Climbing Season Kicks Off at Mission Bay

School of Dentistry

The Mission Bay campus, with its inviting green spaces and futuristic buildings, is an urban oasis rising amid the concrete and gravel of its immediate surroundings.  However, only once you’ve been to the fourth floor of the Bakar Fitness Center will you experience the finest public space at Mission Bay, and indeed one of the most fantastic spots in the whole city. 

Standing beside the rooftop pool and climbing wall, you feel miles away from the hustle and bustle below—instead, just sunshine, unfettered breezes, fantastic views of downtown and the glinting waters of the bay beyond.  

And how do you reach the true summit of this paradisiacal playground?  There is only one way: Pull yourself up to the top of the climbing wall.

Climbing season at the UCSF climbing wall has begun again, running every year from April 1 through Thanksgiving.  This amazing structure is free to use for members, including free use of all the gear and a climbing instructor who will safely guide your experience — usually Travis Nichols, an expert alpinist and encouraging coach. 

The imposing wall, which has been in operation for five years, is about 35 feet tall and features two overhanging buttresses, steep granitic cracks and many craggy ledges. 

“Here we have an outdoor experience. We’re already pretty high up, being on the fourth floor, there is sun and wind, and even the texture of our wall is rough, similar to real rock.  It’s kind of like a transition between a typical rock gym and real outdoor climbing,” said the affable Nichols. 

This wall is truly an excellent place for beginner climbers.  Commercial climbing gyms (of which there are two in The City) normally charge around $20 for a one-time visit and also charge for gear rentals, making it hard for people to just try it out. 

Add on the amazing rooftop setting and personal instruction, and you’ve got an intro to climbing opportunity at UCSF that is unparalleled.

Rosa Chan, a first-year grad student, started climbing at the Bakar climbing wall last fall.  “They were very supportive — I was just a beginner climber, and Travis really cheered me on.  A lot of us are scientists and not very athletic, but this is a wall for everyone,” said Chan. 

She then proceeded to confidently tie the rope into her harness and waltz gracefully skyward, demonstrating how much she’s learned in less than a year.

And if you’re a seasoned gym rat or Yosemite dirt-bag, withhold your skepticism: I challenge any of you to onsight (climbing lingo referring to a climb without falling and without any preknowledge of the route) the fantastic finger crack that ascends the left buttress. 

Rated by Travis at 5.10+ (and he is in fact the only person known to have climbed this crack), I found it to be better than any indoor crack I’ve seen and comparable in quality — I’m serious now! — to the third pitch of Serenity Crack in Yosemite. 

Even if you are a member at one of the other gyms, you must come try the Bakar wall for this well-textured crack, if nothing else.

A small group of regulars has discovered the charms of this little climbing gem and are very welcoming to newbies. “There’s a core group of people who come often. Pretty soon, you start seeing the same faces — it’s a nice little climbing community,” said Shaun O’Brien, who has been coming for two years.

The hours of operation are every Tuesday and Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. (except May 2, when the gym will be closed).   In addition, the fitness center offers climbing classes (, (415) 476-2078).

They say, “We will provide everything you will need for a safe and fun experience;” and having had such an experience myself, I can assure you that it’s true. 

If, instead, you’d like to teach those classes, the UCSF Outdoor Programs is looking for an additional instructor — anyone with climbing experience is welcome to contact Ben O’Banion.