It was like having dead iguanas for hands. By the time I left the rock-climbing gym, my fingers were so tired that I had trouble opening my car door. Later, I could barely crack a beer can. I could, at least, count my new blisters: four burst on my fingers, and twice as many waiting under my palms. Yet I kept thinking, “Maybe if I dangled my right leg down and reached over with my right hand, I could pull myself up and put my left leg on the green hold and … “

Climbing will do that. Despite the pain, you want to go back and just finish that last climb.

I spent a few hours bouldering at the Studio, the climbing gym on South First Street in downtown San Jose, and I heard the same story over and over again.

Lanvy Nguyen, a recent Studio member, told me, “A friend took me to Planet Granite, and I got hooked. The bouldering problems are definitely addicting.”

She had climbed at Planet Granite in Sunnyvale, until her cousin told her about the Studio which opened last spring. In addition to gyms, the South Bay also sits near some of the best outdoor climbing in the country. Castle Rock to the west, Pinnacles to the south and, of course, Yosemite and Bishop farther to the east.

Like other sports, climbing has its own vocabulary, but a few extra flashcards are needed to learn the lingo. Bouldering involves solving “problems,” which are like short climbing puzzles. The problem you’re currently working on is your “project.”

Bouldering requires no equipment beyond climbing shoes, a chalk bag and a crash mat to cushion bad falls. Since it rarely requires a climb above 20 feet, no other safety devices are necessary. However, top-rope climbs are about 50 to 60 feet high and require a harness, rope and belay partner, who feeds the safety rope out as the climber ascends and catches them if they fall.

Each style has its own rating system as well. Bouldering ranges in difficulty from V0 to V16, while top-roping goes from 5.2 to 5.15b. The numbers themselves are arbitrary, and usually a consensus of experienced climbers will decide the rating.

These are the two most popular types of climbing found in a gym, but there are also lead climbing, free-soloing, high-balling and trad climbing, among others. Then there are all kinds of hand and footholds: nibs, pinches, crimps, jugs, slopers and pockets. Not to mention the different climbing moves: the dyno, the smear, the mantle. I’ll wait while you write that down.

Scale Safe

All this jargon sounds intimidating at first, but the attitude in most climbing gyms is relaxed and unpretentious. Henry Springall, a staff member at the Studio, advised me before I started bouldering that “it’s not a typical gym experience.” You know the typical: a bunch of thick-necked dudes grunting and posturing in front of the weight-room mirror, side-eyeing each others’ muscles. At the Studio, if you complete your current bouldering project, the staff gives you an otter pop.

After solving a few easier bouldering problems, I got stuck on a particularly difficult V0. To my left, a stocky guy clambered up a V7 at a 45-degree overhang. A 9-year-old girl tore up a V1 behind me.

As I sat staring at the problem (bouldering involves a lot of sitting and staring, or “resting your arms,” which makes it my kind of sport), a good number of complete strangers offered me tips or encouragement.

The group of twentysomethings doing handstands around the corner stopped by to show me how to keep my arms stretched out to preserve their strength. The guy next to me took a break from his V4 to run through my problem a couple times and show me how it’s done. Mike Standfer, a beginning climber whose friend had brought him, stared at the problem with me for a good half-hour.

Eventually, I gave up. My hands had undergone their magical transformation into dead iguanas, and, let me tell you, dead iguanas can’t climb walls. That V0 is just waiting for me back at the Studio though, and I want that otter pop. But maybe I should wait until I can open my own beer cans.

Getting High
City Beach Rock Climbing
4020 Technology Place, Fremont; 510.651.2500

Studio Climbing
396 S. First St., San Jose; 408.998.4000

Pacific Edge Climbing Gym
104 Bronson St., #12, Santa Cruz; 831.454.9254
Planet Granite Rock

Climbing Gym
815 Stewart Dr., Sunnyvale; 408.991.9090