Romancing the Stone
Like many San Franciscans, I've lusted after the The Armory building. But it's not the naked girls wrestling one another inside, nor the basement bondage rooms that get my heart racing. It's not even the vintage sex robots that entice me. No, it's the building itself. You see, I'm a climber, and I've dreamt of strapping on a harness and scaling those walls since I first saw her. Her huge jugs (holds) would fit in my hands perfectly.
But even as liberal as the Kink.com folks are, I’m guessing they want to keep the grabby hand business inside. And besides, as fun as scaling The Armory would be, or "buildering" as the new movement is called, it’s a pretty easy climb, and I bet the city offers more challenging and legal upward adventures. I look outward to the craggy hilltops that line San Francisco’s edges – and wonder if there are more natural climbs to be had.
I figure if anyone knows where to climb outdoors in this city, it’s the hard-bodied folks at Mission Cliffs, the indoor climbing gym that takes up most of the block on Harrison and 19th. I pay my $18 for day use of the facilities, which includes top rope and bouldering (climbing without ropes a few feet from the ground). It’s 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday and the gym is already filling up with the after-work crowd.
I head for the V2s, which, in the scope of things, are pretty easy (bouldering routes are given V grades – the higher the number, the more difficult the problem). I make it a few holds and then get stuck. My legs begin to do the sewing machine and no amount of chalk will stop my sweaty fingers from slipping off the grimy holds. I fall onto the mat, and as I’m rubbing my pumped arms, I hear someone say, “Maybe try matching your right hand there and getting your left foot up higher.” Suddenly I have a new climbing buddy, Monica, and we solve the problem together, copying each other’s movements until we’ve reached the top.
Monica doesn’t know about outdoor spots in the city, but a super-fit climber who is dancing his way up on a V8 overhears our talk and jumps in. “I’ve heard there are a lot of challenging problems in Glen Canyon Park,” he says. His idea of challenging problems scares the shit out of me, and I think he sees it in my eyes. “There’re easier ones too,” he says, calming my nerves.
The Mission Cliffs master boulderer was right – there are rocks in Glen Canyon Park according to Bay Area Bouldering . I head down the trail wearing my crash pad from REI – a cushion meant to protect myself from a fall. When your toes are squeezed into shoes a size and a half too small (as climbing shoes are supposed to be), landing on the ground can break your little piggies. I’ve taken a few bouldering spills in my climbing life and once sprained an ankle after the last hold on a five-foot problem.
Despite their imposing height, the boulders are beautiful and radiating heat in the November sun. I line up my map with the rocks like the kids in
, and begin my treasure hunt. There are V0s all the way through V8s. Since I’m still waiting on a friend, I spend my time traversing the rock, staying no more than two feet above the ground. But 10 minutes in, I’m itching to go higher.
I fondle the wall until I find a handhold, and begin to ascend. Because it’s a traversing climb, two moves into it, I’m far from my crash pad. My fingers start to sweat, but I don’t dare remove a hand for the chalk bag. If I had a spotter, I’d make the next move – a small “dyno” where I’d jump to reach the big hold. But instead, I chicken out and shakily make my way back to the dusty ground.
Unlike the gym, where it’s all about conquering a problem, outside it’s about the enjoyment of climbing. I begin to traverse again. With the hot sun on my shoulders, the warm rock beneath my fingers, and the smell of eucalyptus in the air, I feel like I’m deep in the backcountry. It’s only when I round the corner and have to climb higher to avoid a used condom and an empty bottle of Mad Dog that I remember I’m still in the city.
While Glen Canyon was magical, after two days of bouldering my forearms can’t tackle another problem. Tall and lean, I’m built more for big walls than boulders, for delicate moves rather than explosive ones, and I’m eager to tie into ropes.
It’s no real surprise that there’s bouldering in the city, but rope climbing, I’m doubtful. I head back to Mission Cliffs to meet Monica and her crew and we spend the evening on a massive five-story wall. I ask them if they know of any outdoor wall climbing in the city. “The Beaver Street Wall,” says one. And we all try hard not to laugh.
I’m told that the Beaver Street Wall is on the backside of Corona Heights, just by the Randall Museum. You’d think finding a large rock wall in a small park would be easy, but my friends and I wander around for 20 minutes before finding it.
Boulders in a city aren’t that unusual, but I’ve never heard of urban wall climbing. I’m already talking it down, telling my friends it’ll probably be a puny little route. Wrong. Beaver Street isn’t for the newbie climber. It’s a 50-foot wall with one long crack and minuscule handholds. Plus, the wall looks like it’s been sheared off and you can almost see your reflection in the glassy exterior. It’s a wall, a real wall… in the city!
We set up our anchors and prepare to rappel off the top. (Do this only if you know how to set up top ropes.) I’d forgotten how scary rappelling is. The first step is full of slack, so you have to walk off the cliff, knowing it will take a good second or two for the rope to go taut. I’m crouched at the top, anxious about the step of doom. “You can do this,” says Sarah. “It’s just one step.” I take a deep breath and begin my descent. It’s true, it’s only one step, and then it’s just a free ride to the bottom. I go sailing down the cliff like Peter Pan. The kids below at the daycare center don’t even look up from their sandbox. Clearly we’re not the only ones who’ve played on this wall.
Climbing up proves to be more difficult than going down and when my frozen fingers fail me, Sarah hoists me up. The rock is brittle at the top and I use that as an excuse not to go all the way. Once again, coming down is the best part. This time, since I’m not belaying myself, I have Sarah slowly lower me so I can check out the scene. I see downtown, the Bay, and the street I live on – all from the seat of my harness.
A week later, I get a tour of The Armory, which ends on the turret of the roof. I eye the potential anchor points – a flagpole and an industrial air conditioning unit, and imagine rappelling off the top. But my fantasy stops there, and I turn my eyes south toward Glen Park and west toward the Randall Museum. I’ve lost my passion for fake facades, and instead desire real stone beneath my fingers.
Want to explore the city’s craggy spots? Hone your skills on the man-made rocks at Mission Cliffs. You can get a monthly membership for $67, which covers all five Bay Area gyms or pay $18 a day to try it out. Go to REI for your bouldering gear and head to Glen Canyon Park to solve the problems. If you know how to set up top ropes, go to Beaver Street Wall for some of the best crack in the city.