A top rope climber taking a break to scout out the rest of the route. (Photo by Sahale Greenwood)

One novice’s trip to the scenic Bay Area state park resulted in reaching new heights…..and making a parking lot full of friends

This was no indoor rock climbing wall. There were no big, cushy hand holds sticking out of the wall every two feet, no color coding to guide my route. This was a big, sheer rock that I would have to navigate with much more strength and creativity to maneuver through different holds.

When I first looked up the rock — searching for a place to start — it was like trying to find meaning on a blank sheet of paper. Not wanting to seem scared (I was) in front of the new climbing partners I just had met in the parking lot, I grabbed the first ridge I could see on the rock. With that one move, I was climbing my way up.

Looking to really conquer new heights and scale the real deal, I found that sinking my hands into stone at Castle Rock State Park was a completely different experience than any climbing gym.

Parking lot partners

As the line of cars whipped around the curves of Highway 9 through Saratoga and into the mountains towards Big Basin, I knew we were all heading to the same place to do the same thing: rock climb in Castle Rock.

I arrived at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning to find the parking lot packed with dusty Subarus sporting “save the bay” and “coexist” bumper stickers, as well as crowds of climbers standing around talking to one another.

A top rope climber making the crux move (ie. hardest move of the climb) at Castle Rock. (Photo by Sahale Greenwood)

Castle Rock is known not only for its outdoor rock climbing, but also for a friendly community where beginners are always welcome. So I decided to travel there solo and see if I could meet up with people for an afternoon of rock climbing. This is actually a popular trend in rock climbing — picking up “parking lot partners”: you meet other people in the parking lot, throw whatever gear you have together and hit the rock walls. So while I would classify myself as a beginner rock climber, I know I’m an expert at chatting up strangers. And indeed, everyone I talked to was more than happy to lend me a harness or climbing shoes and lead me up the rock, all I had to do at Castle Rock was walk over and ask.

Rock on

“It’s pretty much like Free Solo just minus about 3,000 feet,” one of the climbers joked to me as they explained what bouldering is.

Walking towards Indian Rock, one of the most popular walls at Castle Rock, I found a group of climbers in their mid-20s bouldering on smaller rocks just off of the main trail. Bouldering means that you climb smaller, easier rocks that are much lower to the ground, but you do so without using a rope. Instead, you place a crash pad (similar to a mattress) underneath you in case you fall, and then concentrate on the raw logistics of the climb.

A climber using a crimp grip, meaning a hold on a small ledge that only has room for the pads of your fingers. (Photo by Sahale Greenwood)

I wandered up to the group and began asking them questions about how they got into it, where they go and why they love it. They politely answered my questions and then asked if I myself climb. I explained that I was familiar with bouldering but still just a novice. Since they had a few beginners in their group as well, they suggested that I try to boulder up the rock they had been climbing on.

Even though this was not my first time rock climbing, my heart started beating and my hands sweating. I was worried that my sweaty fingers would not grip the rock, but I ignored that fleeting thought and, instead, put my hands on the rock, then placed my feet on a small foothold below me. I felt a little unstable but decided to keep my position instead of stepping off the rock and starting over. I looked above me for any imperfection, crack or divot in the rock to grab onto with my right hand. Upon finding one, I pulled myself up by my fingertips, flexing my forearm, and moved my left foot up the rock with me, scanning the surface for a new foothold. It took all of my forearm strength to keep myself close to the rock, strength that was quickly deteriorating.

I decide that letting go and falling to the crash pad was not my favorite option. While I knew I was only about four feet off the ground, falling felt like defeat, something I was not ready to accept. Instead, my climb to the top was filled with more hesitation, shaking arms, thoughts of falling and worry over what my new climbing friends were thinking.

I maneuvered my way up the rock and my new friends below erupted in applause. No one judged me for struggling on the climb, they just appreciated the perseverance and, quite honestly, the entertainment. My exhaustion and self-doubt rushed out of me as I looked down at my parking lot partners cheering me on.

Climbing racks hold all the climbers varying pieces. It drapes across their chest while they climb and is accessible while on they are ascending the wall. (Photo by Sahale Greenwood)

From the top rope!!

I climbed with my bouldering group a little longer and then wandered down the trail to Indian Rock where I met up with another bunch of climbers that was top rope climbing (which is when a rope is attached to an anchor or bolt at the top of the rock and held stable by the belayer at the bottom so that the climber can be caught by the rope at any point during their ascent).

This group also invited me to climb with them, even offering to let me use their climbing shoes and harness.

Top rope can be scary if it is your first time because you are climbing higher on the rock with only a thin rope holding you up. However, that thin rope is strong enough to catch any fall. As members of the group would climb up the wall they would often stop at tricky spots, instruct the belayer to hold the rope tight and completely let go of the wall, sitting back into their harness held up by the rope. They then had the ability to rest their arms and legs as well as get a better perspective on what their next move should be on the rock now that they were no longer flat against it.

While top rope may look more intimidating given the height of the climbs, it is equally, if not more so, beginner friendly because you are secured against falling. As soon as you learn to trust the rope, there is nothing stopping you from getting to the top of the wall.

“It’s an easy sport to deep dive into,” Liv, one of the climbers, remarked to me. “There is so much to learn — you just find a partner who is better than you and can mentor you until you are good enough to turn around and mentor someone else. It is a really great feeling and builds amazing communities.”

What I found at Castle Rock was people who were excited about their sport, loved being out in nature and were seemingly committed to creating a community of people who all support one another on the rocks. My parking lot partners did not care that I was not at their level or asked a few too many questions, because they saw my genuine interest in the sport and appreciated how much I was putting myself out there.

During my short walk out to the car from the rock I scribbled large across my notepad, “rock climbing in Castle Rock: all are welcome.” There was not one group that I stopped and talked to that did not invite me to climb with them even though I was a total stranger.

I was surprised to find that the biggest obstacle standing in my way of outdoor rock climbing was not the actual rock I needed to climb, but finding the courage to just try it.

A local climber changing from Birkenstock walk-up shoes into proper climbing shoes before the climb. (Photo by Sahale Greenwood)

Planning Your Next Trip

If this has piqued your interest, even just a little, here are some tips for planning your next trip:

  • Parking gets crowded so if you are going on a Saturday or Sunday, try and get there before 11 a.m. The parking lot has portable bathrooms but no running water, so make sure to fill up your bottles before leaving the house.
  • Castle Rock is pretty shaded so sunscreen and hats are not a must, but always a good idea. The shade, however, creates a haven for bugs and mosquitoes, so bring bug spray!
  • In terms of gear, bring whatever you have but don’t stress if you don’t have equipment such as a harness, rope or crash pad because you’re likely to meet partners who do. It’s more important to wear stretchy, athletic fabrics and climbing shoes. Climbing shoes are notorious for being very small on your feet to help them fit into small cracks in the rock, so don’t be alarmed if your shoes aren’t very comfortable to walk in. Instead, climbers wear “walk-up shoes” like Chacos, tennis shoes or Birkenstocks to walk into the climbing spot before changing into their climbing shoes.
  • In terms of knowing enough rock climbing lingo to get you started, here are a few expressions. When you accidentally pull a rock loose from the wall and it starts falling to the ground yell “ROCK” so everyone knows to look out. Yell “ROPE” if you are throwing rope from the top of the wall as well.
  • Learn the different belay commands: “On belay?” “Belay is on.” “Climbing?” “Climb on.”
  • Never step on the rope.
  • Always be friendly to fellow climbers.

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Sahale Greenwood Profile Photo

Sahale Greenwood

I am a journalist and photographer with a passion for people and the outdoors. I recently won the Justin T. McCarthy Award for Excellence in Journalism 2021 upon my graduation from Santa Clara University.

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