Mission Cliffs is one of six climbing gyms in the Bay Area (see box), and one of three managed by Touchstone Climbing. The first of its kind in San Francisco, it opened in 1995 but didn't gain a following until around 2000 when the sport surged in popularity. Today, there are an estimated 10 million climbers in the United States, with a sizable percentage in the Bay Area.
Despite superior climbing features and fitness facilities at some other gyms, Mission Cliffs remains one of the most popular, with a cult following. That's due only in part to its convenient location in the heart of the Mission. After trying out other gyms, Ambrose settled on Mission Cliffs because of its "down-to-earth quality." Other members regularly cite the open, welcoming vibe and the "friendly, quirky" staff as reasons for their patronage.
Rows of bicycles hang over the railing at the entrance of Mission Cliffs' converted
warehouse. The front desk stereo blasts everything from the Clash to Bob Marley, and inside the gym the conversation is almost deafening. While working out in a conventional gym is a mostly solitary activity in a hushed setting, climbing is collaborative and social. "MC is always bustling. During peak hours you can't even hear the music over the conversation, falling climbers and the nearly constant call for climbing partners," said Nick Lane-Smith, 30, a local technology entrepreneur and a climber of six years.
Venturing up the 50-foot walls at Mission Cliffs requires a partner. Most people bring one, but the gym encourages members to meet others. Announcements over the loudspeakers regularly call for "top-roping" for unpaired climbers. In top-roping, a rope is anchored to the top of the wall through a pulley system, and attached to the climber and "belay partner" on the ground. The belay partner provides weight at the other end of the rope, acting as a brake that keeps climbers from hitting the ground in the event they fall.
In "lead climbing," an advanced technique that allows the climber to "lead" the rope up the wall, there is no top anchor. Climbers, attached to belay partners on the ground, clip into carabiners (heavy metal loops) placed in the wall. Falling while lead climbing can create a spectacle. Not only are the drops longer, but also the belay partners providing the opposing weight are often lifted off the ground by the force of the drop. Climbers become part of the audience, standing around and cheering on others as they reach for a particularly challenging handhold.
On the second floor of Mission Cliffs is the 2,000-square-foot bouldering cave, where people sit around and tell stories, trade advice and problem-solve. Bouldering is done on small walls and doesn't require ropes or partners. Climbers jump on and off the walls, sometimes focusing on singular climbing moves for hours. "There's more of a social scene up here," said a climbing-chalk-covered Michal Kubicki, an attorney who lives in the Lower Haight.
The popularity of the sport isn't surprising, considering the hiking trails, well-formed rocks, and parks like Joshua Tree, Indian Rock, Castle Rock and Desolation Wilderness within driving distance of the Bay Area. Climbers can practice indoors year-round and plan outdoor trips based on weather and optimal climbing conditions.
While many people train to summit landmarks in the great outdoors, others enjoy indoor climbing as its own sport. It strengthens the core, leg and arm muscles, while improving flexibility. It's also a complement to yoga, because of its emphasis on focus, flexibility and balance. Whether bouldering or top-roping, there's problem solving involved. Rarely is a climb as straightforward as moving up a ladder. Knowing how to shift your weight, where to place your feet, how to reach the next hold is an intensely challenging and cerebral exercise.
The walls at Mission Cliffs may be filled with a fair share of the local 20-40 age group, but Adam Barczak, a staffer at Mission Cliffs, says membership encompasses a wide age range - from toddlers to retirees. Franco Faraganu, 61, an instructor, has been climbing for more than 30 years. There are kids' birthday parties and regular juvenile climbers as well. One member often brings his 4-year-old niece to climb the walls.
Gym a comfortable fit
Some Bay Area climbers might take one look at the crowded rock faces, small bouldering area and outdated, tiny weight-lifting area of Mission Cliffs and think, "What's the big deal?" The gym's one fitness area is shared by spinning, yoga, and abs and core classes while other gyms have multiple rooms dedicated to different activities. But for devotees, the gym is as comfortable as a favorite pair of old climbing shoes.
Mission Cliffs is seeking approval to double in size, but the process has been slow. According to Donna Dunlap, the gym's manager, the expansion was approved after initial plans were submitted in April to the Department of Building Inspection. A hearing in front of the City Planning Department was held in June, but the final go-ahead has yet to be granted.
Plans for the new Mission Cliffs call for an additional 1,000 square feet of bouldering terrain, updated fitness facilities, and an undisclosed number of new top and lead climbing routes (paths up the wall). When completed, it will be one of the biggest climbing gyms in the country. But once it's all spiffed up, will Mission Cliffs lose its identity and the loyalty of members who appreciate its well-worn charm?
Six places to get belayed in the Bay Area
TOUCHSTONE CLIMBING: MISSION CLIFFS SAN FRANCISCO
Fitness classes: yoga, spinning, cardio boxing, abs and core
Bouldering: 2,000 square feet
Top roping: 125 routes
Lead: 50 routes
Exercise equipment and weights
Membership: $67 per month