A New Home for Caltech’s Rock Stars

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This spring, members of Caltech’s Braun Athletic Center with lofty ambitions will have access to a brand new bouldering cave—a training ground for the surprisingly large number of rock climbers in the campus community.

The bouldering cave is a room lined floor-to-ceiling with climbing holds. Some of its walls are tilted in at overhanging angles, while the floors are lined with soft mats. A resource for rock climbers to train for strength and endurance, the new cave was designed by members of the Caltech Alpine Club, a student-run organization whose membership comprises hundreds of students, staff, and faculty.

"We wanted to make it a safer and more accessible space for the club and new prospective users," says Joe Jordan, assistant director for athletic facilities. "The old cave was put together a long time ago and contained narrow passages that were not up to current standards, so it wasn't as safe as it should have been."Postdoctoral researcher KathaUrmann and her husband, research engineer Eitam Shafran, took the lead in redesigning and building out the new space. The pair had been responsible for the route setting and maintenance of the old cave. “So when they decided that they needed to shut down the space last summer, we got together with a couple other members of the club and created a plan for a new structure oriented on the old layout," Urmann says. New additions include a campus board (a board for building finger strength by gripping on narrow strips of wood) and steeper overhangs to provide new challenges for climbers.

Built by the Caltech Carpenter Shop, the new cave will replace the original built by Rudy Hofmeister (BS '87, PhD '93). Hofmeister built that cave on the east side of Brown Gym over the course of a week in the summer of 1990, well before climbing gyms were commonplace. While today, rock climbing is a mainstream sport that attracts millions of people nationally—and climbers at Caltech have access to no fewer than five indoor climbing gyms within a half hour’s drive of campus—back then it was a different story. 

"There was a gym just opening up in Long Beach, and Hangar 18 [in Upland] was around, but other than that you either had to drive to a crag or know someone who had a homemade gym in their garage," Hofmeister says.

He used silica sand and epoxy climbing holds custom made by famed '70s-era climber Tony Yaniro, which would later inspire commercially sold production molds, according to Hofmeister. The new cave will re-use most of the old Yaniro-made holds, Urmann says—the only ones that were discarded were those that were broken from decades of wear and tear.

Having cut his teeth in the '80s at Stoney Point in Chatsworth, Hofmeister was eager to have a training ground closer to campus. Borrowing power tools from another climber and drawing on knowledge gained from helping friends build bouldering caves in their garages, Hofmeister constructed the Caltech bouldering cave for about $1,500 of his own money. He later sold it to Caltech for a nominal fee, he says.

At first, the gym was primarily used by Hofmeister and three of his friends: recently arrived assistant professor Kai Zinn, now the Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Biology; graduate student Suzanne Paulson, now a professor in the Atmospheric and Ocean Science Department at UCLA; and Paulson's then-boyfriend postdoctoral researcher Neil Humphrey, now a professor of glaciology and geomorphology and adjunct professor of vertical dance at the University of Wyoming. 

"We were hard climbers," Paulson says. In 1993, Paulson was ranked number 5 in the nation for women's climbers. Hofmeister, during that same time period, took fourth place in the International Federation of Sport Climbing North American Championships in Montreal.

But more and more climbers from the Caltech community began showing up. "It became a bit of a social scene," Hofmeister says. "I remember one time we hosted a competition, though I couldn't tell you who won. I recused myself because I knew all the routes." The cave eventually became a hub for the Caltech Alpine Club and remained so for the next three decades. 

Climbing has been a component of Caltech life for decades. Prominent climber Chuck Wilts, perhaps most famous as the inventor of the ubiquitous Yosemite Decimal System that rates the difficulty of climbs, was a triple alumnus (B.S. '40, M.S. '41, PhD '48) and a professor of electrical engineering and applied physics from 1947 until his death in 1991. According to an obituary published by the American Alpine Club, Wilts not only taught a rock climbing class on campus, he climbed buildings with students at night, dodging campus security and a disapproving administration. 

Though there is significantly less building climbing today, the Caltech Alpine Club remains active, with weekly speakers (with pizza and beer, sometimes sponsored by the Southern California Mountaineers Association); regular opportunities to do group training courses with local guides; and a listserv where members can connect with one another for weekend jaunts to the mountains.

Elle Chimiak, the Caltech Alpine Club's current president, credits the Institute's location as a big part of the success of climbing and mountaineering among the campus community. "Within a two-hour drive, you've got Tahquitz, Joshua Tree, Malibu Creek, and Stoney Point," she says, naming a few popular local crags. "Just look out your window on campus, and you've got the foothills right there, waiting to be hiked. It's hard not to be inspired to get outdoors."

For more information about the Caltech Bouldering Cave, visit the Caltech Alpine Club's wiki page

—Robert Perkin