Gravity Vault Was Alright


(Emily Stull)

By Emily Stull

In August, Gravity Vault introduced a new climbing gym to San Rafael. 

Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical. 

I’ve been a climber for about five years, and a coach for a little over two. I’ve climbed outdoors across the United States, from Colorado to Massachusetts. However, I’ve had my time as a gym rat: spending hours in gyms from the Manhattan Rock Gym; to Oakland’s Pacific Pipe Climbing; to my home gym at Planet Granite, San Francisco.  

In my experience, the quality of a climbing gym relies on a variety of aspects: from diversity in route setting and the amenities offered, to the playlist’s vibe. Located in a large warehouse, Gravity Vault has two floors of about 18,000 square feet of climbing. There are three types of climbing, generally accessible in a gym: top-roping, lead climbing, and bouldering. In top-roping, the rope is anchored to the top of the wall, while in lead climbing, the climber uses quickdraws to secure their rope along the way. Bouldering, though, uses no ropes, and involves shorter walls and larger mats. Gravity Vault had automatic belays, which allows climbers to climb on the top rope without a belayer. They’re relatively smooth devices, though the lowering was inconsistent in speed. 

The manual top-roping anchors were fine, though, with a smooth climb and descent. I didn’t get a chance to lead-climb, but there weren’t many lead routes, anyway. From my experience, this can be typical for a new gym, and their options for leading will develop over time. 

I visited the Gravity Vault on a Thursday night, around 7 p.m. The gym is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, a large window for climbers. However, this sets it apart from most gyms, like Planet Granite, that open at 6 a.m. and close at 11 p.m. Nevertheless, it wasn’t too crowded when I arrived, and the atmosphere seemed pretty calm. 

I was immediately impressed by the floor plan, with the bottom floor equipped with 40-foot walls and a second floor that has additional boulders, each about 15-feet tall. They also had a repel ledge for learning purposes—something I haven’t seen in most indoor rock gyms. Unfortunately, it was closed when I went, but from speaking to a few gym members, it sounded pretty popular. 

The set in a climbing gym is the routes themselves, and it’s important to have strong variability in them so climbers can explore different techniques and styles. The set can vary in different holds used, the direction of the route, the placement, or even the height of the wall. The nature of the set can also be known as “soft” or “stiff.” If it’s soft, that means the climbs are graded more difficult than they are. If they’re stiff, the climbs are more difficult than what they are graded. 

Gravity Vault, to be blunt, was soft. 

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fantastic ego boost, but I was sending climbs that were supposed to be beyond my ability. The set also lacked variability in style—especially in the bouldering section. It was either a technical climb that traversed, or an overhang with large power moves. There were plenty of climbs to choose from, but that almost contributed to the disappointment in their uniformity. The intensity of the routes was well-rounded, though, with an equal amount of each difficulty. Albeit, the hardest climb available was not quite to the level that I’ve seen at other indoor gyms. 

Many routes had an alternative start, which is essentially an opportunity to make the climb more difficult. This is a useful setting because one can do the easier climb first, then attempt the harder start. However, the setters used this method frequently, which contributed to the lack of creativity in the overall set. 

The routes on the top rope were also soft, relative to gyms I’ve been to in the past. I was pleased to see more variation, compared to the bouldering area, regarding style. The walls were akin in their topography, though, with little change in incline throughout the set. The walls were all the same height, about 40 feet tall. I didn’t love that design, because it can be nice to climb routes that vary in length. That has less to do with the set itself, though, and more with how the gym was constructed. 

Crack climbing is another form of climbing, in which there are no holds used. Instead, the climber uses hand- and foot-jam techniques to maneuver their way up, accommodating to the shape of the crack. This is one of my personal favorites, though one of the more unpopular styles. Naturally, I was pleased to find about three cracks at Gravity Vault. The only difference between the three was the width. Besides that, they were similar in shape and direction. Many climbing gyms only have one or two cracks—if any—so I was happy, nonetheless. 

However, typical indoor cracks don’t have texture besides the natural wall inside the crack. Those at Gravity Vault had minute bumps, which provided little holds for my hands. I found this unusual, and didn’t need traditional hand jams for much of the route. It was an interesting addition, though, one that provided a unique crack climbing experience. 

Besides climbing, Gravity Vault had a very small exercise section that was impressively equipped with various equipment and tension boards—which are used to improve upper body and grip strength. 

I hadn’t gone to Gravity Vault with my belay partner, rather I ended up climbing with a regular member, Kayla. She has been climbing for about six months, and believes Gravity Vault is a great gym for those who are new to the sport. 

“I took a few classes to get me started, which really helped my motivation and feeling more confident,” she said. “The staff were totally supportive and everyone here just gets along really well.”

The climbing community is incredibly loyal and tight-knit, so I was impressed by the following Gravity Vault has accumulated so far. My experience with members and staff was nothing but positive, although the music choices in the gym were subpar. (The pairing of country and modern pop was a little awkward and disorienting for the time of night.) 

I had a wonderful time, and although I will continue to climb at my home gym, Gravity Vault is a solid alternative. I ended up climbing for about three hours, as I lost track of time. It could have been the atmosphere, or the fact that there was not one clock in the entire facility.