David Chambers brings new meaning to the term "social climbing."
Chambers, an on-again, off-again student at Southern Oregon University, is part of a new wave of young rock climbers in the Rogue Valley who have learned you don't have to drive hours to Yosemite National Park or Smith Rock State Park in Central Oregon to find challenging rocks to climb.
"It's nice to get out there and leave the rest of life behind. It simplifies life," says Chambers, 22, who spends half his waking hours working at The Ashland Outdoor Store. He spends much of the other half clipped in and hanging out.
Within an hour's drive or less from the heart of the Rogue Valley, hundreds of challenging climbing routes have been established, and people like Chambers are known to keep a rope, carabineers and harness in the car for an after-work climb.
"The rock gym in Medford opened five years ago, and it got a new generation of people interested in climbing," says Bryant Helgeland, who has worked at The Ashland Outdoor Store for nine years. "Now they're graduating out of the gym into other stuff. We're seeing people coming in and wanting to go to the next level."
For many, that next level begins on the road to Greensprings.
On a warm July evening at 7 o'clock, Chambers and fellow SOU students Melissa Boyd, 19, and Torrey Johnson, 22, park on Tyler Creek Road, west of Ashland. A five-minute uphill walk through a pine forest takes them to the base of a columnar basalt formation near Greensprings summit.
This area provides exceptional "crack and face" climbing. Routes follow the angular rock faces — or the cracks between them — 80 feet up and top out on a slippery dirt-and-scree slope. Lines of anchor bolts at roughly 7-foot vertical intervals trace several established routes to the top.
These routes are known as "sport climbs." They add a safety factor and direction, using permanent bolts to provide a convenient location on which to anchor a safety rope, so that the length of your potential fall is limited to the distance to your last anchor.
Purists eschew sport climbing in favor of "traditional" climbing, a style where no bolts or permanent alterations of the rock face are allowed. Stoppers, hexes and spring-loaded cams are used as temporary anchors in traditional climbing.
"I prefer trad climbing. When you fall, it's on your gear and the rock, not on someone else's bolt," says Chambers.
As the climbing trio discuss this evening's route, they decide against "Marge's Navel," a freestanding pillar that resembles cartoon character Marge Simpson.
Of the 33 established climbs at the Greensprings site, they settle on "Hairway to Steaven," one of the more challenging climbs, rated as 5.10c/d. Degrees of difficulty for roped climbs are rated on the Yosemite Decimal System, from 5.0 through 5.15.
First up is Johnson, who is shirtless despite the gathering mosquitoes. A chalk bag dangles from his harness, and he dips his hand into the bag often to counteract the effects of the evening's heat.
"I got started climbing in a gym at SOU," Johnson says. "Climbing is a good excuse to hang out with good friends."
Johnson tests a variety of holds. He jumps backwards off the rock, falls a few feet and swings like a pendulum on his rope to re-try the last few holds. To insiders, this maneuver is called an "aerial dance."
Suddenly he finds the sweet hold he's been after. He lifts a foot to chest height and pulls with both arms until he's got enough leverage to push up with his foot. Although he's taken 15 minutes to climb 20 feet, he needs only 15 more to complete the remaining 70 feet.
This particular climb is known for the difficulty of the lower pitch. Finesse, balance and creativity are the watchwords here. During his early attempts, Johnson and his companions repeat a well-known climber's mantra: "Yield to genius before strength."
Next up is Boyd, a relative newcomer to climbing.
"I went to a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course for three weeks last fall in Arizona. During the last school year, I went with the SOU rock-climbing club to Smith Rock and Joshua Tree," Boyd says.
The SOU climbing club plans one overnight trip per term. Although non-students are permitted to attend, says Boyd, students get priority when space is limited.
Boyd watched Johnson's moves carefully while she belayed his lead climb. Knowing what worked and what didn't, she's able to climb the difficult section in about half the time he took.
Chambers completes his ascent as twilight casts shadows on the rock face. The group is already discussing their next outing. Pilot Rock? Emigrant Lake? Mount Ashland Bowl?
"Rattlesnake near Shady Cove is the best," Chambers says.
Located on Bureau of Land Management land between Trail and Shady Cove, Rattlesnake features more than 100 climbs, including the most challenging in the area.
The most unique local climbing, however, is at Emigrant Lake.
"Some of the climbs are partially under water now that the lake is full. You can do deep water soloing," says Chambers.
To get to these climbs you'll need to have a friend row you out to an accessible point. Don't bother bringing any equipment. While many of these climbs are 5.11 or greater, if you fall — perhaps accidentally on purpose — you land in the water. A deep water solo is not so bad on a hot day.
What really makes climbing unique in the Rogue Valley, however, is the climate.
"You can climb year round here," says Chambers. "It's hard to find that anywhere."
For more information on local climbing, contact the Ashland Outdoor Store at 541-488-1202 or the SOU Outdoor Program (when class is in session) at 541-552-6470. The book "Rock Climbing Western Oregon: Rogue" by Greg Orton lists hundreds of local climbs.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.