New Stone Age : Rock Climbing is Hip, but Do Some Miss the Point?

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For four years, Cam Donnahoo painstakingly glued chips of alabaster and tiny bits of quartz onto a flood control wall at the end of Kalorama Street in Ventura. The 29-year-old environmental engineer and rock-climbing enthusiast spent evenings and weekends lugging 40-pound bags of rock chips, the trimmings from a sculptor’s supply store, into the arroyo. This, along with a gallon can of Bondo auto body repair putty.

He used the putty to glue rock fragments onto the vertical concrete slab, and when he was finished, he had created an artificial climbing wall 40 feet long and 25 feet high. It became a second home for him and his wife, Kathy, until the couple moved to the Seattle area 11 months ago.

When they returned in late April after pronouncing the Pacific Northwest unlivable, Donnahoo naturally went to visit his creation. To his surprise he found a waiting line.


“I guess I’m proud that people are enjoying it and taking care of it reasonably well,” he said. “But it’s kind of weird. This place was like my living room.”

Like Donnahoo, many who have been climbing rocks for more than 10 years are amazed at the popularity, even hipness, of the esoteric pursuit formerly carried on by oddballs who didn’t like sports between the white lines.

Rock and Ice magazine says 4.4 million men, women and children climb. The American Alpine Club, the nation’s oldest climbing organization, and one that has a strict and narrow definition of a climber--someone who spends a minimum of 20 days a year climbing--places the figure at a modest 200,000.

Whatever the number, rock climbing is a booming sport and one that owes at least some of its popularity to Ventura County residents, most notably Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who is to climbing what Arnold Palmer is to golf.

Chouinard and a handful of other veteran climbers in the county represent the traditionalists. But it is the newer breed--the “sport climber”--that has flocked to the sport, while significantly changing its style.

While the traditional climber has spent years learning a combination of alpine skills (rock climbing among them) in order to ascend mountains, sport climbers concentrate on shorter, physically challenging climbs, usually less than 100 feet high.



Sport climbing is considerably safer owing to the way the rope is attached to the rock. Sport climbers use bolts that are laboriously drilled into the rock face. The bolts are permanent and extremely safe in preventing falls. Traditional climbers typically use removable pieces of hardware that, while more versatile, are not as secure and take a great deal of skill to place properly.

“There’s no question that sport climbing’s shorter, safer routes have brought a lot of people into the sport,” said Steven Tucker, co-author of a just-published guide on climbing in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

Tucker said many new climbers were introduced to the sport through artificial walls like the Kalorama Wall or the indoor walls that the Ventura Athletic Club has installed at its Ventura and Camarillo sites.

Indoor walls are constructed of heavy plywood with bolt-on plastic holds. Unlike outdoor glue-up walls, which are usually vertical, plywood walls can be constructed with slopes ranging from moderately steep to overhanging, and the holds can be changed to create more variety.

“We’ve had it since October and tons of people are using it,” said Eric Bartels, manager of the Ventura club.

The easy accessibility of climbing walls and their comparative safety make them more attractive than traditional climbing on natural rock, where safe climbing often demands more practice and patience.


Patience is not something young sport climbers have in great supply.

“They develop about 10 times faster,” said Reese Martin, unofficial spokesman for another glue-up wall under the bridge where the Ventura Freeway crosses the Ventura River.


Case in point: Gabriel Lockwood of Santa Barbara. With less than two years of climbing experience, Lockwood recently completed a climb called “Maximum Ghetto” at Malibu Creek State Park that 10 years ago would have been considered unclimbable.

“Like a lot of people, I started in a climbing gym,” Lockwood said. “I was hooked right away.”

Dave Stillman, 21, of Ventura is another recent convert. Although not purely a sport climber--he’s never worn Lycra--he’s certainly of the sport-climbing generation.

With just three years of experience, he can cruise up the slightly overhanging face of Mugu Rock in the time it takes to climb a stairway of equal height.

When Stillman gets to the top, he walks off the back side and climbs again and again in a demonstration that resembles both vertical ballet and a hamster in a Habitrail.


He paused between laps to describe his contemporaries.

According to Stillman, many sport climbers have tattoos (Grateful Dead album art is popular) and marijuana is the drug of choice. About 40% of young climbers use tobacco, Stillman estimates.

“I dip snuff every once in a while, but cigarettes are my vice.”

Lockwood said young climbers in his circle began smoking to mimic European climbing stars. Since sport climbs are a short, often anaerobic activity, climbers don’t need superior cardiovascular fitness.

“In a weird way, it shows how climbing is more mental than it is physical,” said Mike Graham, 37, one of the premiere big-wall climbers of the late 1970s.

Graham, owner of Gramicchi, a Ventura County sportswear manufacturer, was known for laying siege to rocks so high and so unrelentingly vertical that he had to sleep while anchored to the sheer cliff. He once completed a six-day solo climb of El Capitan, the granite monolith that dominates Yosemite Valley.

“I lost 25 pounds. Most of it from shivering.”

Traditionalists like Graham criticize sport climbers, saying that, rather than seeking the combined mental, spiritual and physical alpine experience, sport climbers just go for the pump.

Another veteran climber who just doesn’t get it is Rick Ridgeway, a filmmaker and photographer who operates a photo stock agency in Ventura.


Ridgeway, 44, was part of the first American team to climb K2, the second-highest peak in the world, without supplementary oxygen.

He has an open mind. Sort of.

“I climbed on a plastic wall,” he said. “Once.”

Ridgeway recalled an assignment that he said sums up the difference between traditional climbing and sport climbing:

“Last September I was making a film on rock climbing for ESPN. I wanted to portray various aspects of the sport, so I put together a team with different backgrounds--a mountaineer, two big-wall climbers and a fourth who was a young, up-and-coming sport climber. I spent a month with them, and I can say that there is a big difference in attitude.”


Ridgeway explained what happened when the group approached its main objective, “The Shield” route on El Capitan.

“The sport climber was apprehensive about whether she had the patience. We wanted to climb it without hammers. That meant placing the pitons by hand and gently putting the load on them, then removing them as we ascended. It was a real time commitment, six or seven days vertical.”

Ridgeway said during the first three nights they were bivouacked on the wall, there was a full moon over the valley. It’s the sort of experience--dangling 1,000 feet above the valley floor in a sea of lunar light--that answers the question why.


“So much of who we are is developed by the amount of time we’ve spent in mountains,” Ridgeway said. “I don’t see that with hard-core sport climbers. This woman didn’t have that sense of awe.”

Ridgeway said the woman abandoned the climb about a third of the way up and rappelled to the ground.

“She approached the whole thing as an athletic event. If she wasn’t getting three or four hours of pump a day, she was bored. It was like a shark that has to keep swimming to stay alive.”

Graham hears stories like that and says he simply can’t relate to the way sport climbers dismiss the alpine experience and focus instead on higher and higher difficulty ratings.

“The best climber in the world isn’t the guy doing the biggest numbers,” he said. “It’s the guy having the most fun.”

Peak Experiences 1. Sespe Gorge 2. Foothill Crag 3. Camarillo Grove Park 4. Point Magu * The long-awaited second edition of “Climbing in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo” is due out this month. Authors Steve Tucker and Kevin Steele spent four years reviewing new crags and new routes to update the 10-year-old first edition.


Steele, a climbing instructor at UC Santa Barbara, cautioned that anyone attempting rock climbing should first get adequate instruction, either in the form of a class or from a friend who is a skilled and patient teacher. Despite advances in safety equipment, climbing is a potentially dangerous sport that could result in serious injury or death. Don’t mess around.


Originally, climbers drove up Foothill Road, turned off on a private gravel road and parked. Tucker said the owners don’t want people driving up there anymore. The Pratt foot trail is now the proper access. It’s about a 20-minute hike.


The moderate difficulty and relatively long routes make this one of the best places in Southern California to learn multipitch climbing. A pitch is 150 feet or less, about the length of a standard mountaineering rope.


A classic crack. Mugu Rock is slightly overhanging, but myriad hand and foot placements give this tiny boulder a near infinite variety of climbs. It has the easiest approach in California. Whereas climbers have long hikes to many crags, Mugu’s location right on Pacific Coast Highway means you can belay from your car. Public location means a huge “Dig Me” factor.


A block coughed up by a volcano, the rock lies just below the Conejo grade. The back side has huge pockets, the easier to walk up and top rope the bolts placed above the more challenging front face. Those susceptible to poison oak beware. The place is overrun.


The Ventura Athletic Club has indoor walls at both its Camarillo and Ventura locations. “We’ve had it since October and tons of people are using it,” said Eric Bartels, manager of the Ventura club. “We get all ages, males, females. It’s such a growing sport.”