Spotlight on the 90s is a recurring column that explores the iconic gyms of the 1990s—and examines how those facilities captured the essence of climbing and the ethos of the industry in that decade. Check back regularly for future installments of this ongoing series.
Gym: Pacific Edge
Location: Santa Cruz, California
Opening Date: August 31, 1993
The humble beginnings of Pacific Edge can be traced back to a number of key factors, pivotal people, and unique circumstances. For starters, in the early 1990s, local Santa Cruz climber Tom Davis visited one of the few climbing gyms in California—CityRock in Emeryville—and felt inspired to start a climbing gym of his own…somewhere. At the time, Davis was flirting with the idea of quitting his day job in the wood stove trade to work full-time for his summer employer Outward Bound. He wanted to devote himself to climbing instruction, and operating a climbing gym would be a step toward satiating that desire.
Meanwhile, another Santa Cruz resident named Diane Russell was garnering headlines for success on the burgeoning American competition climbing scene. She had made the podium at a Rockmaster event in Seattle in 1990 and followed that up with a podium finish at the 1991 ASCF National Championships. Russell was quickly becoming one of the most accomplished climbers on the competition circuit, frequently traveling around the country and vying for top places at events alongside other American stars like Bobbi Bensman and Alison Osius.
Underpinning all of this was a noteworthy zeitgeist at the time, with climbing in California arcing towards a new boom period in a new decade. In the summer of 1991, Californians Hans Florine and Andy Puhvel had set a new speed record on the Nose of El Capitan; the duo had also clocked a historic time on the Salathé Wall of El Capitan that same summer. Organized climbing competitions were emerging in the state with greater frequency as well, such as an “indoor championship” at the fairgrounds in San Diego.
Simply, California residents and communities were hungry to explore climbing—to learn the basics, embrace the lifestyle, and take the sport further than it had ever been.
Finding the Perfect Space
In fact, it would not be any of those single factors that would ultimately give rise to Pacific Edge, but the unique convergence of them all. Davis was increasingly driven and determined to start his own climbing gym, but his initial thought was to perhaps open a new gym in Colorado—a state in the midst of its own boom period in the early 1990s. As an act of research, in April of 1992, Davis took a trip from California to Colorado. He visited Colorado’s three most prominent climbing gyms at the time: Paradise, Boulder Rock Club, and the Colorado Springs Sport Climbing Center. The result was an unexpected takeaway for Davis: Perhaps Colorado—and Boulder, in particular, which also had the CATS climbing facility—did not need another climbing gym.
So, Davis returned to Santa Cruz, where his desire to open a climbing gym was soon met with some serendipity: An expansive building just two blocks from Davis’ home in Santa Cruz came up for rent. The large building had previously operated as a cannery and a mushroom-growing factory, but it was now vacant. With a little imagination, Davis and a business partner envisioned it becoming a climbing gym.
“We just figured we’d call the landlord and see what he was asking,” Davis recalls of the whim at the time. “And it was so cheap that we were like, ‘Oh, OK!’ So we started to build a business plan, and it made sense that we might actually be able to do it.”
It was not hard for Davis to pivot from the initial Colorado ambitions and instead focus on a California opportunity. “We loved Santa Cruz,” Davis says. “If we were going to live in a non-climbing area, Santa Cruz was pretty high on the list. And we’d be able to ride our bikes to work.”
Davis soon made a commitment to lease the cannery building. In fact, Davis’ father possessed some experience with startups and acted as a mentor; he was even Davis’ first investor in the Santa Cruz climbing gym endeavor. But the conversion and construction was far from an easy process. A contributing factor was the typical five-year drought cycle of California, Davis explains, with Pacific Edge’s construction unluckily coinciding with a cycle’s end; the roof of the old cannery was purposefully removed on December 15, 1992, and within a few weeks steady rain began. Davis recalls the building filling up with five inches of rainwater at one point. In a moment of partial whimsy and partial exasperation, the gym’s construction crew was able to float a kayak across the floor of the building.
Aside from the persistent rain, there were other challenges stemming from mounting expenses. “We spent every penny we had raised financially, as well as borrowed on top of that, and we owed the local lumber supply $30,000,” Davis recalls. “So we were deep in the hole. And we had sold about $7,000 of pre-opening memberships and we couldn’t really touch that money until we got our doors open, so there was this whole back-and-forth with the city trying to get them to let us slide on certain aspects of this 80-year-old building that we just weren’t going to be able to fix.”
Still, Pacific Edge’s creation had some bright spots. Years earlier, Davis had received some schooling in solar technology and his previous work with wood stoves had given him some knowledge about alternative energy. Those experiences drove much of the gym’s ongoing construction. “One of the big things about all the climbing gyms I visited was that they were all warehouses, like going into a cave,” Davis says. “They kind of had that feeling of being in a casino—you didn’t know what time of day it was, and there was all this artificial light. So, when we designed [Pacific Edge], I went to the engineer and said, ‘How many skylights can we put in this roof?’ It probably ended up with 25 percent of the roof surface being skylights. That just changes the entire feel of being inside a climbing gym because you can actually see the sun move across the floor.”
Additionally, the gym’s interior wall paneling was designed by an engineer who was not a climber but enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to build indoor climbing structures. The resulting walls—costing just $6,000—would prove to be incredibly effective and durable. The facility’s entire reimagining, with a new roof and the installation of the climbing components within the 10,000-square-foot interior, was completed in nine months. All the construction had been a success. Yet nobody could have imagined the attention and acclaim that the gym would soon gain due to a few big-name members.
Fostering famous and novice climbers
Pacific Edge opened its doors in the summer of 1993, and the positive response from Santa Cruz locals was immediate. The gym was an hour and a half from the CityRock gym, which was just enough distance for Pacific Edge to fashion its own identity but also share some of CityRock’s clientele. Ironically, it was Santa Cruz’s diehard climbers that were slower to frequent Pacific Edge, as the concept of climbing “on plastic” rather than on real rock was still met with vocal derision from some climbers in the early 1990s. But even those skeptics soon realized the benefit of being able to climb in a gym, unencumbered by bad weather or fading daylight outside.
While Pacific Edge had overcome its initial weather and financial woes, the whole process had drained Davis. He had lost an eye in an accident during the gym’s construction, and the constant stress about funds had mentally and emotionally exhausted him. Fortunately, the rejuvenating force he needed proved to come from competitive superstar Diane Russell. Davis had been impressed by Russell’s competition success and had “cold called” her on the phone with a pitch to be involved in Pacific Edge at a business level.
Russell had not been interested in Davis’ offer at first; in addition to competing, Russell was successfully making a living as a carpenter; the work and travels kept her fairly separated from the Santa Cruz climbing scene. But Davis was persistent and eventually Russell agreed to invest in Pacific Edge and become a co-owner with Davis. As the gym opened, Russell could offer her own insights and ideas for programming and operations, thus sharing the duties with Davis and lessening his mental load.
Russell’s steady participation on the burgeoning American competition circuit had also granted her access to a lot of climbing gyms. As a result, she brought invaluable opinions on best-practices to Pacific Edge. “What I saw [at other gyms] was a lot of really top-end climbers that were running the front desk, but they really weren’t into service; they were into climbing,” Russell recalls. “I wanted to change that. And there were other things like the shirts-off, macho-kind-of-feel that I wanted from the beginning to not have [at Pacific Edge].”
Davis adds: “One of the overwhelming things I experienced was that a lot of other gyms were long on attitude and short on inclusiveness. It was off-putting. Diane and I both had the same feelings about trying to make everybody feel welcome regardless of their climbing ability or experience level.”
One of the earliest aids—both in offering some logistical advice and giving Pacific Edge some big-name cache—was another superstar competitor, Hans Florine. Florine visited Pacific Edge frequently once the gym opened and occasionally worked as a guest routesetter. Russell even recalls Florine creating some training accoutrements out of wooden dowels when Pacific Edge could not afford a surplus of climbing holds.
“Instead of buying 2x4s, just buy wooden dowels (like coat hanger wooden rods),” Florine says, explaining the budget-friendly way of making holds that he shared with Pacific Edge. “You can get them in different sizes. Just drill a hole through them and stick them to the wall and now you’ve got a pinch—a tufa. Even in plastic-acrylic-fiberglass-epoxy-whatever holds that people made in those early days, it was very rare to get tufas. But you could make them very simply.”
Gaining National Acclaim
Another climber who would gain fame in the 1990s and have direct ties to Pacific Edge was Chris Sharma, who first entered the gym in 1993 as a 12-year-old beginner. “His talent became obvious probably in the first six to eight months,” remembers Davis. “Everybody’s got their natural trajectory and then you hit the limit of your innate abilities and from there on you have to really apply yourself to gain a slow increase in your abilities. But Chris was somebody who never plateaued. He just kept getting better.”
Anecdotes about Chris Sharma’s talent and youthful accomplishments at Pacific Edge are abundant. Davis vividly remembers young Sharma casually walking up to a boulder, sticking a finger in a bolt hole, and promptly doing a smooth one-finger pull-up—having never previously attempted such a thing. And Russell recalls Sharma cruising up a steep route rated upwards of 5.12 in Pacific Edge’s lead cave—set by one of the gym’s earliest routesetters, Barry Bates—after having only been climbing for approximately eight months.
Hans Florine was running competitions around the country as a director of the ASCF at the time, and he was also competing in events himself. In doing so, he interacted with teenage Sharma quite a bit. He even escorted Sharma to some early competitions. “Me and my cohorts were some of the few lucky people to say we actually beat Chris Sharma in a competition—but it was only because he was 5-foot-1,” Florine recalls with a laugh, thinking back to Sharma’s days as a youthful phenom.
Of course, Sharma soon grew…and started winning competitions, including the biggest and most prestigious events in the country: The ASCF’s Junior National Championships in 1995 and the (adult) National Championships that same year. This quickly put Pacific Edge on the map in a new, larger context—as the climbing home of America’s best young climber. And whenever Sharma was back at Pacific Edge, he was met with newfound fans seeking autographs—and he always accommodated them.
A number of other prominent climbers considered Pacific Edge their climbing home in the 1990s: Andy Puhvel, Sterling Keene, Chris Bloch, Tiffany Hensley, Josie McKee, and David Allfrey, among them. Natalia Grossman, who would eventually sweep USA Climbing’s 2019 National Cup bouldering series, hails from Santa Cruz and also got her climbing start at Pacific Edge.
But the gym always made a point to appeal to any sect of climber, not just the talented and elite. Davis and Russell taught classes for all skill levels and offered after-school youth programs. Staff members such as Peter Carrick and Scott Lappin helped create programming curricula too. Also, the gym featured “free days” once a year, during which members volunteered to belay public walk-ins that could try climbing at no cost. The gym hosted college nights for students of nearby University of California Santa Cruz, as well as high school nights for teenagers. Women’s programming, often spearheaded by Russell, was abundant from the onset. Additionally, a nonprofit called Project Climb was founded by a Santa Cruz local named Sharon Urquhart and served at-risk youth through Pacific Edge.
“I was a bit of a troubled youth, and if I had had access to something like this gym, I think it would have saved me and my parents a lot of grief,” reflects Davis. “So, the idea of it being a community hub and a place where kids could come on their own—and be part of that whole thing—was a core part of our mission from the beginning.”
Maintaining a local feel
As the 1990s progressed and Pacific Edge continued to gain widespread acclaim, Davis and Russell maintained the same homegrown tenor that had always resonated at the gym. For instance, it had been local cabinet makers and carpenters that had largely pitched in for the gym’s initial construction, and a local artist and climber named Telopa Treloky had painted the Michelangelo-inspired sign out front. If gym repairs were occasionally required, Davis and Russell would turn first to members of the Pacific Edge community. “Whenever we needed a plumber, or an electrician, or whatever…we’d say, ‘You know, there has to be somebody here,’” Russell says. “Friends of friends. If they’re recommended, then they’re part of the Pacific Edge family.”
Davis and Russell also adhered to a number of environmental standards that they set for themselves with gym operations throughout the 1990s—from eliminating cleaning products that contained certain chemicals and responsibly managing water resources to recycling and holding environmental fundraisers. (In later years, such conscientious efforts would be codified into an official Pacific Edge Environmental Policy Statement by manager Mike Kitridge.)
There were a number of more visible changes as well. For example, the gym’s flooring, originally 120 tons of pea gravel, was replaced by padded flooring around 1998. (The gravel had worked well in cushioning landings, but it had just been proved to be too dusty over time.)
Perhaps the biggest change at the gym near the end of the 1990s was reflective of the shifting demographics in climbing: More kids. “I would say it went from the average age being 30 to the average age being 8,” Florine says. “It just got to be a younger and younger crowd at Pacific Edge.”
Today, Pacific Edge is still the climbing heartbeat of Santa Cruz—and for all ages. It still features vibrant programming and occasional competitions, as well as a focus on inclusivity that has not changed that much since the gym’s origin. That is by design, and there is an unwavering goal of always encouraging everyone to feel like they have access to climbing. And the location is still special and fairly unique to the industry. Florine explains: “There aren’t too many climbing gyms in the world where you can walk from the gym and be on a beach in four blocks.”
Sterling Keene, who worked as a routesetter in Pacific Edge’s early days, adds, “I think there’s something about Santa Cruz being more of a surf town and not having a lot of outdoor climbing nearby. People that are really into climbing are going to congregate around the center, which is Pacific Edge. And the more time they spend there, the more they get to know each other and communities and friendships evolve out of it.”
In looking back, Davis and Russell both see the 1990s as a time when they were primarily learning how to run a business: how to hire people, how to manage employees, and how to balance being a world-class climbing facility and a local hub at the same time. “We were never oriented towards being just a gym,” Davis explains. “We were oriented towards teaching people the lifetime skill of being a safe and successful climber from a traditional perspective. But right from the beginning, it was not to be a place that was just for climbers. It was to be a place for everybody.”
John Burgman is the author of High Drama, a book that chronicles the history of American competition climbing. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient and a former magazine editor. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team. Follow him on Twitter @John_Burgman and Instagram @jbclimbs