Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.
Photo by Nita-Rose Evans.

*WEB_FeatureClimber2Dangling from a rock jutting out 100 feet above the ground, a chalky hand grips the side of a cliff face. The only thing between Nik Martinelli and the ground is a half-inch-thick rope and several pieces of gear shoved in the cracks in the rock, made of nothing but lightweight steel, springs and plastic. Martinelli gathers all his physical and mental strength and lunges for the next grab. He misses it by inches, and the ground rushes toward him.

He plunges for a terrifying — or invigorating, depending on your point of view — few seconds. The thick rope catches him, and for an instant he is flying, rappelling down the face of the cliff.

This may sound like a scene from a nightmare, but it is something that hundreds of avid rock climbers in Santa Cruz experience by choice.

“God invented rocks for me to climb,” Martinelli said. “And who am I to go against God’s will?”

The rock climbers of Santa Cruz are a community of adventure-lovers young and old who climb local rocks, boulders, and in the indoor rock climbing gym. Beyond community highlights such as the Pacific Edge Climbing Gym, Castle Rock State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Pinnacles National Monument, top-shelf climbing beckons to adventurers.

“Yosemite, the Sierras, Joshua Tree … there is world-class climbing just a few hours away,” said Mark Brower, the UC Santa Cruz senior recreation department supervisor.

“When you’re climbing, you are aware of the moment, you are in the present, so you feel so much more alive,” Brower said. “It’s a physical dance and a mental meditation.”

Pushing their physical and mental limits, these climbers go to the extreme to triumph the heights in Santa Cruz and beyond.

Life on the Edge

Rachel Fiske was afraid of heights. When her friends asked her to go to Pacific Edge Climbing Gym with them her freshman year, she kept turning them down.

“Eventually they talked me into it and I had so much fun,” Fiske said. “I went back three or four times that week.”

Now a third-year and an avid rock climber, Fiske considers climbing a part of her life. She goes to Pacific Edge a few times a week with her friends.

Diane Russell and Tom Davis, the gym’s owners, estimate that two-thirds to half the climbers at Pacific Edge are students from UCSC, Cabrillo, local high schools, and other youth programs.

Russell and Davis are very experienced climbers — Russell has been climbing for 30-plus years and Davis for more than 20 years — and both have climbed all over the world. Between the two of them, they have climbed on five continents.

Russell forms her life around climbing.

“It becomes a lifestyle,” she said. “I form my whole life around it. I plan vacations around it. It’s fitness, community, and adventure. You can climb any place in the world.”

Russell has climbed in Europe, Asia, Mexico, and all over the United States. She still wants to go to Thailand to climb limestone-lined beaches.

“It’s an incredibly engaging thing,” Russell said. “You’re also engaging with the world by climbing stunningly beautiful places.”

Back in the gym, climbers of all ages test themselves against rocks of varying difficulty. The differing colors of the holds signify the difficulty of the climb. A 10-year-old kid climbs sideways across the bouldering area, while a trio of middle-aged men take turns belaying each other on the top-rope.

“The draw of the sport is the excitement and the adrenaline,” Russell said. “People initially come because they are drawn to adventure. Once they get here, it’s about community, fun, getting stronger, and solving puzzles with your body.”

Davis and Russell opened Pacific Edge in 1993. It was the second rock climbing gym to open in California.

“Twenty years ago, there weren’t any climbing gyms. They helped make the sport more popular,” recreation supervisor Brower said.

The gym also hosts practices for the American Bouldering Series in the fall and the Sport Climbing Series in the spring. These two different competitions are for kids aged 12 to 17.

Joaquin Nagle, a Pacific Edge employee and coach for the American Bouldering Series, said four kids from Pacific Edge qualified for nationals last year. Mid-explanation, he paused to suggest a good side hold to a fellow climber.

“Climbing is good cross-training for other sports,” said Nagle, who is also an avid Ultimate Frisbee player. “It’s a way to trick yourself into exercising.”

In the training room, Nagle demonstrated the various types of holds and the cornucopia of strange names to express them: there’s the pocket crimper, finger stack, hand jam, ring locks, toe jam, foot jam, side pull, pinch, jug, under hang, hand jam, and many more.

Photo by Kathryn Power
Photo by Kathryn Power

The Climbers

In high school, Nik Martinelli worked in a hardware store. He also fell in love with climbing. Somehow, he managed to convince his parents to let him combine these two skills in a very unconventional, creative way: he built a climbing wall on the side of his two-story house.

“They didn’t think it would be a reality,” Martinelli said. “They thought it was just one of my crazy ideas. They were surprisingly okay with it.”

Now the president of the Santa Cruz backpacking club, Martinelli just got back from leading an OPERS snow camping trip — teaching adventurous souls to build igloos, make fires in the snow, and dig snow caves. Usually he goes climbing indoors about three times a week and ventures to Castle Rock or Joshua Tree when the weather permits.

“Anything outdoors, I’m there,” Martinelli said. “I love knots and the technical aspect of climbing. It’s a physical and mental challenge. It’s rewarding to be completely exhausted and come back from a day of climbing with your buddies having conquered some rock. So few people get a chance to experience it.”

Martinelli also emphasized the importance of adventure, not just in a physical sense, but on a social level.

“Rock climbing gives me a chance to go to places I wouldn’t visit normally and meet really awesome people,” Martinelli said.

Newer climbers fall in love with the sport almost immediately. Dangling above a huge drop, the only thing holding you up besides the rope is your own strength — the adrenaline and the endorphins pump through your body like a helium into an inflating balloon. New climbers are drawn not only to the physical excitement of climbing, but also to the daring, supportive personalities that dangle alongside them on their perilous climbs.

After attempting a particularly difficult heel hook, a move in which the heels are swung up above the head and used as leverage to pull the climber up the boulder, Sam Kraus was contemplating his third attempt at the tricky course when he stopped to talk. He started climbing just three weeks ago and is already in love with the sport.

“These are all puzzles that can be solved,” he said, stopping to brush chalk on a handhold.

Solving the puzzles of bouldering results in just a short plummet to whomp — or fall gracefully, depending on your style — on a crash pad just a few feet away. When top-roping, however, the fall lasts much longer, until the rope pulls tight to catch you. For some, falling is exhilarating, but for others it’s frustrating and scary.

“Just because you fall doesn’t mean you’re failing,” said Lauren MacDonald, a UCSC creative writing student. “It means you’re trying.”

MacDonald got into climbing nine months ago and now considers it a huge part of her life. She draws connections between the physicality of climbing and the deeper psychological aspects of the sport.

“It’s extremely mental and emotional,” MacDonald said. “If you’re not in your mind-space, it’s hard to perform. It’s easy to take fear, embarrassment and nervousness and flip it into something you can use.”

Some climbers find their mind-space outdoors, drawing on the connection between body and nature.

Teresa Miller, a OPERS recreation leader of backpacking, river-rafting and mountaineering trips, encourages students to try outdoor climbing.

“Backcountry climbing is a place you feel so far out. You feel so vulnerable and there’s all this wind in your face,” Miller said. “You feel really small, and that’s empowering. Seeing yourself do stuff you thought was impossible is addicting and rewarding.”

Beyond the physical strength built through climbing, nonphysical benefits are endless, recreation supervisor Brower explained.

“It’s a way to build confidence,” he said. “Learn about how you react, how you are in different situations. You feel like you’re going to die, but you take that and use it to your advantage. Climbing allows you to find clarity and learn about yourself.”

On any given OPERS rock-climbing trip, instructors will teach skills in belaying and climbing technique, but the rest is up to you. What a new climber learns that first day on the rock is that willpower is everything. The real obstacle is not the rock itself, but rather something within. When climbing up the side of a cliff, the true test is not of your body, but rather of your mind and inner strength. Do you trust yourself enough to make the lunge?