Before the sun rises on San Luis Obispo, the town sits in a serene silence. Though the fauna on Cuesta Ridge have yet to begin their morning, computer engineering senior Kaito Trias is already breaking a sweat. With pounds worth of gear and a climbing partner to belay him, Trias scales a tricky route to reach his favorite view.
“We’ll be climbing since sunrise, and it’s really nice,” Trias said. “It’s like going on a nice hike, but you’re climbing.”
San Luis Obispo’s scenic landscape and sprawling hills make a perfect hub for a bustling rock climbing community. But one of the most crowded climbing spots in San Luis Obispo is not tucked away in a wooded grove or atop a ridge — it lies right on Cal Poly’s campus.
The rock wall at Cal Poly sits just outside of the Recreation Center. With two climbing walls jutting into the skyline, music drifting through the campus and a constant network of students navigating the colorful routes, it is hard to miss.
Climbing park supervisor and civil engineering senior Ben Tinklenberg finds himself there most days.
“Working here is the best job on campus,” Tinklenberg said. “We get to climb during our shift, we get to set the stuff and I’m just here to make sure people are safe. Also, I can get people excited about the sport.”
There is one large difference between climbing indoors and the varieties of outdoor climbing: danger. When it comes to difficult routes out in nature, like the ones fellow climbing park supervisor and computer engineering senior Linn Rising has conquered, there are life-or-death moments on the line.
“You have this piece that is protecting you if you fall, and you have the choice to climb above that,” Rising said. “There’s a lot of implications with that. If you fall the next 25 or 30 feet, you’re in for a death fall.”
Though it might seem intimidating to be staring down on climb, overcoming that fear is part of climbing culture.
“We had a funny moment,” Rising said. “My friend got to the last 10 ten feet and he asked, ‘Can you pass me a rope from up top because I don’t want to die?’ When the rope got to him, he was like, ‘No, no, pull it back up, I’m doing this the right way.’”
While there are ways to use equipment to assist in a tough climb, there is a sense of pride that comes with forgoing these safety measures.
For some climbers, like civil engineering senior Eleni Korogianos, facing extreme heights is actually a benefit of the sport.
“I used to be pretty afraid of heights,” Korogianos said. “Climbing helped me stop freaking out about it. I think that when it gets really scary, I just have to tell myself, ‘It’s fine. I have protection.’ Usually, that is just a breathing thing.”
The mental challenge of triumphing over innate fears is an important part of the exhilaration of climbing. Whether that be in a padded gym or deep in a gully of Yosemite, Tinklenberg said this is one of his favorite reasons to climb.
“You just end up in some really cool spots that nobody has ever seen unless you climb,” Tinklenberg said. “That and then [the] overcoming of fear and challenging yourself is awesome.”
There is more than just fear to defeat while climbing. According to Trias, approaching a new climbing route is like solving a puzzle. The mental stimulation that comes with figuring out a route — “talking beta,” as climbers would say — is so compelling, exercising becomes a side effect of the hobby.
“I like the problem solving aspect of it,” Trias said. “When climbing a route, each one is really different. It doesn’t really feel like I’m actually exercising. I’m just climbing.”
For climbers like Korogianos, the gym is used as a training grounds for the outdoor climbing. She said testing out different techniques pays off when you can apply them out in the wild. Progressing through these physical and mental puzzles is “super addicting,” Korogianos said.
“Nothing’s laid out for you, [you] just have to get out there and figure it out,” Korogianos said. “In the gym, you have like these perfect holds, whether they’re pretty chunky, or really extruding out some of the wall. Whereas outside there’s harsher environments. If it’s granite, it’s super harsh and it really stabs your fingers. But it’s worth it. It’s part of the experience.”