Climbing the walls with cabin fever? Try a climbing gym instead

Bouldering at Planet Granite Photo: courtesy of planet granite

February in San Francisco is
a month with a split personality. Warm, spring-like days alternating with dreary downpours can make it tough for outdoor enthusiasts to maintain a solid workout schedule. And the mountains at Tahoe are covered in snow. What’s an outdoor enthusiast who’s not into skiing or snowboarding to do?

This is the dilemma that spawned the proliferation of indoor rock climbing gyms such as Planet Granite with Bay Area locations including one in the Presidio, and Touchstone Climbing, also with several local facilities such as Mission Cliffs in the Mission district.

Indoor climbing — rock climbing on artificial structures designed to mimic the experience of outdoor rock climbing — provides a safe, controlled environment for people of all ages and abilities, including children, to learn how to climb, offering a total body workout.

Indoor rock climbing walls were first created in the 1960s in the United Kingdom. The first indoor climbing walls were constructed of brick or wood, but most are now made of plywood over a metal frame and then coated with spray-painted texture designed to look like rock. Holes are drilled into the structure, and resin foot and handholds of different shapes and sizes, along with indentations and protrusions, are added to create many routes of varying difficulty. Equipment is also a big part of indoor and outdoor rock climbing. Climbing gyms rent out harnesses, ropes, climbing shoes and other devices, so in case you’re climbing for fitness and not as a serious outdoor mountaineer, you don’t have to invest in your own equipment.

The two main types of indoor climbing are belaying and bouldering. Belaying, or leading, always involves ropes and involves strapping the climber into a harness with a climbing partner on the ground — an instructor if you’re taking a lesson — to manage the ropes. Both San Francisco climbing gyms require new climbers to take a beginning belay lesson. The other type of climbing is bouldering, where climbers don’t use ropes and must leap or climb from hold to hold, usually closer to the ground. More experienced climbers use bouldering to build strength and fine-tune their climbing skills.

Indoor climbing walls can look a bit scary, especially to those who don’t like heights, and some might question why one would choose indoor climbing as a workout.

Stephanie Pound, marketing and regional manager at Planet Granite in San Francisco, says climbing can keep a workout interesting while using your own body weight as resistance, elongating and strengthening muscles. “Climbing appeals to so many people,” she says, “because there’s always the next step, literally, to challenge you and to keep you motivated. And it’s very social. People climb in pairs or classes, so it’s fun.”

Cris Valerio, a San Francisco resident and designer with, has been climbing at Planet Granite since 2011, and went from never having climbed to becoming an avid outside rock climber. “Basically,” she said, “I was looking for a workout I could do by myself but also potentially with others. When I first started climbing, it was intimidating. But I took the four-week beginner rock-climbing course, and the staff made it so easy. Once I learned the basics, I signed up for a bouldering class, and I started climbing a few times a week. I noticed the changes in my body right away; I was always athletic, but now I’m much stronger. And I made some friends in the beginner’s class and then more friends climbing, so now I feel like I’m part of a community, both at the gym and outside.”

Because the Bay Area is so fitness oriented and because rock climbing complements other sports and workouts, both Planet Granite and Mission Cliffs offer classes other than rock climbing. Mission Cliff members can take yoga, indoor cycling, cardio boxing, and boot camp classes. Planet Granite offers its members yoga, fitness classes including indoor cycling, CrossFit, and personal training, and in Belmont, TRX classes. While you can drop in to take a single climbing class, many people join the gyms on a monthly or yearly basis to take advantage of all the different fitness options. Memberships cost from $35 a month to $803 a year for an individual; student rates are lower.

Both Bay Area climbing gyms continue to expand, with Touchstone Climbing planning to open a new gym, Dogpatch Boulders, this year. It will be the largest bouldering-only gym in the United States, and Mission Cliffs will undergo a major overhaul this year as well.

Planet Granite: 924 Old Mason Street (btw. McDowell & Marine), 415-692-3434,; Monday–Friday 6 a.m.–11 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m.–6 p.m.

Touchstone Climbing Mission Cliffs: 2295 Harrison Street (at 19th), 415 550-0515,; Monday, Wednesday, Friday 6:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Tuesday & Thursday 6:30 a.m.–11 p.m., Saturday & Sunday 9 a.m.–7 p.m.

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