Ventura might seem like an unlikely place for a climbing cult to flourish. Local hills are sandstone and the rock is insufficient for lead climbing. It's a long way to Joshua Tree.
But Black Diamond, a well-known Ventura manufacturer of climbing equipment, and the Ventura River Wall, a 250-foot traversing wall beneath the freeway, have put Ventura on the climbing map.
Black Diamond employs many climbers. To some of them, Painted Cave, Gibraltar Rock, Sespe Gorge and other county climbs are out of reach at the end of a workday. Two years ago, some climbers got a wild idea and started gluing rocks on a wall in the Ventura riverbed under the Ventura Freeway. That was the beginning of the River Wall. It's the closest thing to real climbing near home and is perfect for training during the week.
The River Wall is not the only freeway wall being used by rock climbers. For years now, rock-climbing enthusiasts have been gluing rocks to acres of vertical Caltrans concrete to make artificial climbs.
The state Department of Transportation recently came across some rocks glued to a freeway supporting wall at Flint Canyon Wash near Pasadena. Now that they know what people are doing there, Caltrans will be removing the rocks, said Selma Gleason, spokeswoman of Caltrans District 7 in Los Angeles.
But to destroy all climbing walls, Caltrans will have to find them, and that could take a while. Walls are carefully guarded secrets, passed by word of mouth in a very small circle.
According to members of that circle, as many as 30 other walls may exist in Los Angeles County, with dozens more in Orange and Riverside counties.
The River Wall is no longer a secret since it has been written about in Climbing magazine and is one of three Caltrans walls mentioned in Craig Fry's "Bouldering Guide to Southern California" (Chockstone Press, Boulder, Colo.).
The wall is easy to miss, almost invisible. When the late afternoon sunlight slants in under the bridge, the wall could almost be mistaken for quirky conceptual art--until climbers get on it, moving in a crisscross pattern from rock to rock.
The glued-on rocks, collected from climbing areas around the world--such as the Shawangunks in New York state, El Trono Blanco in Baja California and the Blue Mountains in Australia--are interspersed with manufactured holds. Six U.S. companies now design and manufacture the artificial holds.
According to Reese Martin, an environmental engineer and a climber, the creators of the River Wall chose not to bolt anything into the concrete surface. Instead, to preserve the wall's structural integrity, they used glue. Reflectorized road marker adhesive is the epoxy of choice, but it's expensive. Bondo body-work filler is cheaper but more brittle.
"Two kinds of wall-climbing are possible," Martin said. "Some climbs are designed to go up, such as the 65-foot vertical pillar ascent under the 210 Freeway, a climb which requires bolts and equipment."
The River Wall, however, was designed for horizontal traversing, or "bouldering"--climbing close to the ground for fun and training.
For added enjoyment, or perhaps to make up for the missing thrill that height provides, horizontal climbers play games to help develop their form--hands must be kept below shoulders, and no touching the same rock twice.
"Good for the tendons and hands," Martin said, climbing onto the wall. He moved quickly and smoothly from north to south about two or three feet off the ground, making it look easy.
"No need to go higher," he said. "It's just practice."
The highest holds on the River Wall are less than 10 feet off the ground. And yet, far above the highest holds can be seen ghostly, chalky palm prints.
"Made by a hot dog," said Fred Clark, a manager at General Electric and a wall regular with a disdain for vertical climbing. Clark recently introduced his 12-year-old son, E. J., to the wall.
"He wasn't good at anything," Clark said. "But when he took climbing classes and found out how good he was, he gained self-confidence and improved enormously at school.
"He's like a damn spider up there," Clark said.
Russ Clune is a world-class climber.
"The spirit in which the River Wall was built was to have a place where we can get a good 'pump,' " said Clune, a sales representative for Black Diamond. "It's a fun social event, and it's not dangerous."
Mark Robinson, an orthopedic surgeon and an avid climber, agreed.
"You'd think there'd be spectacular trauma with such an apparently dangerous sport," Robinson said. "But in fact you almost never get significant injuries. Anything more than a bruise or sprained ankle is unusual."
Robinson and his wife, Susan, an internist, have climbed in France and frequently climb at sites outside the state.
"After I started climbing the River Wall, I got tons better as a climber," said Susan Robinson, who once broke her wrist climbing. "Climbing the wall's good for two things: grip strength and moving sidewards--which gives you more options when climbing on real rock."