I never thought I’d find myself 20 feet in the air, clutching narrow handholds, every muscle in my arms screaming from the weight of supporting my entire body as my feet struggled to stay anchored on bumpy ledges. Eventually the battle became too much, and I let go, falling backwards first sharply, then as my rope caught, I was gently lowered to the floor.
Desert Rocks Climbing Gym
The was one of my first ascents at Desert Rocks, a climbing gym located in North Palm Springs. This is a fascinating facility, and what surprised me most about it was that it caters to anyone, from newbies like me, to seniors, and yes, hardcore climbing junkies.
Speaking of hardcore, we met owner Steve Schechtman at the facility. A tensed spring of muscle outfitted in comfy clothes, Steve is himself a dedicated climber, but despite being in top shape, and knowing everything about the sport, he’s welcoming and friendly to the newcomers he’s showing around today, and his enthusiasm for his sport is infectious.
Facilities for Bouldering
With no climbing experience, it’s mere minutes before I’m hanging off a wall Steve calls the “warm up”. In a corner of the expansive main gym is an area for ‘bouldering’ where we begin our visit.
Bouldering is a type of climbing where no ropes or safety harnesses are used; instead the climber scrambles up shorter rock faces by finding hand and foot holds. Often the only safety equipment used in this style of climbing is a crash pad on the ground, and here at Desert Rocks there’s plenty of it. The entire floor below the bouldering face is padded mats, so if you do take a tumble, you’re going to have a softer landing.
Numerous routes from beginner to advanced are marked out and colour coded so it’s easy to find your way up the face. Well, maybe not ‘easy.’ Since I’m using a host of new muscles I’m pretty sure I’m going to get reacquainted with them again tomorrow.
Trying out Auto Belay climbing
After a few climbs on the boulders, Steve shows us to another room that’s probably 20 or 30 feet high. In this room, there’s a different set of routes and a different method. Using a safety rope system called an Auto Belay, climbers wear leg harnesses which are then clipped to a rope that’s wound through a pulley system high in the ceiling. After getting up the wall part way, Steve tells me to let go, and the Auto Belay will just ‘catch me’.
After trying to insist I’d be just fine to climb back down, I finally place my trust in the system, close my eyes and let go. After a short initial jerk that feels like I’m about to fall, the Auto Belay kicks in and lowers me safely and easily to the ground. It’s terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.
Indoor climbing gym has facilities for everyone
The Coachella Valley and Joshua Tree National Park are known as amazing places for rock climbing and bouldering. But sometimes the extreme heat and other weather concerns can get in the way of the great outdoor experience. No surprise then that Desert Rocks is finding fans in locals and tourists.
Desert Rocks is just off Highway 10, the sprawling facility located between a field of windmills and an industrial area. It's easy to find and convenient to get to right off the highway.
Climb with a partner
For our last climbing lesson of the day, Steve brings us back to the main gym where we’re clipped into a more traditional belay system. In this set up, you need a partner to keep tabs on you, pulling in slack from your safety rope. When you fall or step off, you just hang there until your partner lowers you down. Frankly I found this system a little less jarring, and swinging high above the ground was kind of soothing, like being a baby in a cradle.
As I looked around the gym from my perch, it struck me that there were both men and women, kids, teens, adults and seniors all inside, all working together and having fun. Steve underlines that climbing is for any age and ability, since you’re really only climbing against yourself if that’s what you want.
“You don’t have to be a superhuman athlete to do this,” says Steve. “Your weight, size… it doesn’t matter. You’re pushing mental limits.”
As I watch a silver-haired senior scramble up a wall like a mountain goat, I can’t help but think of it as a challenge however, and despite my tiring muscles, I climb a few more routes until I can’t grip anything any longer.
Desert Rocks has everything from beginner classes, to mens’ groups, try-out packages, and special events, and you can climb as part of a group or solo. You’ll need to rent special climbing shoes at Desert Rocks, or you can bring your own. Amazingly, every eight weeks the gym’s hand and footholds are completely dismantled, and new routes are built, so there’s always a new challenge waiting.
Desert Rocks is located at 19160 McLane St., North Palm Springs, CA 92258, phone: (760) 251-1618 or you can find them online at climbdesertrocks.com