From the magazine: New heights

This story was originally published in early May in “Well-being,” the second issue of the Talisman magazine.

After a typical long day of trekking trails, wading through rivers and scaling cliffs at Nolin Lake State Park in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, Bowling Green freshman Reed Mattison said he relaxes by drinking an Ale-8-One from his storage spot in a cave that acts as a refrigerator.

Mattison started rock climbing about two years ago when he was introduced to it by a friend. He said he “fell in love” with the rising sport, which can lead its participants all over the world.

“Climbing is a journey,” Lexington senior Lauren English said.

English climbed in South Africa while studying abroad in Spring 2016. Although she had climbed before, she said this was her first exposure to “world class climbing.”

The experience helped English to form close relationships with local students at Stellenbosch University in South Africa while also helping her to become a more “independent” and “empowered” climber, she said.

While travel often draws many climbers to the sport, it can make the practice less accessible to some. English, who started climbing in high school, said she struggled to find a way to continue climbing after she moved to Bowling Green her freshman year of college.

But now, the Vertical Excape indoor rock climbing facility, which opened in Bowling Green in January of this year, provides student climbers the opportunity to experience the activity without driving more than 10 minutes from campus.

“The gym here has been a long time coming,” English said.

The new state-of-the-art facility provides a great place for veterans like English and Mattison to improve, and it includes a training facility specifically for this purpose. However, it is also a safe and welcoming environment for those who are just starting out.

Vertical Excape consists of 10,000 square feet of climbing space and has various ways to climb, such as auto belay stations, top rope, bouldering and lead climbing.

Vertical Excape offers classes to teach new climbers how to belay properly. The auto belay system automatically catches climbers and slowly lowers them to the ground when they fall. In top rope, a person belays the climber up the wall and slackens the rope for them.

Bouldering has no ropes but it is at a lower height with padded flooring. Lead climbing most closely simulates climbing outdoors.

The facility is open to walk-ins, available to rent for birthday parties and offers memberships for $45 a month to those with their own equipment and $65 for customers who need to rent it.

Mattison recently became a member, and he said he thinks his membership is well worth it, as the gym not only provides a way to exercise but also a way for climbers to come together.

Evan Karcher, the manager at Vertical Excape, said despite the business’s lack of initial advertising, local rock climbers came flocking almost immediately.

“We’ve got a pretty strong member base so far,” Karcher said.

He hopes the facility will provide a way for these veteran climbers to improve so they can climb outside without difficulty.

“Everyone’s dream should be [to be] able to get outside and explore and see what there really is to offer,” Karcher said.

On the other hand, he hopes new climbers will ease into the experience.

“[Vertical Excape is] very safe, controlled and people are always there to support you,” he said. “I want you to be able to come in here and train and work to prepare yourself for outside.”

Karcher is an avid outdoor climber with experience climbing at Red River Gorge in east-central Kentucky, as well as in Illinois, Tennessee and New York. He said he makes a point to climb outside more than inside due to his colorblindness, which can make it difficult to climb in many gyms that base their routes off colors. Because of this, Vertical Excape ensured their routes are accessible to others with this problem.

Karcher said Vertical Excape hopes to make climbing more accessible to female climbers as well. English said she would like the facility to host a Ladies’ Night to encourage more women to take up the sport.

“Women that climb are bad ass,” she said.

She worries many women get discouraged and give up early on climbing but said if they stick with it, it can be extremely rewarding.

“A lot of women may not be as physically strong in the beginning, so they have to learn technique first and then get the strength later,” English said. “Don’t be afraid to try it.”

Mattison, English and Karcher agree that while the sport can be challenging initially, the rewards are immense.

Karcher said the gym gives experienced climbers a chance to bond with others invested in the sport, while also allowing them to mentor newcomers.

“It’s kind of cool to see the ideas flow between people who it’s their first time ever climbing versus a guy that’s been climbing for twenty years,” Karcher said.

While there are rock climbing options near Bowling Green, such as Climb Nashville and Red River Gorge, before Vertical Excape, the town itself was limited to dangerous routes on private properties, English said.

Now that climbers have a safe, year-round place to convene, English said she thinks Bowling Green’s rock climbing community has a chance to grow now more than ever before.

Mattison said he thinks the new gym will encourage “a lot of the local climbers [to] come out of the woodwork.”

To these climbers, rock climbing is far more than just an adventurous form of exercise. It has led them to different places across the United States and beyond, while also helping them form lifelong friendships.