot on a ladder, he marks where the holds will go with colored tape. Then he goes back and bolts the holds in. Each hold can support 400 to 600 pounds.

Kroesen looks back at his work and starts to climb the route he just made. He moves like a cat along the bouldering wall — graceful and precise, even in tennis shoes. It’s similar to choreographing a dance, he says. It’s about being inventive and creating your own classics. There’s pressure to get it just right. If people don’t like the routes, they won’t return to the climbing gym.

But if he sees people climb it again and again, he knows he’s successful.

Kroesen likes to watch and wait for the “aha!” moment when a climber works through a problem and figures out the series of moves.

photoThe "Ready for the Red?" route refers to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky where Hanz Kroesen, co-owner of The Source, took inspiration to create the route.

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photoKroesen creates a new route on the 37-foot climbing wall at The Source using T-nuts and bolts to anchor various climbing holds to a steel reinforced concrete wall.

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Kelli Kappler stares at the 13-foot bouldering wall while miming the hand motions to get up and across the wall using holds marked by red and black striped tape. The route is rated V3 -- a difficult climb for a novice like Kappler. The 22-year-old starts to climb, moving methodically along the wall.

Each move is planned. Rock climbing is the chess of sports, she says, except it's just you and a wall.

With bouldering, there's no gear, no carabiners, harnesses or ropes.

"You don't concentrate on anything else except for what's in front of you," she says.

After getting about halfway through the route, she jumps off, landing on the padded floor with a thud, a cloud of chalk dust and a grin. She didn't finish the route, but she tries again and again, while heeding advice from fellow climbers at The Source Climbing Center in downtown Vancouver.

Besides bouldering, the climbing gym offers top-roping and lead climbing; both use ropes and gear on a 37-foot wall.

Kappler lives just 20 blocks from the Main Street gym. She grew up climbing trees in Woodland and says rock climbing for sport is just an extension of that revered childhood pastime.

It does feel a little childish -- climbing on the furniture, rolling around and getting covered in chalk -- but in a good way.

At the Portland Boulder Rally in October, Kappler watched climbers at the top of their game, so she could learn new ways to move along the wall.

She hopes to compete in next year's event. Lots of practice at the climbing gym till then.

A lot of climbers head inside during the offseason to get better at climbing outside, typically reserved for those few precious dry months.

To the untrained eye, climbing holds are just pieces of molded plastic resin, bolted into a concrete slab. But to a climber, they see a problem to solve. A project. If you ever want to make friends with a climber, ask them about what they're working on, what their latest project is.

They'll fill you in.

The "Ready for the Red?" route at The Source mimics a popular climbing route at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

On the climbing wall, holds are molded after certain types of rock. You'll find the limestone of Fontainebleau, France, the granite of Yosemite in California and the welded tuft of Smith Rock in central Oregon.

"Which is, if you ask me, kind of rare," says climber Steve Altergott, 28, of Vancouver. He snatched up the very first membership at The Source before it opened in November 2011. He frequents Ozone, a popular climbing site near Mount Pleasant in Skamania County.

There's been a shift among the climbing community, though; with the rising popularity of climbing gyms, more and more people make the indoors their arena and never step foot on an actual boulder.

The wall offers an ever-changing canvas of climbing routes.

"It's your chance to play God with this little mountain," said Bryan Caldwell of Portland, who helps set routes at The Source.

The gym uses the Yosemite decimal system to grade climbing pitches. Top-roping routes start out with easy 5.4 climbs and work their way up to difficult 5.12 climbs. Bouldering routes use a V-scale that starts with V0 (also known as B1, for bouldering basic) and ends somewhere around V8.

As climbers attempt to conquer the little mountain, a micro-adjustment can make all the difference. The way the holds are angled gives climbers clues about how to move their bodies.

"Sometimes you have to be super-delicate and on edge, and other times you have to be super-aggressive," says climber James Halsted of Vancouver.

A climber won't just finish a route and leave it alone. It's redone again and again, until there aren't any fuss-ups. Their work must efficient, fluid, graceful. Once perfected, they skip unneeded holds.

It's about mind-set and technique, more than strength. Fear keeps a climber from moving forward and keeping their breath calm, Halsted says. When a climber commits themselves to a pitch, letting the day's thoughts and stresses fall through the cracks, they may find a sort of calm.

"It's moving meditation, for sure," Halsted says.

He tunes out people while he's climbing. He's too focused on his breath and movement to notice anything else.

"You don't have enough attention to focus on any other problems in life," Kappler says. "Figuring out problems (at the climbing gym), I feel like it correlates to how you solve problems in life."

Kappler is drawn toward strategy games like chess and Sudoku puzzles. She says that rock climbing is the perfect marriage of body and mind stimulation. A climber can't mindlessly pick weights up and put them down to get a workout; they have to plan and build a portfolio of moves.

People like Kelli Kappler and James Halsted have been bitten by the "climbing bug," a deep, overwhelming sickness. You can spot it by the rough patches of skin on their palms, the tape around their fingers and the intense odor emitted from their feet.

They may go far too long without a rest day.

"I can never stop climbing when I'm supposed to," Halsted says. "My worst day climbing is better than my best day doing anything else."

Why make your fingers callus, crack and bleed? Why anger those muscles you never even knew you had? Why risk falling? Some say because the wall is there. Because it brings them closer to nature. Because they can.

Because they can't stop.

Kappler will return to the gym, day after day, and chalk up her hands for another go at her concrete chessboard.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513;;