As the sun sets with bright pink and violet tones and the ocean tide floats out toward the deep sea, the sandstone rock faces at Larrabee State Park begin to glow. One rock climber, working against gravity, reaches up for his next hold nuzzled in the surface of the wall. After a deep breath, he taps his foot along the crevasses created by the blasting ocean waves, looking for a safe spot to wedge his shoe. While he is suspended against the wall hoping not to plummet, his senses urge him to turn around and look at what lies behind him.
Sometimes, a relaxing getaway is only five minutes away. Many Bellingham residents take their minds away from the busy routines of school and work by scuttling up the rock walls in Bellingham's hot spots. To some local adventure-seekers, rock climbing is a ticket to freedom and relaxation. To others, it is the adrenaline rush of a lifetime.
Western junior Tim Werwie looks to rock climbing for physical and mental fitness while he is chasing hidden climbing destinations on the Chuckanut ridge, where house-sized rocks are rumored to be, or practicing techniques on the indoor rock wall at the Wade King Student Recreation Center.
"It helps you focus your mind," Werwie says. "You cannot really afford to be thinking elsewhere. It is a safety thing, so you have to be focused. It helps people get out and realize what they can do on their own."
The majority of outdoor rock climbing in Bellingham is bouldering, says John Stiles, Western senior and climbing coordinator at the Bellingham YMCA. When bouldering, the climber is not attached to a rope and usually traverses the rock at a maximum height of 15 feet.
Sehome Arboretum, near Western's campus, and Clayton Beach at Larrabee State Park are the most popular bouldering sites in Bellingham, Stiles says.
"It is pretty tough to beat the bouldering at Larrabee [during a] sunset on a nice day," Stiles says. "Over the water it is just beautiful. There is better bouldering out there in the world, but the whole package - the sunset, water and birds - make it a fantastic climb."
Stiles, 28, who once conquered a 1,000-foot rock face in Squamish, B.C., works with a range of rock climbers at the YMCA, from Western students to the elderly. He says Bellingham is a great place for beginners to learn how to climb because of the number of introductory services available through local organizations as well as the relative ease of the outdoor climbing routes. The rock climbing wall at the Bellingham YMCA, standing 65 feet tall, is the highest indoor climbing wall in Washington and attracts a diverse set of visitors, Stiles says.
"Our family climb is a time for nonclimbers to get exposure to climbing," Stiles says. "We make it simple for people who have always wanted to try and have been intimidated for whatever reason. We encourage them and help them build confidence with an inspiring introduction to the sport so they can pursue it on their own."
The American Alpine Institute is an international guide service with headquarters in Fairhaven. It helps new climbers improve their skills while providing an outlet to purchase gear and to network with climbing professionals, says John Scripps, administrative assistant at the institute.
It often can be hard to find partners to go climbing with, Scripps says. The institute and other networks, such as the YMCA, help new climbers meet other people in the industry, he says.
Rock climbing is not an elite industry that is only for the fit or strong individuals. Rock climbing is a diverse sport that is unique to every individual, Stiles says. Though he has had 12 years of rock-climbing experience, he is still fascinated to see how differently people approach the challenges the rock face presents.
"It is a great sport, and you can learn an awful lot about yourself," Stiles says. "You can learn the full gamut of emotions in a single pitch. It is scary. It is fun. It is frustrating, and it is rewarding."
Sweat sliding down his face, he holds himself above the sand against the smooth rocks at Larrabee State Park. He gives in to his senses and turns around to see the beauty of the world behind him. The water shining in the background with the birds flying above is what Stiles says makes the park the most beautiful climbing destination. Many climbers agree that one of Bellingham's greatest features is its convenient access to some of the best rock climbing in the world.