My hands shaking, my arms and stomach burning, and my right knee jammed way too hard into a right-angle protruding from an otherwise user-friendly slab of sandstone, a flash of unspecific pain tore up and into my brain. As I eyed a blind ledge just an inch or two beyond my reach, it dawned on me that I was well past my comfort zone, feeling a fair bit of hurt from virtually every limb, and, perhaps most impressively, I was absolutely blissed out about the whole deal. An optimistic shout came from several stories below, “Yeah, buddy, that’s it right there! Go for it!”
And so it goes when rock climbing in the wild, as pure a pursuit as you will find and one that forces you deep into the embrace of moving mediation while also putting your physical self into treacherous places and spaces. I am as new to climbing as you can be, but, after spending half of a beautiful May day exploring the walls of Santa Barbara’s front country with Santa Barbara Rock Gym’s programming director, Chris Hamman, I am jazzed about furthering my education on the many climbing walls and routes that are peppered throughout the Los Padres National Forest.
While so many stoke-stirring outdoor activities require the full and proper cooperation of Mother Nature (think surfing, skiing, snowboarding, hang gliding, rafting, kayaking, etc.), the major action required to set up a fun day of climbing happened centuries ago when our area geography took shape. “It’s pretty hard to have a bad day out here,” mused Hamman after my first successful ascent of a route in the Montecito foothills called the Orangahang, the morning’s thick marine layer clearing just as I reached the top of the 80-foot climb. My muscles pulsed with blood as I shook out my chalk-covered hands and grinned a stupid grin in agreement, my core swelling with a deep — and surprising — sense of accomplishment. I’ve been a jaded surfer and powder hunter for a couple of decades now, but this, this tickled me in a place long since dormant.
Lucky for climbers of all skill levels, the Santa Barbara Rock Gym, which stepped into a shockingly long-standing void around these parts when they opened their downtown gym a couple of years ago, has recently become the first and only outfit licensed to run climbing tours into the Los Padres National Forest. Since May, they have been leading trips to popular haunts like Lizard’s Mouth and the Playground. And, in a karmic nod as part of their agreement with forest management, they are also going to be spearheading biannual cleanup outings at several popular climbing spots.
According to Hamman, the Los Padres tours are just the beginning of their outside offerings. “It takes a while with all the required training and certifications and assorted red tape, but our goal is to eventually be able to take groups into the Southern Sierras and places like Mount Whitney,” he explained.
As for me and my aforementioned moment of agony that spiked some 60 feet above the earth? Well, I made it thanks to coaching from Hamman and one big lunge of faith with my right arm. The world was glowing as I reached the top of that modest canyon climb, the moment popping pregnant with the type of endorphin-colored stuff that makes all the bullshit of the world completely melt away.
For more info on Santa Barbara Rock Gym’s outdoor climbing tours, call 770-3225 or visit sbrockgym.com.