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Pacific Heights: Cragging in the Bay Area

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I had never kissed a girl, so when a naked one came up to me and started asking questions about the climb I had just tried, I was a little thrown. Painfully shy, I’d always wondered how I would ever ask a girl to go climbing, and now a naked one was here asking me if I knew of a place where she could learn.

It was 1981 and I was 17. This was my first real climbing trip, an hour-long journey from Berkeley to the fabled Mickey’s Beach Crack on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in far-flung Marin County. Perhaps it was the confidence boost I’d gotten from trying my first 5.12 that allowed me to stammer enough words to arrange a future climbing date with the girl who had wandered over from the nearby nude beach to watch us climb. It must have been a spectacle, since the climb was stunning: a one-inch crack gracefully splitting an overhanging wall of dense Greenstone.

Bathed in a sunset glow and floating on a cloud as I hiked back to the car, I marveled over a dreamy kaleidoscope of flowering red and yellow plants, the heady aroma of sage mixed with humid sea air and the distant sound of booming waves.

This was the day I fell in love with climbing, and it’s lasted 30 years.

The Bay Area. I love living here—it’s one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. You could say it’s a big, ugly metropolis, and you’d be partly right. Yet the Bay Area retains its natural beauty. On summer evenings a thick wave of ocean fog pours through the Golden Gate and over the dark ridge of Mount Tamalpais, sweetening the blighted air. Ancient towering redwoods on Tam’s lofty Bolinas Ridge offer low boughs, made to be climbed, above the fog where you can peer into the wind and watch the sun settle into the Pacific while the mist assumes different shades of orange, pink and purple.

The climbing varies, but some of it is downright proud, offering good stone in amazing settings. While it has become fun and fashionable to take the stance that climbing here sucks, the polished holds on our local rocks tell a different story. It’s a story that begins on, but reaches past, our little bluffs to the world’s biggest walls and greatest climbs.

The Indian Rock Legacy

In 1934 Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson and Dick Leonard, all in their early 20s, practiced ropework on a paltry plug of rhyolite in the Berkeley Hills called Indian Rock. With an experimental attitude and the big walls of Yosemite as their goal, the youths developed a dynamic hip-belay technique that upped the odds of surviving big falls on the static ropes of the time.

After a few months of practice on the 40-foot rock, during which time they took and caught falls of over 20 feet, they brought their newfound skills to bear on the landmark first ascent of Higher Cathedral Spire, far and away Yosemite’s hardest climb at the time.

A few years later, in 1939, David Brower, who had also learned the art of climbing on the Berkeley Rocks, made the first ascent of the oft-tried (his was the 13th attempt) 2,500-foot Shiprock in New Mexico.

Brower’s technical skills developed to such a degree that he was hired to teach mountaineering to soldiers during World War II. His training of the 10th Mountain Regiment helped them in the rough terrain during the storming of Riva Ridge, a critical action that disrupted German lines in the North Apennines range of Italy. Brower, ultimately a great conservationist and considered the father of modern-day environmentalism, said once, “It is quite likely that Indian Rock, however indirectly, spared thousands of lives.”

In the 1940s the next generation of would-be pioneers, Allen Steck, Steve Roper and Chuck Pratt, focused their budding skills on harder and harder lines at Indian Rock and went forth to establish routes that still challenge climbers: The Steck-Salathé on Sentinel Rock (Yosemite, 1950), the West Face of El Cap (Yosemite, 1963), and the FFA of the Kor-Ingalls on Castleton Tower (Castle Valley, 1963).

Peter Haan and Galen Rowell were the next young climbers to step up to the plate at Indian Rock, in the early 1960s embracing the practice of eliminate problems like the slippery Watercourse done with only one hand (V5?), or by soloing the 40-foot I-12 (5.11a). In Yosemite Haan made the FFA of the Left Side of the Hourglass, a 5.11 undercling and offwidth with groundfall potential. His pre-cam, onsight ascent, in 1971, is still considered one of Yosemite’s boldest leads. Rowell went on to become one of the world’s foremost adventure photojournalists, and a prolific first ascentionist throughout the Sierra.

Christine Zalecki on Donkey Dong (5.11d), Castle Rock State Park. When the “Dong” broke off a few years ago, this four-star climb got even better.

In the 1970s locals were once again spurred to new heights, this time by a young mathematician named Nat Smale. Nat’s Traverse (V8, 1976), a 40-foot traverse near Indian Rock, marked a huge leap in standards. Smale’s climbing sparked a period during which he, Scott Frye, Harrison Dekker, John Sherman and, a few years later, Jeff Webb vied with each other to create progressively sicker boulder problems, developing mutant strength in the process. Sherman traveled the country looking for new and harder boulders, introducing his now widely used “V” bouldering scale in Hueco Tanks, Texas, where he established many new V9s (near the top of the scale at the time). Frye and Dekker left their marks around the country with numerous top-of-the-line ascents in sport climbing. The honed Dekker, whose study of library science earned him the moniker “Conan the Librarian,” lived for a time near the New River Gorge, where in 1991 he made the first ascent of The Travesty (5.13d), a route as yet unrepeated by his original direct line. Meanwhile, Scott Frye was busy traveling, leaving behind hard routes from Colorado to California, notably A Steep Climb named Desire (5.14a), Donner Summit, 1991, and Living in Fear (5.13d), Rifle, 1992. A few years later, in 1994, Jeff Webb quietly bagged Colorado’s first consensus 5.14 with Lungfish (5.14a/b), Rifle.

In 1988 Robb Rodden bought a climbing harness for his skinny 8-year-old daughter and brought her to Indian Rock to toprope The Slab and Transportation Crack. Beth Rodden, enamored with the sport from that day forward, went on to free climb several El Cap routes, including, with Tommy Caldwell, the FFA of Lurking Fear (5.13c) in 2000 and an early free ascent of the Nose (5.14a). In 2008 she fired Yosemite’s hardest climb, the short, vicious crack called Meltdown (5.14c).

Today Indian Rock offers the same challenges it did back in the 1930s. The cutter edges and burly overhangs have remained a magnet for local up-and–comers. Sometimes, when another dry and dusty summer yellows the grass and cakes the holds with a slippery film, Indian Rock seems destined to slip into obscurity. But like the arrival of the afternoon fog, the next generation of youthful exuberance flows in with the winter rain to breathe new life into old holds, and the rock never fails to entertain, school or even provide one more Last Great Problem right up to V13.

The Castle Rock Connection

In the South Bay a similar scenario has played out at the Fontainebleau-esque blobs of Castle Rock State Park. Castle Rock is no doubt the Bay Area’s premier bouldering spot, with bizarre, technical moves on slopers and pockets that are frustratingly hard but all the more satisfying once mastered. You’ll find the same quirky attributes on the scores of fun miniature sport routes (40-80 feet tall) that lie hidden in dark forest chambers throughout the 3,600-acre park.

The sandstone boulders were a perfect training ground for developing the friction skills and take-no-prisoners attitude needed for hard Yosemite climbs. During the 1960s the Castle regulars Barry Bates and Jim Bridwell honed their free climbing on desperate sloper problems like The Spoon (V3), The Bates Arête (V4) and The Bates Eliminate (V6). These two climbers were largely responsible for the solidification of the 5.11 grade in Yosemite in the early 1970s, with first free ascents of Butterfingers (5.11a) by Bridwell in 1971 and New Dimensions (5.11a) by Bates and Steve Wunsch in 1972. Of course Bridwell also went on to author many of Yosemite’s most daunting big-wall climbs, including the Sea of Dreams (A5), 1978.

Christine Zalecki on Captain Hook (5.10c), The Treasure Chest, Fisk Mill Cove. The tricky arete is followed by a long reach and a move into a bombay chimney, and topped off with a body-length roof.

A few years later the future Yosemite denizens Ron Kauk, Scott Cosgrove and John Yablonski frequented the boulders, and left behind classics like the Yabo Roof (V5) and Coz Daddy Roof (V6). In Yosemite Kauk went on to the FAs of Astroman (5.11c), in 1975, Midnight Lightning (V8), in 1978, and Magic Line (5.14b); Cosgrove’s Southern Belle (5.12d R/X) of 1988 with Dave Schultz has seen only two repeat ascents in 23 years and his 1988 Joshua Tree testpiece The New Deal (5.13d/14a) just received a second ascent last year.

The 1980s were a quiet time at Castle Rock, but in the early 1990s a clumsy adolescent from Santa Cruz began to show up with the locals Andy Puhvel, Sterling Keene and Chris Bloch. Chris Sharma scanned the boulders with fresh eyes and discovered the next harvest of excellent problems, culminating in his ascent of The Ecoterrorist (V11), 1996, when he was 13. Sharma’s problems, featured in photos and videos, put Castle Rock on the map for good, and boulderers from as far away as the East Coast began to add Castle as a destination.

This era also saw the resurgence of the sometimes forgotten jumble of huge conglomerate cliffs and boulders east of Santa Cruz called The Pinnacles. Sharma, by now 14, made a fast ascent of the area’s hardest route, Lardbutt (5.13c) before establishing his own route, Übermensch (5.14a), 1996, a year later. In 2001 Sharma traveled to France for the first ascent of Realization (the world’s first 5.15a). This landmark ascent was shortly after his recovery from knee surgery. His rehab had been 30 days of bouldering barefoot at Panther Beach, a gorgeous and lonely stretch of plush sand in Santa Cruz featuring a wave-sculpted sea cliff a quarter-mile long. The crumbly, soft sandstone offered some Céüse-like pockets and fun problems—but no names or ratings, which suited Sharma perfectly.

LEFT: Chris Sharma on Mickey’s Beach Arete (5.13c), Mickey’s Beach. This arete is what remains of Mickey’s Beach Crack, the super-classic 5.12b fingercrack whose right side fell into the ocean in 1994.

The Santa Rosa Legacy

The medium-sized, a-little-bit-country North Bay city of Santa Rosa has been the breeding ground for the most recent series of game-changers. During the 1990s the steel-fingered locals Marcos Nunez and Jason Campbell developed many of the remote and windswept Sonoma Coast crags and boulders, setting the stage for future climbs by Kevin Jorgeson, a quiet Santa Rosa teen who began blowing minds in 2002 at Indian Rock, where he’d huck laps on Impossible Wall (V9) and New Wave (V9), trying to catch a pump. Soon he was pushing the Bay Area highball envelope on North Coast classics like Stony White Shoes Johnson (5.13a solo). Visiting the Buttermilks, he brought a new base line to an area already rife with crippling highball problems, establishing mind-benders like the Beautiful and the Damned (V13), 30 feet, and Ambrosia (V11), 55 feet. Now he’s ensconced in the project of a lifetime, working on the FFA of Mescalito on El Capitan with Tommy Caldwell, a route that may set the standard for the hardest big wall free-climb ever.

Thrashing about overgrown trails and scrambling up short cliffs has been an important rite of passage for our local heroes. At the gym you won’t learn which direction the sun is moving, or when the full moon rises. You won’t learn about tides and swells, get lost or run out of water. You won’t wonder about the Natives of this area, what they ate, or if they climbed these rocks before you. In short, you won’t learn about the natural world, a key ingredient for many when falling in love with climbing.

Our crags seldom reach past 60 feet in height. Some are decidedly urban, like The Beaver Street Wall, a 50-foot cliff of polished chert in the Heart of SF’s Castro district, but others are wild, like the northern seaside crags at Fisk Mill Cove. Sometimes it’s possible to escape the snarling city confines with a mere 10-minute drive. On a bustling Walnut Creek weekday you can get a two-pitch route done after work, sharing quiet Pine Canyon with only coyotes, rattlesnakes and eagles. At Castle Rock you may become hopelessly lost looking for the fabled Klinghoffer Boulders while thrutching through bushes. At the Pinnacles a wild pig may accost you as you stumble back to your car in the dark, exhausted. At Mickey’s Beach a sea bird could perch on the clipping jug of your favorite route and spew sea-bile on you, or you might reach the chains in the last orange blush of a California sunset, as the waves lap below, tinged frothy pink in the fading light of another perfect day.

Jim Thornburg, a photographer from Berkeley, is completing work on his guidebook to Bay Area climbing. Look for it soon at

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