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Crankin’ the Rocknasium

My name is Paulo Camacho, and this is Macho Sports. 

It is a tall, yet inconspicuous building, tucked away in a small corner of Davis. You would probably only know it was there, at first glance, from the distinct logo: a rock climber in full gear, posing in the middle of a purple triangle. While it may not look like much from the outside, it is probably, for many Davis residents, one of the most well-known and beloved establishments in the city. 

The Rocknasium in Davis is one of the foremost indoor climbing facilities in the Davis/Sacramento area. It houses 8,000 square feet of climbing terrain, and is meant for climbers ranging in all ages and experience levels. The institution has happily served the community over the years, holding various classes in different types of rock climbing skills, as well as birthday parties and lock-ins for youth groups. Around since 1992, the Rocknasium has served as a place that values the community of local outdoor sportsmen, as well as the Davis community. 

As the leaves of autumn began to fall, the Rocknasium and its staff was preparing for the first leg of their highly anticipated three-part series, “Crankin’.” Originally, “Crankin’” was an all-day tournament, set at the beginning of the calendar year, that was meant to attract climbers from all over the west coast. However, because the facility was closed for a time to prepare, Rocknasium owner and founder Mark Leffler thought it would do the community, as well as the staff, better to hold three separate tournaments throughout the season. 

“It was a great event,” said Leffler about the original tournament. “The bummer part is that we had it during the busiest time of the year for us, for groups and birthday parties … It was just so much work setting up all the routes  for that one [competition], it seemed that it took a toll on us, setting the regular routes for our regular members.” 

Nowadays, “Crankin’ the Series” is held on three separate Fridays in November, January and March. Participants can join as an individual competitors, or as teams of three. All competitors were to complete four out of a number of specified “routes” that were marked throughout the gym. With no time limit, participants were free to go at their own pace. 

The event is labeled as a climbing competition, complete with prizes and placings. The series, itself, however, has slowly went away from a formal competition, and is currently focused more as a local community event. While the competition is scored, the onus is on the competitors themselves to keep track of their scores, mainly using an honor system, and turn in a scorecard at the end of the night. Otherwise, the event is meant for participants to have fun. Many from the local climbing community come out to socialize, enjoying each other’s company. “We’ve oriented more towards a fun event for our members,” said Leffler. “It’s a low-key, Friday night competition.” 

The event focused on two different types of climbs: rock walls, and boulder problems. Wall climbing, also referred to, in this case, as “top roping”, required the harnessed climber to make his or her way up a designated route on the wall. Climbing walls will reach as high as 28 feet tall, while boulder problems can vary between 10 and 14 feet tall. 

While participants were meant to attempt both, the event was focused more toward bouldering: a climber could attempt two wall routes and two boulder problems, or one wall route and three boulder problems, depending on their experience with the rock walls. 

The competition is unique in that all of the routes were designed by the staff, specifically for the competition. Using a wide variety of interchangeable “holds” and colored tape, the staff attempts to create challenging yet fun routes for the participants to try. They are drawn out on paper, over a month beforehand, and are not placed on the wall until the day of the competition. Farris Holliday, a staff member who has worked at the Rocknasium for two years, has been a route-setter in previous competitions. He admits, however, that there are certain difficulties that come with being a route-setter. 

“It’s a challenge, for sure, because creativity is key,” Holliday said. “Having 28 feet of wall space, it’s hard to think of moves constantly. Developing a climb from the ground-up sometimes can be really easy, and sometimes can be an ordeal, and can take a couple days.” 

Carter Schmeck, co-owner of the Rocknasium, was looking forward to participating in “Crankin’” and, specifically, the innovative routes. “These guys spend hundreds of dollars creating these routes for us, and they’re very specific,” Schmeck said. “It’s almost like a piece of art that you can climb.” 

The day of the competition arrived, and the Rocknasium staff was still hard at work, putting up the finishing touches to the masterpieces that were the walls and boulders for “Crankin’.” Some of the participants were already eyeing the obstacles, piecing together the routes in their own minds, and how to attack them. “Competitors are pretty savvy on routes,” said Leffler. “It’s a lot of memorization –  you look at it, memorize it, and when you get to a hard spot in the route, you’ll remember what to do.” 

Others were simply ready to climb, and have a pleasant evening. “It’s the kind of vibe I get from Rocknasium,” said James Chang, a graduate student at UC Davis, and an avid climber. “[You can] get together, get a free t-shirt, come climb and hang out with your friends.” 

“I never would have done it, because I’m not that good at climbing, but it’s a lot of fun,” confessed UC Davis graduate Alisha Patterson. “Everyone is really friendly and supportive, so it’s not that stressful, and most people just come here to have a good time.” 

Patterson was a member of a climbing team called the “Master Betas” – a play on the word “Beta,” which, in the climbing world, referred to advise on a given climb. Dressed in ‘80s-style, leopard-print spandex, Patterson was one of many participants that were looking for a fun, laid-back event. 

After Leffler kicked things off with a bevy of thank-you’s and a run-through of the event, the competition officially began with Joe Esposito’s famous Karate Kid anthem, “You’re The Best,” blaring on the sound system. Climbers took turns attempting the various routes in the gym, in no particular order. Like the competitors asserted, the event was very laid-back, and relaxed. 

It was also an encouraging one. One child climber by the name of Alan attempted a wall problem, and a small crowd formed below him. As he slowly made his way up the wall, the onlookers were quick to cheer him on. “The fun thing about [past competitions] was always that everybody wanted other people to do well,” said Holliday. “Stronger climbers were giving climbers [who were not as strong] beta on how to do things. It was sweet.” 

A young climber perserveres to climb the top of the wall.

As the event went on, some of the staff got into the action. Ryan West, a staff member who had been working at the Rocknasium for over 8 years, attempted a boulder problem, rated at a “V9,” along with a group of climbers. He fell as he attempted to propel himself, in midair, to another part of the boulder. “It’s harder,” West said, in explaining the difficult of a V9 climb. “It takes awhile to be able to climb. It’s hard, but it’s not as hard as some of the routes they’re climbing tonight.” 

“It’s basically a number system that rates the difficulty from easy to hard,” Schmeck further explained. “The range varies quite a bit – from [a V6 to a V18], here at the gym, for the competition.” 

Another group of climbers were almost daring each other to climb some of the boulder problems using a technique known as “campusing” – climbing using nothing but one’s arms. “It takes a different type of strength,” said Chris Connor, a participant who had been climbing for a year. “Hand over hand, man.” 

As the event wound down, and participants began turning in their score sheets, the staff began barbequing outside, at the front of the building. It was obvious that Leffler and the Rocknasium staff cared a lot about the community that supported them. “Everybody always comes to have a good time,” said Leffler. “It’s just really enjoyable, and the coolest thing about it, too, is how many people I’ve met – I met a lot of really nice people through here. [It’s] a lot like ‘Cheers.’” 

“Climbing’s great, but most of what’s kept me in touch with it is this place,” said West. “It’s the community, the vibe and everything you get here. It’s unlike any other gym I’ve ever been to.” 

“[The Rocknasium] is really a very social environment, which is nice,” said Schmeck. “I think we’ve always tried to build a community here.” 

A great example of that came near the end of the night, when a child climber went to turn in his score sheet to Peter Newman, one of the staff. “Did you have fun?” he asked. 

“A lot of fun,” the child replied. 

“If you win a prize,” Newman assured, “I’m gonna hold onto it for you.” 

Afterwards, when the scores were tallied and the participants ate up on barbecue, Leffler came back with the results. “We take the top four scores at each competition,” Leffler explained earlier. “If you get first place, we just give money back – $20 for first place, $10 for second, $5 for third, because it’s a low-key, Friday night competition.” 

After a successful night of climbing for everyone involved, many left the event with a sense of satisfaction. Celeste I’i, a sophomore at UC Davis, who had been climbing for a year, summed it up best. 

“It was fun, pretty challenging, tore up my hands a little bit … this place is awesome.” 

Indeed; not bad for an unassuming building in a small corner of the city. Here’s to a climbing season full of successful competitions for the Rocknasium. http://www.rocknasium.com/

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