Santa Cruz on the Rocks

Students scale local climbing destinations

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Third-year Ioan Gheorghiu works his way up a boulder at Castle Rock. Each boulder or rock face presents a set of challenges for climbers to overcome in order to reach the top.
Third-year Ioan Gheorghiu works his way up a boulder at Castle Rock. Each boulder or rock face presents a set of challenges for climbers to overcome in order to reach the top. Photo courtesy of Sierra McMurry.

Looking up at Sharma Arête — the name of a boulder in Castle Rock State Park — an unassuming visitor may not give it a second look. But UC Santa Cruz student Aldric Azucena looks up it and sees a toe hold and a place for a finger just a few feet higher. He can see the top just one move away, but after 15 tries he hasn’t quite gotten his strategy down yet.

“Climbing is a fight against yourself,” Azucena said. “[…] There’s always that doubt in yourself that always tells you it’s so hard, this is impossible. You just have to give it 50 shots, and even if you fail those 50 shots you have to say I’m going to give it another 100 shots. It’s just that kind of sport.”

Sharma Arête is named after Santa Cruz native and professional climber Chris Sharma, who pioneered many routes in Castle Rock. The climb is known for its sharp edge feature — known as an arête — which is used as a hold. But Sharma Arête isn’t for beginners, as even very experienced climbers struggle to finish the V9-rated climb.

“Each level you think you can progress pretty fast, but they kick your ass, and it takes time to work your way up,” said third-year Sierra McMurry.

In and around Santa Cruz, UCSC students take advantage of the city’s proximity to quality outdoor rock climbing. Panther Beach, Castle Rock and Pinnacles National Park are a few of the most well-known climbing locations for both bouldering or rope climbing — and these spots are only a short drive away. Student climbers know it, and they bring friends.

“Everyone is so supportive and so nice,” said third-year UCSC transfer student Nick Qaqish. “When I first moved here, I didn’t know anybody and I just started a conversation with people here and everyone was just super welcoming. The community is what kept me climbing.”

Climbing local spots with friends and accomplishing new routes is all part of the fun and challenge of the sport, Qaqish added. There are a lot of different types of climbing, so some climbers specialize in more than one depending on the location.

“I get really inspired by lead climbing, it takes willpower and endurance to make it up to the next clip,” said third-year Patrick Burns. “Bouldering is great too, it’s not my specialty, it’s a lot more of these big power movements and that takes a different kind of willpower in itself, but they both complement each other.”

Despite the proximity of these locations, getting into outdoor climbing can be difficult and potentially dangerous without prior practice and knowledge. With this in mind, many climbers in Santa Cruz will opt for a membership to the local indoor gym, Pacific Edge, Qaqish said. Artificial walls in the gym allow climbers to practice with padded floors, whether they are training for outdoor climbing or just looking to get more exercise.

“Most climbers come to the gym to train for outdoors and to just keep getting strong. It’s hard to get outdoors a lot,” Qaqish said. “I don’t have a car here so I can’t go to Castle Rock as much as I’d like.”

Despite Santa Cruz’s climbing history and the student interest, UCSC is the only UC — besides San Francisco and Merced — that doesn’t have a climbing club or a climbing gym as part of its on-campus recreation opportunities.

“When I was 18 I enrolled in an undergrad that had a small indoor climbing wall and that was my community,” said UCSC associate director of recreation Dustin Smucker. “[An on-campus wall] has potential and we have looked into it in the past but it has never really panned out because of different facility and funding reasons.”

The cost and facility space for a climbing facility aren’t currently in the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports budget, but the recreation department does offer climbing trips and classes, Smucker said. In the absence of on-campus facilities, hundreds of students have Pacific Edge memberships.

Students who want to tackle more difficult climbs, whether that means boulders or roped walls, require practice and skill. As the routes get harder, climbers need stronger forearms and fingers in order to hold on to the smaller and sometimes sharp rock edges. For the novice climber, even one with a base level of fitness, these new muscle groups can be strange and painful to develop.

“My first day of climbing, I couldn’t climb a V0 and when I woke up the next morning I would move any of my fingers and my forearms would cramp up,” Aldric Azucena said. “[…] After countless days of my forearms not working, they slowly got the hang of me climbing things.”

Moving from a V0 or a 5.0 roped climb to more difficult grades takes intense practice. The rating systems serve as a way for climbers to measure their progress in the sport. Each progressive move up the rating scales presents both physical and mental challenges to overcome.

“I don’t know a lot of people who are halfway into climbing,” Sierra McMurry said. “Once you start and you really fall in love with it, it really becomes almost your entire life. What you’re doing on weekends, what you’re watching on YouTube, everything like that becomes focused on climbing.”