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SANTA CRUZ — The Pacific Edge Climbing Gym, one of the first indoor climbing gyms in the country, is celebrating 20 years of belaying up 50-foot walls, bouldering craggy caves and navigating a surge of enthusiasm for the indoor phenomenon.
“I always wanted to make a living as a climber,” said Tom Davis, 51, who visited the few climbing gyms in existence back in the ’90s before designing what would then be one of the biggest indoor climbing gyms in the world. “It was a really big risk for a town this size.”
Back then, indoor climbing was still an uncertain predilection for climbers accustomed to rappelling from more scenic venues
such as Castle Rock or Yosemite. Experienced climbers sometimes created their own plywood training walls with wooden hand grips known as “woodies” but the indoor walls with adjustable plastic hand holds were still emerging.
Within months, however, the gym had several hundred members and novices were being trained on safety techniques. Women were encouraged to visit; youth classes and outreach to at-risk youth began and, today, the gym’s membership tops 1,870.
In the last 20 years, there has been a surge in indoor climbing facilities and the numbers are growing, according to industry analysts and the companies that provide related products and gear. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are nearly 20 climbing gyms. The Climbing Wall Association, a Boulder, Colo.-based national trade group, provides services to 400 companies in the business, according to its website.
“There’s been an explosion in growth since we started,” said Diane Russell, 58, one of the few early competitive women climbers and was nationally ranked in the ’90s. Russell came on board at Pacific Edge before the doors opened and helped design the climbing curriculum. Now, co-owner with Davis, she says about 100 people visit the gym on any given day. “Since climbers are used to traveling, we get quite a bit of traveling climbers, too.”
Through the years, the duo has navigated tough economic downturns by broadening the gym’s focus to include a full yoga schedule, a weight room, cardio machines and a sauna.
Each week for most of the last 20 years, Russell and staff have set new routes of varying difficulty up the vertical indoor walls, challenging visitors with new puzzles on their way toward the skylights. She adjusts the colorful plastic moldings just within reach, or makes the climber test a new move.
“I’m thinking, ‘That’s kind of a cool move,'” Russell said. “‘Maybe I want to back-step here.’ It (the new route) builds itself from there.”
The gym, the early training ground for internationally acclaimed competitive climber Chris Sharma, has drawn a diverse group of climbers. Since rope climbing is not a solo sport, community is fostered in every way possible. The sport is most popular among college-aged climbers, but the summer includes many youth programs and mornings are often filled with climbers in the “golden years.”
“The people who climb here are what makes this business so successful,” Davis said. “People meet and get married. I met my wife here and Diane met her partner here. Whole groups go out on adventures together from here and the age-spread is wildly diverse.”
Rather than expand into other locations such as many gyms in Silicon Valley, Davis and Russell decided early on to focus on having one successful Santa Cruz venue and allow themselves time for personal climbing adventures.
“A lot of kids at the gym have competed at the international level,” said Tom Turrentine, an Aptos resident who is one of 16 original members still at the gym. His daughter, Sasha, was a toddler among the belay ropes and grew up to climb competitively domestically and abroad.
“It has been a great way for families to be active together, Turrentine said. “Tom and Diane provided a social locale for us all to hang out.” Just back from Yosemite, Turrentine said the gym provides a way for him to climb walls he first tried more than four decades ago. “I would never have been able to do that without the gym.”
The gym will be holding its annual membership party next month.
Follow Sentinel correspondent Jennifer Pittman at Twitter.com/jenniferpittman
AT A GLANCE
Pacific Edge Climbing Gym
WHAT: The gym provides more than 15,000 square feet of climbing walls, climbing and yoga instruction, a weight room, cardio equipment and a sauna. The gym also has a pro shop with climbing equipment, shoes, harnesses, ropes and guidebooks of California.
CLIMBING SET-UP: The gym has 11,000 square feet of climbing including the top-rope and lead area with 23 top ropes and more than 50 routes ranging in difficulty from 5.5 to 5.12. In addition, there are four cracks: finger, hand, chimney and off-width, and a bouldering Lead Cave with about 25 lead routes ranging in difficulty from 5.9 to 5.13 and another bouldering room with angled walls.
HEADQUARTERS: 104 Bronson St. No. 12, Santa Cruz
INFORMATION: 831-454-9254; http://pacificedgeclimbinggym.com
HISTORY: The gym opened in 1993 in the former home of Monterey Mushrooms Co. It was designed and built by Tom Davis, Tom Voelkel and Michael Harrington with investments from family and friends.
LEADERSHIP: Tom Davis and Diane Russell, co-owners.
EMPLOYEES: About 25, including part-time workers.
This article on Pacific Edge Climbing Gym first appeared here.