Noe Valley Voice February 2000

Climbing the Walls at Mission Cliffs

By Janis Cooke Newman

"It's only scary the first time," a 6-year-old boy in a Darth Maul tee shirt tells my 4-year-old son, Alex. "Then it's okay."

Alex yanks on the nylon harness that's wrapped around his legs, assessing the trustworthiness of the Darth Maul boy.

On the walls around us, kids and grownups cling to little colored ledges. The ropes trailing out of their middles make them resemble four-legged spiders.

It's a rainy Saturday at Mission Cliffs, the indoor rock-climbing gym on Harrison Street near 19th. On weekends, kids from 4 to 17 can drop in and scale the 14,000 square feet of climbing terrain, some of it 50 feet off the ground.

"Are you going to try it, Mom?" Alex asks, looking up at a woman in a polar-fleece hat who's dangling by one arm 40 feet over our heads.

"I think I'll just watch you," I say, not wanting him to know I'm so acrophobic that I won't climb past the fourth step on a ladder.

I've been afraid of heights ever since I can remember. As a child, I refused to ride the merry-go-round horses that went up and down. A few years ago on a camping trip, I stayed below with the backpacks while everybody else climbed up to see the Indian ruins, their oohs and ahs floating into the desert air above me.

All of this makes me determined that Alex do as many things off the ground as possible. I want him to be the kind of person who can change a light bulb in a ceiling fixture, climb Half Dome, or even sky-dive if he wants. I just don't ever want him to tell me about it.

Next to us, a 10-year-old girl with a ponytail and long skinny legs is working her way to the top of the 50-foot wall. She's up so high, I can no longer read the word Adidas on the bottom of her sneakers.

"Don't worry," the boy in the Darth Maul tee shirt assures me, "she can't fall." He points to a man wearing a Mission Cliffs shirt who's got the other end of the girl's rope attached to a belt around his waist.

The man in the Mission Cliffs shirt is acting as a spotter, or belayer. And it's the belayers who keep the padded blue floor of Mission Cliffs from being littered with fallen climbers. On weekends, Mission Cliffs provides staff people -- usually at a ratio of one belayer for every four children -- to hoist and monitor the kids. The gym also runs safety classes for adults so that parents can learn to belay their own children, and each other.

"Reach for that red hold on your left," the man in the Mission Cliffs shirt coaches the girl.

Beside me, a man with a ponytail the same color as the girl's chants, "You can do it. You can do it."

The girl stretches out a long arm and grips a red handhold just above her head, pulling herself a little higher. The man with the ponytail resumes breathing.

"This is only the third time she's been here," he tells me, wiping his forehead.

When it's Alex's turn, we follow his belayer, Travis, upstairs to a terraced area and something the kids call the animal wall -- an incline about 12 feet high covered with hand- and footholds shaped like colored letters and stone animals. A little boy about Alex's age has climbed to the top of the animal wall and now refuses to let go of a stone raccoon so that his belayer can lower him down.

"Let go of the raccoon, Justin," instructs the little boy's mother, reaching for one of his Hot Wheels sneakers. "Let go of the raccoon, now."

Behind us, another mom is instructing her son. "No, no," she shouts, "you're not listening!" This mom is dressed in a climbing harness and a tank top. Her shoulders and upper arms are etched with muscles even I would consider taking up rock climbing to have. "Stand on the tip!" she yells up at her son, who is ignoring her. "The tip!"

By this time, Justin's belayer has climbed the animal wall and removed him like a suction-cup Garfield from a car window. Now it's Alex's turn.

"Never give up," a girl in smiley-face tights tells Alex, as Travis ties his belaying rope into a knot like a figure eight.

Alex nods at the girl and begins climbing the wall.

"Grab onto that H," Travis directs Alex, not knowing that Alex has not completely memorized the alphabet.

"The yellow one!" I shout out, startling the mom in the tank top. "The yellow one!"

Over the next hour, Alex climbs the animal wall several times, getting a little closer to the top with each try.

"Next time," he tells me as Travis unties him, "I'm going all the way to the ceiling."

We head down to the counter for some Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Alex spots a small boy in a Buzz Lightyear sweatshirt reluctantly climbing into a harness.

"Don't worry," Alex tells him, "it's only a little bit scary."

Are We There Yet? is a Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please email Janis Cooke Newman at or write the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114.

Know the Ropes About Mission Cliffs

Mission Cliffs is at 2295 Harrison St. at 19th Street; phone (415)
550-0515. The gym is open seven days a week, and until 10 p.m. on Monday through Friday. The kids' drop-in belay takes place on weekends only, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. The cost to have a Mission Cliffs staff person belay your child (hoist them up on ropes) is $10 an hour.

Belay safety classes for those over 14 are held on weekends, at noon, 1:30, and 3 p.m. (Belay safety classes are also held at various times during the week.) Once the staff at Mission Cliffs tests your belaying skills, you can come anytime and belay your own child.

Mission Cliffs offers a number of kids' activities, including birthday parties and after-school camps. There's also a weight room, showers, and saunas. If you'd like to see what Mission Cliffs looks like before going, take a virtual tour at