Indoor Climbing with Kids
Over the past few weeks, I have taken Mila to the Portland Rock Gym and The Circuit Bouldering Gym for her first indoor climbing experiences. I worked as a climbing guide for Outward Bound and managed my own guiding service but I was never teaching 4-year olds until now. As a way-out-of-practice crag rat, my main challenge was ensuring that I didn't pile too many expectations on the experience. Letting Mila find her comfort zone was my mantra.
Here is a summary of both Portland indoor climbing gyms based on my experience with Mila:
Portland Rock Gym: This gym is primarily wall climbing. The routes are mostly top-roped. There is a bouldering area but children 7 years old or younger are not allowed in that area.
Cost? Mila’s before 3 pm day pass was $7. You don’t need to purchase an adult day pass at The Circuit or Portland Rock Gym unless you will be climbing as well.
Equipment? Wall climbing requires a harness. Until age ten (or they out grow it), I recommend a full-body harness - rather than a seat harness - for young climbers. A seat harness may not keep a very young climber secure if he or she falls upside down, which can happen more often than you think. We rented a full-body harness for the day ($3).
You have the option to rent climbing shoes but in my opinion there is no point for a child younger than 7. Mila used an old pair of Robeez.
Safety? You need to belay your child, so you must pass a belay test and know how to keep a climber safe on belay. If you don't know what that sentence means, stick with The Circuit.
Extras? The Portland Rock Gym has camps and classes for kids as well as options for birthday parties.
Overall experience? Mila scrambled up some of the bouldering walls (against the rules, I know) and really took to the whole experience EXCEPT for being on the rope. For whatever reason she would gladly scamper the the top of the wall in the bouldering area but once a rope was on her she just didn’t feel comfortable.
The Circuit Bouldering Gym: The Circuit is bouldering only. The goal of bouldering is to work on climbing technique on a boulder or small outcropping rather than on a cliff face. The point is not so much getting to the top of something but instead linking a series of moves through a “problem” - in effect you are solving the problem of how to climb a section of rock.
The Circuit is basically an artificial, indoor boulder field. Since the moves are typically on an area close to the ground, there are no ropes or harnesses involved.
Cost? A child day pass at The Circuit is $6 and will increase to $8 on 1/1/2007 (so go there NOW!). If your child is a fan, you can cut future costs by getting a 10-punch card. Again, you don’t need to purchase an adult day pass at The Circuit or the Portland Rock Gym unless you will be climbing as well.
Equipment? Like at Portland Rock Gym you have the option to rent climbing shoes but kids can boulder in their socks or shoes. I let Mila use an old chalk bag of mine (with a Bison Ball) but this was more of cool extra for her, not at all a necessity.
Safety? You don't need to know what belay means but, although bouldering is close to the ground, don’t get lulled into thinking it is completely safe. Supervision of your little climber is still a must. It is especially important that your little one does not climb directly above or below any other climbers. Why? Because it will not be pretty if a child (or adult!) falls on your kid from any height.
Extras? Among the many features is a boulder with especially kid friendly climbs where Mila could “top-out” and then come down a slide. The Circuit also has classes, camps, and birthday party packages for kids.
Overall experience? Mila LOVED The Circuit. The best part of the day for me was that Mila did not want to leave (yes, I will endure tantrums from kids who don’t want to quit climbing!) We will be back and picked up a 10-punch card for Mila and Papa just to make sure.
The Final Word: Overall I think Portland Rock Gym is better for children with some experience/comfort with a rope system and/or older children. The Circuit is a better choice for kid's first indoor climbing experience and I could see a child graduating to wall climbing at Portland Rock Gym from there. Happy climbing!
Portland Rock Gym, 21 NE 12th Ave., Portland
The Circuit Bouldering Gym, 6050 SW Macadam Ave, Portland