The Thrill of the Local Crag Culture

Jordan Buxton reports on the revived rock climbing scene in and around Reno.

Secured only by a rope, Nick Macaluso grips the wall climbing near the South Fork of the Yuba River, Calif. Photo by Jordan Buxton Feb. 17, 2020

An Early Season for Rock Climbers

Most holidays are celebrated with a late morning alarm and brunch. For Nick Macaluso, Tyler Silva and Cory Starks it’s the perfect time for an early morning, torn skin, and the thrill of climbing a wall.

Warm temperatures making for an unusually dry winter in the area mean the three rock climbers can enjoy climbing they usually can’t at this time of the year. After burying their car in a snowdrift they manage to find a trailhead leading to a wall they want to climb. The approach is less than enjoyable, scrambling up the side of a mountain on a trail that very few people have been on over the winter months.

Climbing seems to only be growing in popularity. The Reno-Tahoe area has always been home to some great rock climbing, but in recent years new climbing gyms and a renewed emphasis on the sport have started.

“I couldn’t ask for a better place to live,” Macaluso said. “Reno is close to so many great spots to go climbing and most of them are only an hour away. Plus, with all the hikes in the area it a perfect place for a climber to bum around.”

Tyler Silva approaches the top of his climb. Photo by Jordan Buxton Feb. 17, 2020

Heads Up

Trying to find a wall is the easiest part of the challenge for the three climbers. As soon as they find a wall worth climbing they don their harnesses and climbing shoes and get to work. Within minutes Starks is on the wall making the first ascent of the day. While the day is warm compared to past years, it is still morning in February in the Sierra Nevadas. He starts the cold ascent to warm up. As soon as he does with a yell of “heads up!” he takes off his jacket and tosses it through the canopy below.

“I rock climb because it excites me,” Starks said. “Being able to ascend seemingly flat walls is an extreme sport that no other sport has replicated.”

After Starks reaches the top, he is belayed to rest at the base of the climb. He’s not even completely down before Macaluso is already tying himself in the rope, eager to give it a try.

Don’t Be Like Honnold

Every move on the wall matters, one mistake means a climber can fall. Luckily, unless you are Alex Honnold, you likely have gear tying you into the wall to prevent any seriously life-threatening situations. Honnold was the subject of the National Geographic documentary Free Solo (trailer above), which depicted his climb up El Capitan in Yosemite without any ropes, harnesses or other gear protecting him.

For Macaluso, he is climbing with gear, and every ascent starts with the phrase “on belay.” The threat of injury still presents itself. Falling off the wall, especially on runs where the locations to tie yourself into the wall are far separated, present the possibility of serious injury. Many climbers refer to it, often jokingly, as a “whipper.” It occurs when the climber on the wall falls, swings along the rope and bashes into the wall. It happens in a split second, and luckily for most, a proactive belayer can prevent it from happening altogether.

Belaying is an important safety precaution for climbers, Cory Starks takes the role very seriously, intently watching the climber above. Photo by Jordan Buxton Feb. 17, 2020

Skin Tears and Disgusting Feet

Falling off the wall isn’t the only injury they suffer. After only his first ascent Macaluso’s hand was bleeding. In order to get a good hold, he had slid it into a crack and applied enough pressure that he wouldn’t fall, tearing his skin.

Climbers use equipment to make the climb easier, and much safer. The ropes they use have high tensile strength. They wear harnesses specifically designed to keep them secured to the rope. The shoes they wear in order to get good holds with their feet are extremely tight and uncomfortable but are necessary. Rarely do they stay on their feet longer than a minute or two after a climb.

When asked about it Silva jokes about getting a pedicure with his girlfriend. “The woman said they were the most disgusting feet she’s ever seen.”

Nick Macaluso (Center) helps Cory Starks (Left) secure equipment on his climbing harness. Photo by Jordan Buxton Feb. 17, 2020.

Searching for Sun

As the day continued, they went in search of the sun. Finding a wall that the sun is hitting is preferred. Not only does the sun keep the climbers warm, but it warms the wall up as well making it easier to hold onto.

After a few more hours of climbing, the group packs up all their equipment and traverse back to the car. With tired arms and sore feet, they hike down, trying to remember where the trail was.

At that time it was very easy to understand the appeal of climbing. For some people, the rush of adrenaline behind an extreme sport is all that they need.

Cory Starks approaches the top of his climb, as Nick Macaluso belays and Tyler Silva calls beta. Beta is a term used to dictate a type of climbing jargon intended to help a climber find a route up a wall. Photo by Jordan Buxton Feb. 17, 2020.

Climbing the Next Wall

During the hike down, as the sun approached the western horizon, we were able to observe views very few people other than climbers often to see. Climbing, it seems, has its benefits. Beautiful views and a calm serenity was around us everywhere we went.

Making it to the car was a somber occasion. No one wanted to stop climbing. Climbing is more than a hobby for these three.

“Let’s go to the climbing gym,” Macaluso said.

Tired, dirty and beaten they could only think about one thing, climbing the next wall.

Reporting and Photography by Jordan Buxton shared with Reynolds Sandbox

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