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Off the wall: I know Spider-Man, and I’m no Spider-Man.

by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published at the turn of the century on 06.16.99 in the SF Bay Guardian. Re-intro June 2019 here.


ACTIVITIES THAT INVOLVE ropes and vertical surfaces hold a certain spy-movie charm for me. I know a guy who figured out how to translate his love of rock climbing and rappelling into a lucrative window-washing business in the city.

That’s not me, since I lack both endurance and strength. But I do have a powerful lack of acrophobia so I thought I’d grab some health by checking out the scene at a true ’90s oddity: the Mission Cliffs climbing wall.

Inside the converted iron-works warehouse at 19th and Harrison, a giant, rusting, load-bearing crane marked “20 Ton Capacity” preserves the industrial cred of the building. The walls of the gym are massive, bumpy, vertical structures with glaringly fake “rocks” attached to them — some even look like alien heads and hot-rod flames.

The rocks are tagged with different color tape, signifying the route and difficulty of different climbs. Real nature has pointier, less methodical surfaces; that’s where the sport loses much of its appeal for me.

The kiddie walls, one story high, are on the second floor, above a faux cave. The cave, with its floor made of pieces of recycled rubber, is used for “bouldering” — short and powerful moves as opposed to longer, easier climbs. After my instructor Christine equips me with some hideously specialized shoes and a harness that looks like a contraption for do-it-yourself childbirth, we go to a mandatory belay safety class.

Belay, the first of many rock-climbing club words I learn (carabiner is the weirdest), is the unglamorous portion of a two-person activity. The climber gets to shimmy while safely wearing the aforementioned harness connected — with an impenetrable knot — to a rope. The belayer threads the rope through her own harness (there’s a pulley and another rope-feeder thingy) and manipulates it to make sure the shimmier doesn’t fall. Very far, anyways.

It’s actually fun to fall and psyche out belayers-in-training, and we beginners take turns doing the psyching. In fact, as I find over the course of the evening — when not otherwise occupied by listening to my muscles stiffen — falling is the most fun part.

During moments of spacing out in the middle of lessons that could mean the difference between life and death, I see that most everyone in the joint is used to this kind of thing. They wear khaki and Patagonia and Tevas. They know the words to the roots-rock-noodle-band the cashier is blasting. Their skin has a healthy glow. They have nice teeth. And they haven’t redone their jaunty ponytails since they got out of bed. They probably go to bed early, too.

They would take one look at the pallor of my cigarette-smoking, beer-guzzling, never-been-rock-climbing friends and have a Bermuda Triangle smoothie with spirulina supplement out of sheer sympathy. In the Darwinian sense, they are above me. I admire and loathe them at the same time.

No you may not eat the giant candy off the wall. You may step on it.

While most people came here to belay and be belayed with friends, I’m climbing solo. Thankfully, they pair up lone wolves at the front desk. A genial and helpful guy who introduces himself as Fitz is my partner. Turns out he’s a veteran; he goes climbing outdoors every weekend. The “Yosemite decimal system” used to grade the routes on the walls goes from 5.2 to 5.13; Fitz climbs a 5.11 and then starts me at an ambitious 5.10. Ha bloody ha.

Though I’m not athletic in the slightest, I am limber. And I did, after all, spend way too much time as a child climbing on roofs and ascending narrow door- and hallways with suction-cup-sweaty feet and hands. I start well, but halfway up the two-story face, an overhang trips me up. I try, fail, rest, try, fail, and finally free-fall. Wheee!

Fitz tells me I did good, but that the “beta” on that particular route (beta meaning obstacle — more club-talk) has everything to do with pushing up with your legs rather than pulling with your arms. “I wasn’t pulling with my arms, though,” I say. Then I try to make some notes in my little pad, and the muscles in my wrists are so tight that my writing looks like chicken scratch. Oh . . . okay.

The inside of Mission Cliffs. Kind of amazing really

Behind me is a wall where people are “lead climbing” (hooking their own rope to notches in the wall rather than using the overhead pulley). I have what appears to be a hallucination brought on by the pain and adrenaline: a diminutive man scampers up the wall so rapidly that his belayer can’t keep up and the rope slacks below him.

He makes it to the top of the 50-foot wall in about five seconds. Spider-Man. Turns out he’s the lead speed-climber in the world. His kung fu, as it were, is the best. It’s positively incredible.

I watch a couple climbing, switching off their toddler in a baby-backpack to belay. A fatigued climber near the top of the wall rests among the ropes like an insect caught in a spider’s web.

Fitz scampers up 5.12s, digging his fingertips and toes into tiny rocks as I watch from below (belay, har har). I struggle with another overhang on a 5.9, make it over, and promptly kick another climber in the shoulder. It’s getting crowded. Every single rope and pulley is occupied by healthy couples communing with a Tokyo version of fake nature, practicing for their weekend assault on the real thing.

Exhausted, I make a beeline for my favorite watering hole, which conveniently lies somewhere between Mission Cliffs and my house. If I do manage to get out and wander around in nature, I’ll never look at a rock face again without thinking about how much less perilous and fatiguing it is to be on the ground.


This is the 46th piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro is here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here.

Oh and ten years after this article, on 06.17.2009, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B  previews some juicy gotcha krazy.

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