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Rock climbing scales the list of popular activities

“Whatever you do, don’t look down,” I thought to myself as I clung to the plastic rock wall for dear life. The rational part of my brain knew that I was safely strapped into my harness and that if I let go I would simply dangle in place until I was lowered down; the other, more dominant part of my brain decided that this was a life or death situation.

It was my first time rock climbing, and I was there with my friends: Mills College sophomores Phoebe Rogers and Hannah Musson, and UC Berkeley freshman Kobie Boslough. I thought it would be fun to tag along with my friends to Berkeley Ironworks, a decision I immediately regretted at 35 feet up, suspended by a single rope.

Upon arrival, I filled out a simple waiver that requested an emergency contact. I did not have to buy the 20 dollar day pass because Rogers used her guest pass on me. I rented both climbing shoes and a harness for $6 and was sent off to figure out how to put them on.

As I looked down at Rogers, who had shrunk to the size of an ant below me, I realized why I needed to provide an emergency contact. Rogers was belaying me, which meant that she was in charge of holding on to the other end of the rope that was hooked into my harness, keeping me from free falling to the ground.

You have a lot of responsibility as a belayer,” Rogers said. “If you let go of the rope your partner can literally fall to their death.”

As much as I trusted Rogers, the fact that my life was literally in her hands was a little unsettling. I climbed the rest of the wall without looking below me, then quickly signaled to her to let me down. Once my feet were firmly planted on solid ground again, I began to feel better.

As the others took their turns climbing, I surveyed the gym. Most of the open building was filled with plastic structures imitating rock walls, while one side of the building was set up like a traditional gym, with treadmills, weights and other cardio machines. One corner was set up with tables, chairs and a fully stocked bookshelf for guests to take a break in.

(Photo by Marissa Tangeman)
(Photo by Marissa Tangeman)

“It’s pretty grungy,” Musson said, trying to describe the overall aesthetic of the climbers around us. “But like, wealthy grungy. You have to have money to seriously climb, because shoes cost money, a harness costs money and a membership costs money.”

Everyone looked like they had come straight out of a Patagonia advertisement, complete with beanies in trendy colors, “man buns” and an aloof way of carrying themselves.

“Do you think that rock climbing attracts a type, or makes one?” Boslough mused as we watched a group of nearly identical young men climb above us.

According to the Climbing Business Journal, in 2015 “the U.S. commercial indoor climbing industry grew by 10 percent over last year, with 40 new gyms bringing the total number of commercial climbing facilities in the country up to 388.”

Rock climbing has been growing in popularity in recent years, and indoor gyms like Berkeley Ironworks or Great Western Power Company in Oakland have been popping up all over the Bay Area.

“Coming to the Bay Area is nice because there are so many climbing gyms, and that’s a result of it becoming so popular,” Musson said. “Climbing is becoming a lot more accessible, location wise and financially.”

The trend of rock climbing is growing in a more specific niche, however, and is not a mainstream activity in the Bay Area. 

“It feels like in the last few years, people have been making a resurgence into the outdoors,” Rogers said. “It seems like rock climbing is a smaller trend inside the larger trend of a resurgence to this outdoorsy, independent, maverick, pioneer-type person.”

Although more seasoned climbers like Musson are occasionally irritated by all of the new climbers this trend has racked in, she is still excited that her favorite sport is being more widely enjoyed and appreciated.

“Sometimes I get tired of seeing new climbers at the gym because they take up space and are not used to the customs, but I try not to do that,” Musson said. “I love climbing with new people and sharing it because it’s like sharing a big piece of my personality with people.”