Where I Belong: My Climbing Gym

Leaving the rock-filled mecca of Colorado might seem like the last choice any aspiring climber would ever voluntarily make. However, for an angsty high school senior longing for freedom, independence and the chance to redefine myself, the decision to pack up my bags and head west was an easy one.

Brittany Goris rock climbing in a gym.

Photo by Truc Allen.

I had always been a gym rat, so the 168 average annual days of rain in my new hometown of Bellingham, Washington, didn’t intimidate me. I’d also never taken climbing more seriously than a local competition or two and some regularly scheduled weekly sessions. As a result, I completely failed to anticipate how big the difference was going to be between the state-of-the-art facility that had churned me out as a relatively competent kid crusher, and the tiny college gym I had just unwittingly signed a four-year membership deal with.

All the plastic holds owned by Western Washington University’s climbing wall would probably have filled in one mere route up the giant lead roof at my old stomping grounds on the Front Range. At WWU, half the T-nuts were stripped, there was no hangboard or campus board, no rings or other training features to speak of, and the management understood less about climbing than my grandparents. I was blind to all these things, though, as I grabbed my shoes and chalk bag and headed for the campus rec center between classes on my first day.

I don’t remember much about that day, other than that I desperately wanted to climb, and that it was probably raining. I also remember that the student employee in the gym that day was quick to strike up a conversation. This was unusual, because when you’re moping around a real-world gym with a typical teenager attitude, adults don’t exactly line up to offer you a belay. The feeling of welcoming inspired me in a way I hadn’t felt about climbing for nearly a full year, not since my previous partner had moved away and left my gym sessions lonely and thus unproductive and boring.

I returned to the gym as often as my schedule would allow, and found myself surrounded by more kindred spirits than I’d ever thought possible. I joined the climbing team and proceeded to spend every waking minute counting down the hours, minutes, seconds until practice when I could sprint down from the dorms to get wrecked on those ancient greasy holds. The ceaseless rain and dreary darkness of a Washington winter didn’t phase me, because I had never met so many people with such a like-minded attitude about climbing. I fell deeper in love with the sport than I’d ever been before.

On any given day I could find people in the gym who were psyched, from the first-timers to the team crushers, and for the first time in my life I truly felt I’d found a place where I belonged. When winter turned to spring, and rain turned to slightly-less-rain, I got a job there so I could justify being at the gym even when I wasn’t climbing. I wanted to saturate myself with the gym community as much as physically possible. The magic of that tiny rock wall didn’t just belong to me. It transformed many who had never climbed before, and even veterans like myself turned into fresh addicts when their fingers first latched onto those old resin holds. It had given us college kids the home we left home to find.

Brittany Goris bouldering in front of a crowd.

Photo by Truc Allen.

I climb at a different gym now, with taller walls, steeper angles, better settings and harder routes. Despite all that, I still think back to the way the humble WWU rec center sparked my passion for gym climbing, and my fingertips can’t help but sweat just a little in anticipation of my next session.


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