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GO CLIMB A ROCK : Offshoot of Mountaineering Finds Its Way to Health Clubs


ROSSMOOR — During a recent trip to Chicago, Beth Mullins of Corona del Mar experienced "Mt. Chicago"--a 110-foot-high climbing wall that looms inside the seven-story atrium of the Sporting Club at Chicago.

"I was dying to climb that thing," says Mullins, 28. "But since I wasn't a member they wouldn't let me."

Mullins was attracted to the obvious physical and mental challenges of Mt. Chicago. She also liked the fact that snug-fitting harnesses and ropes manned by "belayers"--people who spot the climber--assured the safety of all the climbers, even the ones who occasionally slipped halfway up.

Mullins' brief gander at Mt. Chicago inspired her to take up the rapidly growing sport of rock climbing when she returned home. Friends had told her that the terrain in the nearby high desert and some of the local mountains make Southern California a rock climber's mecca.

So imagine Mullins' excitement when Chris and Barbara Monson of Orange took her to a spine-tingling place called "The Bat" in Joshua Tree National Monument in Anzo Borrego for her very first climb. "I got scared about halfway up," Mullins admits. "I wanted to quit, but when I looked down I realized that up was easier so I kept going up."

After scrambling over the top of the 400-foot vertical climb, Mullins said she felt a great sense of accomplishment. She couldn't wait to try it again.

She and the Monsons recently scaled the very first climbing wall to be installed in an Orange County health club. The modest 25-foot-high "face" was built against the front wall of an under-utilized squash court at Rossmoor Athletic Club in Seal Beach.

Following her first climb on "Mt. Rossmoor," a grinning Mullins said: "I think an indoor wall like this is a great way for people to check out rock climbing without having to drive three hours to Joshua Tree."

Rock climbing--or sport climbing, as the man-made wall version is called--is an increasingly popular offshoot of mountaineering.

Participants must use skill, strength, cunning and concentration to plot and navigate a course up a vertical wall. Cracks, strategically placed "holds," subtle wall textures and "sticky" shoes are their only allies in a focused struggle against gravity.

While the sport has been big in Europe for the past decade, its popularity in the United States has boomed only in the last couple of years.

"A couple of years ago there were less than 1,000 people in Orange County who had even tried rock climbing," says 11-year climbing veteran Tom Anderson, who works at Adventure-16, a wilderness outfitting store in Costa Mesa. "Now, thanks to lots of media coverage on 'Wild World of Sports' and other TV shows, we have well over 2,000. . . ."

Anderson is a floor manager at Adventure-16, which boasts the area's most sophisticated climbing wall.

The increased popularity of rock climbing along with the unique blend of physical and mental challenges offered by the sport have compelled local health club managers to consider rock climbing as a viable new twist in their never-ending struggle to attract and serve members.

Though Chris DeWire of Rossmoor Athletic Club was the first to install a wall, Doug Marquette of Racquetball World in Santa Ana, Michael Dreifus of Allen's Athletic Club in Laguna Niguel and Karen Shaw of Corporate Fitness Resources' Western Digital account in Irvine may not be far behind.

DeWire has a seven-week trial period contract with wall manufacturers Mark Able and Joel Greer of Verti-Cal Sports in Orange. He says that more than 200 people climbed Rossmoor's wall during the first two weeks it was up.

DeWire sees health club rock climbing as a form of cross-training that gives people a unique blend of physical and mental workout.

"Most people come down a little sweaty and really proud of themselves for squirming their way up that thing," DeWire says.

He plans to poll his membership at the end of the trial period.

"If the members want it, we'll keep it," he says. "We don't consider it revolutionary, but we do think it fills a niche."

DeWire adds that non-members can try out the wall with supervision for $7 per hour and managers of other health clubs are welcome to come see it.

One manager who did is Doug Marquette of Racquetball World in Santa Ana. Marquette says that rock-climbing facilities, done right, would be labor intensive from a health club's point of view.

But he is also intrigued by news of a growing number of unsupervised "bandit" sites springing up in Orange County--such as the one at the Santa Ana River trail underpass at Adams Avenue, where local climbers have glued on "holds" with the same epoxy that Cal-Trans uses to glue "Botts Dots" between lanes on the freeway.

"If you could create the place for people interested in rock climbing to join, I think you'd have something," Marquette says. "It would have to be run like a 'club within a club' but that's the trend for health clubs in the '90s anyway."

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