Rock climbing in SLO County offers close-knit community, physical and mental challenge

Aaron Formella has a perspective on San Luis Obispo County’s countless arresting vistas that most others who live in this scenic slice of the world aren’t likely to share.

On a seasonably warm late-January afternoon, the Atascadero resident is about to take in the sun setting over Morro Bay while perched on the side of a rock face at the base of Cerro Cabrillo. He just has to get up there first.

The 32-year-old biologist and Cal Poly graduate quietly inspects his climbing gear, rope, harness, and carabiners before looking up at his intended route known as “Olas Negras.” He takes a moment to imagine the climb in his head, mimicking the movements he’s intending to utilize while still on the ground.

He high-fives his belaying partner, Aaron Stireman, and with that he’s grasping the first hold and pulling himself up the rocky cliff. Within seconds, he’s at a height that would make the uninitiated more than a bit squeamish.

Aaron Stireman climbs a route at Cerro Cabrillo on Jan. 26, 2017. Joe Johnston - jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Formella and his friends who have joined him on this day – Stireman, Gwendolyn Hodgson and Yishai Horowitz – are avidly involved in an ever-growing community of climbers who not only take advantage of the geographically beneficial location that provides access to places such as Cabrillo and Bishop Peak, two of the Nine Sisters that dot the county, among other spots, but also an active climbing gym scene.

“I think it’s a good place to live if you’re a climber,” Horowitz said.

Area growth

Among the group, Horowitz could be considered one of the leaders in that growth. He founded SLO-Op Climbing about 12 years ago inside an actual self-storage unit with a small group of friends, and once they moved to a permanent location, they quickly grew to around 300 members.

The gym has been at its current location – a 3,500-square-foot bouldering facility – on Prado Road for seven years, and membership is up to around 1,000. Horowitz is planning yet another upgrade, too, to a 13,000-square-foot facility on Ricardo Court this fall. Judging the sport’s nationwide growth on climbing gyms alone, Climbing Business Journal reported in January at least 6 percent growth in new facilities each year since 2011.

“It’s definitely gaining popularity,” Horowitz said, “and I think a lot of that has to do with climbing gyms just being more of an accessible sport where you don’t have to have rocks to climb.”

He estimates around 20 to 30 percent of his members also climb outside and use the gym to practice, stay in shape and as a social scene to meet other climbers.

Aaron Formella free falls from the top of the route he finished at Cerro Cabrillo on Jan. 26, 2017. Joe Johnston - jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

A healthy lifestyle

Outside the gym at Cabrillo Peak, Formella is demonstrating why the sport has such an appeal and what you’ll hear if you ask a climber why they love it so much: movement of the body, being in touch with nature, breathing, controlling your thoughts and – oftentimes – fears.

That’s all on display as Formella makes his way up the southwesterly-facing wall. His lanky 6-foot-4 frame smoothly moves from one hold to the other, employing every inch of himself, literally toes to fingertips. He calls out what moves he’ll be making to Stireman, underscoring the teamwork that goes into a climb.

Close to the top, his muscles strained and fatigue setting in, Formella exerts himself, his breath reaching deeper and deeper for oxygen. On his first ascent, he falls just short of the peak, yelling out “falling” as he missed a hold.

The second attempt is a success, followed by an adrenaline-inducing – voluntary – fall approximately 15 feet to begin the seconds-long descent.

“I’ve always enjoyed it, from day one when I got started bouldering at Bishop Peak,” Formella said. “I’ve always just enjoyed the movement of it and the challenge. And the other reason is you grow from it. It challenges you mentally, both with problem-solving and pushing back fears.”

He added: “I see a lot of self-improvement in my own life and other people’s lives from doing it.”

Formella knows better than most and is a testament to climbing as a healthy lifestyle. He said he would stay up late at night playing video games, “not really living a healthy lifestyle or anything,” when a friend invited him to SLO-Op.

Gwendolyn Hodgson climbs a route at Cerro Cabrillo as her belayer, Aaron Formella, keeps a close eye on Jan. 26, 2017. Joe Johnston - jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“And I just started to become more healthy,” he said. “Some of the most notable accomplishments I’ve done so far have involved climbing. … And just creating these bonds with friends and partners that you do that with because you’re literally having the other person’s life in your hands, because when you’re belaying them, and there’s a lot of trust that you have to build there.”

There’s no doubt that rock climbing is a physically and emotionally demanding sport. You’re pulling yourself up a vertical – or even overhanging – rock wall, usually using a belaying system, which refers to a variety of techniques to anchor the climber with ropes and create tension to arrest a fall.

There are, of course, a number of different styles of rock climbing, some of which – for those more inclined to put their life on the line – don’t use safety ropes.

Bottom line, your muscles will work, and you’re likely to scare yourself.

“It doesn’t matter how much you train, that mental side of it, getting 1,000 feet up or something, it’s always going to be scary,” Stireman said. “But you just learn a lot of coping mechanisms and stuff. And that’s really the gift that comes along with it … all that personal growth is the real end of it.”

Tight-knit community

The communal nature of the hiking world is another big component and appeal among climbers.

Stireman, 31, a San Luis Obispo resident, said his closest friends are part of that world, including his girlfriend, Hodgson, whom he met while climbing.

“It was a great way to feel my body physically and growing and getting to hang out with family and friends,” said Hodgson, who got her start two years ago when her brother took her to SLO-Op. “And then when I met Aaron, I started going out more and to a lot more destinations, and the world started opening up.”

And while it may appear a daunting sport to get a foot in the door, Horowitz said it’s as easy as showing up to a climbing gym and starting with “bouldering” – climbing on low routes without the use of safety equipment – and working your way up from there. He said a good climbing gym is almost as much about the social scene as it is the climbing.

“I think everybody that has had a big influence on my life, like all of my best friends have all been because of climbing,” Stireman said. “If I didn’t have it, I don’t know, it would have just been a different path, for sure.”

Local climbing gyms

SLO-Op, slo-opclimbing.org

289 Prado Road, San Luis Obispo

2399 A St., Santa Maria

CRUX Climbing Center, www.cruxslo.com

1160 Laurel Lane, San Luis Obispo

Outdoor climbing

Cabrillo Peak, Morro Bay

Scott Rock, Cambria

Rock Front Ranch, Nipomo

Silly Rock, Nipomo

Wagon Caves, Fort Hunter Liggett

Climbing for beginners

▪  Join a climbing gym and meet people who will help you improve by working out problems together.

▪  Buy a cheap pair of comfortable climbing shoes and give the local boulders a try – it’s traditional to bring a “crash pad” for falls, but it’s not required.

▪  Research. The book “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills” is literally the guide on all things climbing. Teach yourself.

▪  Hire a guide (there aren’t any locally just yet) or go on vacation to Yosemite and visit the Yosemite Mountaineering Guides.

▪  Check the local meet-up groups (meetup.com) or Mountainproject.com to find a group or individual that’s friendly to newcomers.

Kristin Tara Horowitz, SLO-Op Climbing executive director