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Latest in Exercise Has Enthusiasts Climbing the Walls : Recreation: After a rocky start, indoor climbing facilities are getting a foothold in the Southland. A newly opened Costa Mesa gym is the first in Orange County dedicated exclusively to the sport.

September 29, 1993|RICK VANDERKNYFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Tim Ruegg travels on business these days, he packs something he never needed before: his rock-climbing shoes.

After the meetings are over, Ruegg heads to one of the indoor rock-climbing gyms that have been springing up in big cities across the country: Chicago, Minneapolis, New York, Denver. There, a chance to practice his favorite sport is just a taxi ride away.

"Rather than sitting alone in my hotel," Ruegg said, "I go to a gym and climb."

When he gets back home to Long Beach, however, the opportunities have been more limited. Indoor climbing gyms have been the big news in climbing for about five years, but for once Southern California is behind on a recreational trend.

In Orange County, the opportunities had until recently been restricted to small walls at climbing retailers: REI, A16, Sport Chalet. Then, a couple years ago, the ritzy Sporting Club at Lakeshore Towers in Irvine opened with an impressive 120-foot, state-of-the-art climbing wall. It has attracted climbers, but with just three ropes, the wall's capacity and variety are limiting.

So when plans for a rock-climbing gym in Costa Mesa began to take shape a few months ago, word spread quickly through the local climbing community.

"This has been a big buzz, this place," said Caprice LePante, a climber from Orange.

"This place" is Rockreation, the first gym in Los Angeles or Orange County dedicated exclusively to indoor sport climbing, and one of the biggest such gyms in the country (a smaller facility opened in San Diego about four months ago).

A nondescript block building in an industrial park off Baker Street hides a mountain's worth of faux-rock faces simulating a wide variety of real-world climbing situations, about 75 marked routes in all with difficulty ratings ranging from simple (5.1 or 5.2, according to the climbers' rating system) to gravity-defying (up to 5.13). The routes will be changed regularly.

At one end of the 10,000-square-foot climbing room is a "lead" wall, where climbers clip their ropes into pre-placed anchors as they progress. In the middle is a large "top rope" area, with 30 fixed ropes slung over anchors at the top of each route and "belayed" (held fast) by another climber on the ground.

Nearest the entrance is the "bouldering" area, with a variety of technical climbing challenges just a few feet off the ground, where no ropes are needed.

"It's the Disneyland of rock climbing," said LaPante, who joined the club before its opening last Wednesday and came to climb each of the club's first three days. In all, 55 climbers used the gym on opening day, as many as 30 at one time. Co-owner Jeff Clapp said memberships (at $45 to $50 a month) are running ahead of projections.

"It's long overdue," said Clapp, who also owns a Rockreation gym in Salt Lake City. "There are thousands of climbers in Southern California, and nowhere to train."

Christian Santelices, general manager of the three-year-old City Rock Gym in Emeryville (near Berkeley), said he was surprised it took so long for Southern California to open a gym. There are already several in the Bay Area, with a new City Rock Gym due to open in Santa Clara later this year.

"It's really unusual. They've been needing one for quite a while," Santelices said. "There's a huge number of climbers in the L.A. area. It's definitely kind of odd that there hasn't been (a gym) until now."

Randy Vogel, author of several climbing guides to Joshua Tree National Monument and a lawyer who donates time to climbing access issues, said there have been various plans to open a climbing gym in the area for the past several years, but none have come to fruition until now.

"People have really been looking forward to this," said Vogel, who practices law in Irvine. Most Southern California climbing areas, such as Joshua Tree, are two to three hours' drive away, he said. Training during the week has been almost impossible, and for climbers with families, even weekend trips can be few and far between.

Climbers have tried several methods to cope with the training problem. Some have built small walls in their back yards. One big trend has been the establishment of surreptitious "glue-up" routes on freeway underpasses, a practice with which Caltrans is less than enamored.

Glue-ups "are not going to go away or anything, but this place (Rockreation) really fills a long-standing need for a place to train," Vogel said.

While most of the initial interest at Rockreation has come from people who already climb, sport climbing gyms in other parts of the country have served to help push rock climbing, once seen as a dangerous "fringe" sport, into the mainstream.

When City Rock Gym first opened, "all our original members were climbers," Santelices said. Lately, there has been a big rise in newcomers to the sport, which he attributes to an emphasis on kids' programs and beginners' lessons.

"Especially in the last year, it's really taken off," Santelices said. "There are a lot of people really getting into it."

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