It’s Only Going Up From Here: Climbing gym opens in Bowling Green

Reed Mattison is a Bowling Green Native, Western Kentucky University student, mountain biker, rock climber, and aspiring freelance photojournalist. Follow him on Instagram @wrmattison

In August of 2016 the Vertical Excape Facebook page made a very cryptic post many months after announcing the plans for a Bowling Green location. It was an unremarkable photo of a warehouse. There was no caption, no context, just the structure. To most it didn’t mean anything, but to the underground climbing community of Bowling Green, it was huge. The two-tone, metal building attached to an existing fitness center would be home to Bowling Green’s first climbing gym.  

Fast forward to January 20, 2017. This day was especially important because it marked not only the soft opening of the climbing gym but also a new chapter of our nation’s ever-changing narrative.  

Nathan Holmes, owner of the Evansville-based Vertical Excape (VX), and his team of climbers and craftsmen had transformed the empty building into a climbing temple. With such a small construction team and almost zero outside contracting, the gym took a long time to complete. The end result, the culmination of Holmes and his team’s effort, is a beautiful gym, the second VX location and the first climbing gym to come to Bowling Green. The opening date was postponed numerous times as Holmes worked to revive every inch of the space.

Photo by Reed Mattison

Photo by Reed Mattison

As I walked through the front doors, propped open in the obscenely warm January weather, I could smell the all too familiar aroma of chalk. New ropes swung from their anchors and the fluorescent holds were bright, the space lit up through big windows. A pow-wow of Evansville climbers gathered around the bouldering area to watch their friends as a group of kids excitedly slipped into their harnesses to begin a night of climbing. The energy, the gracious smiles, the ardent patrons of the gym made you feel welcome.  As if the gym had been here for years and everyone there is an old friend.

New members were required to complete an educational video to learn the ropes -- literal and figurative -- of climbing.

“The bouldering looks like a good time,” commented Brent Stubblefield, a 31-year-old Bowling Green native.

Photo by Reed Mattison

Photo by Reed Mattison

Brent and I are the only two in the communal kitchen area watching the instructional video. He’s a semi-pro obstacle racer, defeating the toughest courses found in the Spartan Race Series. He’s new to climbing but is ecstatic to be one of the first members of the new gym, explaining to me how he built similar climbing features on his father’s farm to help him train for his obstacle races. The video ends and Brent and I are shuffled into the main room for a safety briefing.  

After getting the skinny on the gym rules, I caught up with the captain of the ship, Nathan Holmes.  Holmes is from Henderson, Kentucky and has been the owner of VX for 18 years. He said they always had “hopes and dreams of expanding,” and that everything really fell into place to make the gym in Bowling Green official. There was a short list of cities where Holmes wanted to open another gym.  The progressive outdoor community, college population and overall good vibe made Bowling Green the perfect place to break ground. For the dedicated climbers burnt out on hour-long drives to the nearest gym, VX-Bowling Green was a godsend.

Tucked away in the back left corner of the gym, isolated from the social buzz was a young, aggressive couple tackling one of the harder routes in the gym. Victoria and Wade Bieber are two Evansville-based climbers who came down for the opening of the gym. They met while working at Rock-N-Water Christian Camp in Victoria’s home state of California.

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“I loved guiding so much I decided to marry a guide,” said Wade with a congenial smile. I spoke to Victoria more about their climbing histories as Wade smoothly found his way up a 5.11. I watched her tattooed arms flow through the motions of belaying -- pull, brake, under, repeat -- until Wade reached the end of the route.  It was artfully executed and without a lot of backseat climbing. Victoria and Wade really knew what each other was doing and how to work together; I guess the special connection comes with getting married.

Photo by Reed Mattison

Photo by Reed Mattison

I packed up my camera and put my field notes back in my pack; it was my turn to climb. The gym has two levels: the first level has numerous auto-belays, top ropes, crack routes and lead climbing. The walls jut out to form ceilings and overhangs that make for serious challenges. On the other hand, there are mellow, easy going routes for beginning climbers. The bouldering area is all encompassing as well. From crimpy, overhanging problems to complete jug hauls, there is a boulder problem for everybody’s style and skill level. The second floor features campus boards and other workout equipment so you can do some fine tuning. VX makes it incredibly easy to get into the sport with gear rentals and instructional courses for everyone.  

By the end of the night, only the staff and a few Evansville climbers remained. Everyone sheds their climbing shoes and sits in a circle on the mat. Chatter over new routes, potential trips and competitions fills the air. Everyone is bouncing ideas off each other excitedly. The impact the climbing gym will have on the outdoor community of Bowling Green is hard to measure. Even after just six hours of being open, you can tell it’s only going up from here.  

When to go:

February 1st, 2017: Grand Opening and start of regular hours.

Website: bowlinggreen.verticalexcape.com

Photos by Reed Mattison