An orange packing plant in Upland is now a haven for rock climbers.

The smell of sweaty hands and chalk permeate the air as Jon Barnhisel searches for his next foothold. / photo by Jenna Campbell

The smell of sweaty hands and chalk permeate the air as Jon Barnhisel searches for his next foothold. / photo by Jenna Campbell

‘Put these on, and I’ll teach you guys how to not die,” were the first words the instructor at Hangar 18, a rock climbing gym located in Upland, said to us as he handed out harnesses. There was no looking back now; we were way past stopping, certainly way past simply talking to one another about doing it. Our lives were in each other’s hands, and it was only the first five minutes.

Hangar 18 is an adrenaline warehouse that gets people climbing. Like other buildings in the area, it used to be an orange packing plant, but now houses wall-to-wall climbing featuring various difficulty levels.

Rock climbing is an underground sport, growing in popularity. Not many people know exactly what it is about, or the different styles of climbing, but they do know that the sport exists, and that it is dangerous.

“This is one sport where people get their kids into it when they’re real little,” says Dave Hamilton, Hangar 18 manager and instructor. Hamilton has been climbing for 22 years ever since his father took him climbing at 3 years old. “It really helps kids with their confidence; it’s rewarding to come in, especially if you are having a bad day, to get your frustration out by climbing. It’s the hardest thing you’ve done all day, and you conquered it.”

The Hangar houses multiple degrees of climbing difficulty, allowing climbers to grow in experience and strength. Each rock is a different color, representing a defined difficulty degree. Two systems are involved: the Yosemite Decimal System,with 5.0 to 5.15 degree span, and the Boulder Prong System, which ranges from V0 to V15, with V11 being the hardest the gym has to offer. The higher the number, the harder the climb. The highest Yosemite degree in Hangar 18 is 5.13. According to Hamilton, “5.15 is something maybe only 20 people in the world can climb.” The beauty of rock climbing, according to Hamilton, is that climbers see tangible results. As opposed to other sports, where it is difficult to measure improvement, a climb’s ease or difficulty allows climbers to gauge progress.

With all his strength and will, Jon Barhisel, a 16-year-old Hanger 18 employee, pulls himself up to success. / photo by Jenna Campbell

With all his strength and will, Jon Barhisel, a 16-year-old Hanger 18 employee, pulls himself up to success. / photo by Jenna Campbell

New Hanger 18 members first learn safety techniques. Hamilton gives a short session on harness use and belay techniques. The staff keeps an eye on newcomers just to make sure they are having fun and keeping safe. The advanced climbers are more free to roam the walls. “We watch first-timers like a hawk until we get to know them,” Hamilton says. “People pick up basic common sense things as they go along.” For beginners, it’s important to realize that rock climbing is a sport where the individual progresses. No matter what the level of athletic ability, rock climbing will be challenging the first time. “When beginners come in, they’re not going to be hauling the hardest stuff their first day,” Hamilton says. “It’s a constant progression of getting better.”

Erin Clark, a 22-year old San Dimas resident, enjoyed her first experience at Hangar 18 and adapted well to rock climbing. “I thought I couldn’t do it in the beginning, but once I learned different techniques, I realized that I could do this,” says Clark. “It made me feel good because I don’t really consider myself to be an athletic or physically strong person. It really helped me that the teachers were rock climbers themselves. It’s their passion, and it made me feel more comfortable learning from them as opposed to someone who was an employee getting paid to instruct people how to do something.”

Hangar 18’s reputation for training in strength improvement separates it from other gyms in the country. “We set the climbing in a particular way so that the climber gets stronger,” Hamilton says. “The technique here is more power intensive so people get strong really quick. We’re known all along the West Coast for our strength.” Besides offering one of the largest gyms in the Southern California area, Hangar 18’s laid back atmosphere enables the climbers, especially first-timers, to feel at ease. “This is a gym run by climbers; this isn’t some gym run by a corporate monster,” Hamilton says. “Climbers come into the gym and share their stories with each other and then try to one-up the last climber’s story. A sense of friendly competition is involved, but the one common thread among this group of people is their love for climbing.”

Unlike the surfing community, for example, where a newcomer is shunned until he proves himself, the climbing community embraces everyone. The old-timer who is teaching his children how to climb is next to the two college men learning to climb for the first time on assignment for their magazine story. “I would have to say the reason that happens is when you are climbing you really can’t get in anybody’s way,” Hamilton says. “If you get stuck on your climb, people are going to stop and cheer you on no matter what level you’re climbing. It’s cool to see people come together like that.” However, every once in a while, someone will come in and disrespect the rock climbing community. This person is easy to spot; he is the one who already thinks he knows everything about something, but is actually putting himself and everyone else around him in danger. “What bothers me is when you try to help these guys out, and they get all defensive,” Hamilton says. However, the jerks eventually sort themselves out. “It’s easy to get humble really quick when you see a 14-year old climbing something harder than you.”

Hamilton says a combination of factors make the perfect climb. “Pretty much any day you come back tired because you know you’re getting better. And if you move up a number, it’s a good feeling. Outdoors, it’s not even climbing something that’s hard; it’s getting high. The fact that you’re outside doing an adventure and climbing provides that.”

Although both give an extreme thrill, there are differences from climbing inside a gym and climbing outdoors. Climbing in a gym focuses on improvement, while outdoor climbing is an experience in itself. Climbers love to enjoy the outdoors and master the extreme. Hamilton himself has broken bones and put himself in danger on many occasions. He has dislocated his shoulder on several climbs, but the worst disaster came when he was 13 years old. “I fell with my hand still in the crack, and it dislocated my shoulder,” Hamilton says. While dangling above the ground, Hamilton had to evaluate how he could get down. “What I did was I climbed back up my arm to dislodge my wrist and fell.” Hamilton says the injury was a learning experience on how to handle such a situation.

No one will tell you that rock climbing is easy, and no one will tell you that it is the safest of all sports, but what climbers will tell you is that it builds character, confidence and will help fulfill a person’s potential.