Local climbers gained a new foothold on the central peninsula April 8 with the opening of an indoor bouldering wall in Soldotna’s River City Wellness Center.
Though the Kenai Peninsula is a long-celebrated ground for fishing, boating, and hiking, its climbers are a less prominent group of outdoor enthusiasts. A climbing community has nonetheless been slowly growing on the Kenai Peninsula for a long time. Three local climbers — Nate Beck, Ed Schmitt and his son Ben Schmitt — built the new wall for the River City Wellness Center, a Soldotna gym that opened in February 2016.
It’s the second wall the Schmitts have built. When Ed Schmitt moved his family from Colorado to the central peninsula, Ben was training to join a national climbing team. To compensate for the loss of Colorado’s abundant climbing areas, the Schmitts built a bouldering wall on the side of their barn, which they later enclosed and heated for year-round climbing. Before he returned to Colorado as an adult, Ben Schmitt also created some of the local outdoor climbing routes around Skilak Lake.
“It’s the only thing Alaska lacks — great climbing,” Ed Schmitt said. “We have great everything else, but the climate’s too harsh and we don’t have the right rock. It’s hard enough to climb, and you don’t want to feel like the whole rock’s going to fall on you. The good rocks — limestone, sandstone, granite — they’re really sturdy.”
The Kenai Peninsula does have its share of exposed rock faces. Boulderers crawl over the glacial erratics of Nikiski’s Captain Cook State Park, while more vertically-oriented wall climbers visit the tall outcroppings of firm rock around Skilak Lake and the south side of Kachemak Bay, most of which require boats to reach. Many of the peninsula’s more accessible climbing sites — such as the highway-side cliffs along Turnagain Arm — are laced with “chossy” rock, Beck said, using a term for loose rock liable to flake dangerously under a climber’s grip.
The region’s most popular climbing site is an indoor one. In fall 2016, the Anchorage Rock Gym opened a new location with 20,000 square feet of climbing wall. Ed and Ben Schmitt went for a climb there soon after Ben’s plane landed in Alaska, and Ed said the gym’s crowds confirmed for him the demand for climbing space in Alaska.
“I can’t believe the number of people at the Alaska Rock Gym,” Ed Schmitt said. “That’s doing really well and people like it. Anybody who’s active and wants to do stuff seems to be attracted to climbing.”
John Walker is a weekend regular at the Anchorage Rock Gym. This winter, Walker estimated, he’d made about a dozen trips up there from the central peninsula. On the Saturday afternoon of River City’s rock wall opening, Walker had already spent the morning climbing at Skilak Lake. Like a lot of local climbs, his Skilak spot is off the map.
“There’s no real name or way to find it, unless you know where you’re going,” Walker said.
Walker wasn’t sure whether the River City rock wall would encourage more local climbers, but he was confident it would “make the climbers who do climb stronger for when they do go out and climb — when it’s raining or winter, they can come here and train.”
Lori Kohls, a physical therapist who said she has climbed indoors and outdoors “all through Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, California, Oregon and Texas,” moved to Soldotna about a month ago. Arriving at the tail end of winter, the River City rock wall opening was her first climb in the area. As a new arrival, she was glad of the wall for another reason as well.
“You end up meeting people really fast when you climb,” Kohls said. “When you go to a climbing gym or a climbing wall like this, all climbers talk to each other. It seems to be a really great way to meet people. When I go to a new place where I’m living, the climbing gym is the first place I go to meet people and make friends.”
The climbers on Saturday took on a set of 33 “problems” — prescribed routes set out based on colored rocks that traversed the wall and increased in difficulty as the numbers increased. The routes were designed to strike a balance between challenging and fun. Route-designer Beck said he and the two Schmitts set the routes with a mix of intuition and trial and error — except for Ben, whom Beck said can plot a good route from the ground up in one try.
“We tried to keep them compact,” Beck said. “So they’re mostly vertical, six or seven moves apiece.”
The wall is painted with a stylized coastal landscape by Soldotna artist Kaitlin Vadla.
“The idea was that it’s that arch across the bay in Homer — but it might also be Skilak Lake, or it might be just some water and rocks,” Vadla said of the painting’s subject. “Something bright and happy for people that makes them think about where they could climb outside as well as the rocks inside.”
River City Wellness Center offers day passes for the rock wall, as well as wall-only memberships. Entrance is free for children under 12 with adult supervision.