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It’s Springtime: Go Climb a Real Rock

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The author bouldering on a sunny day at the scenic Ocean Beach Boulders, just below the Cliff House. (Photo by Heather Dinh/D4

A guide to climbing spots in San Francisco

By T. Booth Haley
Staff Writer

California is home to the most famous rock climbing spot in the world, Yosemite.  Our fair city of San Francisco, however, is not so blessed.  

While Yosemite boasts the 3000-foot tall cliff of El Capitan—the highest cliffs anywhere outside of the Trango Towers in Pakistan and Mt. Thor on Baffin Island—San Francisco can barely claim a 30-foot cliff, the humble Beaver St. Wall on Corona Heights.

 While Yosemite is comprised of magnificent sparkling granite, the rock of San Francisco is a lowly type called chert, crumbly and dirt colored. The one advantage San Francisco climbing has over Yosemite: you don’t need a car and three-day weekend to make it happen.

Climbing in San Francisco has been popular for many years. With the recent opening of a third rock gym, Dog Patch Boulders, in the Dog Patch neighborhood near the Mission Bay campus, that popularity seems to only be growing. For many climbers who start in the gym, it’s a big jump in terms of gear acquisition and mental toughness to start climbing outdoors. The biggest barrier may be distance, especially for those young urbanites, who choose to not own expensive, polluting personal automobiles.

There is good news: Decent climbing, in fact, does exist right here in the city of San Francisco, accessible by bus or bike.

The recent publication of Bay Area Rock – Climbing and Bouldering in the San Francisco Bay Area (Potlicker Press; 7th edition), by Jim Thornburg, has introduced to the climbing public a new cliff, freshly cleaned of loose rock, bringing our total number of climbing areas to three. The classics are the Beaver St. Wall, with two top-rope routes, and the Glen Canyon Boulders, with many easy bouldering problems. (A boulder “problem” is the term for a short route around 10-feet tall that is climbed without ropes.) The new area, which is getting a lot more traffic since the Thornburg book came out, is the super-scenic Ocean Beach Boulders on a gray cliff right below the Cliff House.

Beaver St.

This old standard is an essential San Francisco climbing experience. The cliff looms above a pre-school at the end of Beaver St., right above the Castro on the western aspect of Corona Heights.  A top-rope can be anchored to the cement posts of the chain-link fence above.  The diagonal crack on the left is a 5.9 and if you climb the face directly up it is around 5.10. (For roped climbing the difficulty rating system starts at 5.5 and goes to 5.15.)

The chert here is fantastically smooth and polished; it is sometimes said that climbers can see their reflection in the rock. Although friction for foot-holds is low, having a true full length climbing route in the middle of The City is very special treat.

Glen Canyon

This area offers a greater array of rocks to play on, with two large cliff bands in this under-appreciated, natural and peaceful canyon park. The climbs here are all boulder problems from 10- to 15-feet tall, with many in the V0 realm. (For boulder problems the difficulty rating system ranges from V0 to V15.)  The outstanding routes are the Glen Canyon traverse (V4), starting on the lowest leftmost edge of the lower cliff, and Unnatural Act, the famously intimidating and overhung V3 roof on the upper cliff.

The former is never high enough to require a crash pad, but the latter will feel safe only with two or three pads and spotters. Glen Canyon is long enough to even go for a lovely hike of sorts which can make the trip an appealing full outdoors experience. If you bring a baby or small domesticated animal watch out for coyotes!

Ocean Beach Boulders

It is kind of amazing that after 50 years of climbers inhabiting the Bay Area, “new” climbing spots are still being discovered. It demonstrates how dependent most climbers are on guidebooks and how reluctant to venture onto unknown rocks. Well, this new spot is a gem, with a fantastic setting next to the crashing waves and jagged rocks at the north end of Ocean Beach.

The climbs are tall, around 20 feet, which makes them a bit more psychologically challenging.  At least the second half of all the routes get quite easy, so the chances of falling decrease as you go higher. The landings are sandy, which means you don’t need a crash pad unless the sand is wet.

The sand, in fact, is the big wildcard because it can fluctuate drastically throughout the year, changing in height by as much as six feet! When the sand is low, the climbs are even taller and the landings wetter and harder. When the sand is high, the climbs are less imposing and the landings soft and dry. Going during low tide is also advantageous, but not essential if the sand is in.

While most of the cliffs in the area are yellow, the one section with good bouldering can be identified by its dull gray hue. Two striking vertical cracks run up the face, both of which are nice V1 routes. The column between them is a dramatic V2, which finishes with a scary but easy mantle over a small roof. Harder problems exist on the right side of the cliff towards the mysterious cave, from the depths of which a tunnel leads back towards the main beach.

For details on this location or the other two San Francisco climbing spots I recommend the Thornburg book. Other guides exist but none of them include Ocean Beach. And if you’re an ambitious biker (or own a car), there are even more and better climbing spots in the Berkeley Hills, high on Mt. Tamalpias and at Stinson Beach, which are also described in the guidebook.

Climbing in the gym is great, but it truly gets exciting once you transition onto real rock. It’s like doing CPR on a mannequin versus actually saving the life of a hot-blooded human being—one is only practice for the other. Enjoy the rock and climb safe so you don’t end up needing CPR yourself!

T. Booth Haley is a fourth-year dental student.

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