Health and Fitness

Climbing the Walls

Vertex brings indoor rock climbing to Sonoma County

By Bruce Robinson

Like shards from some massive cubist sculpture, the walls bend and bulge at odd angles, every surface dotted with an irregular scattering of odd knobs and protrusions, ranging in size from thread spools to catcher’s mitts. Some are wood, but most are a textured, plasterlike acrylic, occasionally decorated with colorful stripes or other bursts of color.

Welcome to the world of synthetic-rock climbing.

If you thought great masses of minerals exposed to the elements were a prerequisite, think again. Climbing has moved indoors in big way. The scenery can’t compare, of course, but the convenience, safety, and even the physical challenge of climbing an angular vertical wall have made indoor climbing one of the fastest-growing new sports in the country.

A spacious new “climbing gym” in San Francisco, hastily built last summer, played host to the 1995 Sport Climbing National Championships in August, when 500 spectators turned out to watch 100 competitors in action.

But local enthusiasts don’t have to drive to San Francisco or Marin any more; Sonoma County–which previously had only a wall at Sonoma Outfitters–now has a complete climbing gym of its own.

“There are climbers who have been waiting–they say–for years for someone to come to Santa Rosa and do a climbing gym,” laughs Janet Wells, who, with her partner, Mark Ripperda, has done just that. Their new Vertex Climbing Center, which opened just a few days before Christmas, has quickly attracted a growing mix of veteran outdoor climbers and indoor specialists, including many who are new to the sport.

“You don’t have to be athletic” to enjoy sport climbing, says Wells, a tall, lean former journalist who after more than two years of planning, fundraising, and construction has turned her hobby into a business. “We had my mother come by and we had her up on a rope.”

Vertex also offers a series of popular classes and programs for children as young as 4, with half-day summer camps planned for the months ahead. Introductory classes for climbers of all ages and abilities are held several times a week

Housed in an airy, high-ceilinged industrial park, Vertex boasts nearly 5,000 square feet of climbing area on three walls, with the tallest extending 32 feet above the floor. The surfaces are studded with more than 1,200 of the movable hand- and footholds, and there are a few carefully carved cracks and crevices to further simulate natural geology. Climbers are fitted with belts and harnesses secured by ropes that are looped over metal pipes welded to the roof beams and held by staff “belayers” on the ground, which is covered with a loose heaping of soft rubber scraps. Special climbing shoes with flexible, spongy rubber soles can be rented at the center, along with the harness gear.

Another area, known as the “boulder room,” features shorter walls, but more difficult angles. No ropes are used here, as the heights are minimal, but “it takes a lot more skill than the ropes,” Wells explains. “It’s steep, intense–and presents a lot more problems.” Here, as on the bigger walls, suggested “routes,” or paths up the sequence of knobs and footholds, are indicated with bits of red or blue tape. Some are there to guide beginners, others map out advanced challenges.

Vertex also features an elevated viewing platform, exercise equipment, locker rooms with showers, and–eventually–saunas. A weight-training area rounds out the facility, but Wells knows that will remain of secondary interest.

“I get a lot more sense of accomplishment when I get to the top of a route that I’ve been working on than I do when I finish a weight routine,” she grins. Plus, climbing is “a much more fun and a social way to work out.”

The worn, red picnic table at the center of the floor affirms her statement. Originally placed there for construction workers to lunch, it quickly became a preferred place for climbers to collect and hang out between efforts, and offers a good vantage point for the entire center.

“That wasn’t part of our plans,” Wells admits, “but there’s no way we can take it out of there now.”

Vertex Climbing Center is located at 3358A Coffey Lane, Santa Rosa. Hours are 2 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. 573-1608.

From the Jan. 18-25, 1996 issue of The Sonoma County Independent

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team. &copy 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.

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