The buzz among the many rock climbers and rugged mountaineers here in the Pacific Northwest is about a new place to climb.
That place, however, isn't a newly discovered gem among the thousands of cliffs awaiting climbers in the massive Olympic Mountains. Nor is it a special spot in the sweeping Cascade range punctuated by Mt. Rainier, the great icon of the Northwest.
It is, instead, something resembling a huge cat scratching-post in a glass tower situated in downtown Seattle. Named appropriately "the pinnacle," this 65-foot, 110-ton artificial climbing structure, which stands on two legs, dominates the flagship store being built by Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), a chain that sells outdoor-recreation equipment.
With thousands of climbing sites so close by, it seems odd that a man-made mountain walled off from nature's bounty would be such a draw in Seattle. But putting a mini Mt. Rainier under glass may not be as incongruous as it sounds. Every major professional sport - including football and baseball - is played indoors here. In fact, the city lays claim to being the nation's premier location for indoor piton-hangers. It is the home of the first indoor climbing gym in the country, Vertical World, which opened nearly 10 years ago.
Since then, an estimated 50 to 60 large climbing gyms and another 100 or so smaller ones have sprung up across the country. Interest in the new sport apparently continues to grow: The circulation of "Climbing," a magazine devoted to the sport, has doubled to 50,500 in the past five years.
The logic of vertical gyms is rather compelling here. It rains a lot in Seattle, and when it does, the mountains are not fit for climbing, no matter how close they are. For eight long months a year, climbers can only gloomily stare at the horizon.
Enter the entrepreneurs. Dan Cauthorn and Rich Johnston figured that frustrated climbers needed a place to train. So in 1987 they took an old warehouse, put up plywood walls, slathered textured paint on them, and filled them with resin shapes to serve as hand and foot holds. Thus was born Vertical World, which has since added a suburban branch and seen the emergence of a competitor, Stone Gardens, a year ago.
Indoor climbing, which has long been popular in Europe, is a kind of MTV sport, offbeat and just right for the "just do it" crowd. The gyms make climbing very urban, easy to get to, and challenging but safe. They provide good practice for the real thing, but also are good places to socialize.
At both Vertical World and Stone Gardens, loud rock music fills the room as men and women with trim, taut bodies scale and traverse orange and yellow walls as if they were flies.
At Vertical World, professional mountain-climbing guide Matthew Ward pauses to recall how he gradually attained his skills in the outdoors, then adds with amazement, "Now there are people who come here who don't go out on the mountains at all."
Agnes Telling, a medical researcher, is one of them. "I think it scares me so much," she says. "You don't really fall here because you are on a rope."
At Stone Gardens, Cesar Escobar holds the rope as Crystal Mann scales a wall with her fingertips and toes. This, he says, is much more interesting than working out in a conventional gym: "There's a great aura here."
But the gyms are more than gathering places with great "auras." They are businesses, selling specialized equipment, which can add up quickly: $100 and up for shoes, $40 or more for a harness, and at least $15 for a chalk bag to keep your hands dry.
Local climbing gyms see the REI pinnacle - which is visible from Seattle's main expressway, Interstate 5 - as a symbol of mountain climbing and as a boost to their own businesses, which across the country have seen a leveling off in the past year.
Of course, REI is not unaware of the commercial benefits of bringing the mountain and the climbers under one roof. When the new store opens in mid-September, long lines are expected. Climbers will be given vibrating pagers so they can browse in the store while awaiting their turn on the wall.