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Eva Abert is a 4-foot tall, 66-pound sprite with dark curly hair. In shorts and a tank top, she defies gravity by scaling vertical walls with the grace of a real-life Spider-Woman.

With just three years of training at Santa Rosa’s Vertex Climbing Center, Eva placed 16th in her age group at a national championship competition in Wisconsin, competing with 35 girls who were each given four minutes to climb as high as she could up four routes on an indoor climbing wall.

Ten-year-old Eva, one of the stars of Vertex’s youth climbing program, is part of a gender surge in a sport most people associate with muscular men like Kevin Jorgeson, another Santa Rosan with ties to Vertex who stunned the world last month by free climbing Yosemite’s 3,000-foot Dawn Wall.

But brute strength and body mass, which give men a distinct edge in most sports, are not the keys to success in the high-risk sport of rock climbing. Instead, young women Eva’s age combine tenacity, mental focus and piano-wire strength to scale the world’s toughest rocks.

“I train a lot,” said Eva shortly after scooting up a vertical practice board with seeming ease, hanging on with just her fingertips at the Vertex facility in a Coffey Lane industrial park.

“Mental,” she said, indicating the hardest part of her sport by tapping the side of her head. Let uncertainty creep in during a climb and you’ve got a bigger problem than finding the next secure hold on the wall.

Justin Hall, 14, who started climbing at Vertex seven years ago, accompanied Eva and Vertex youth team coaches Jordan Welch and Kris Terry at USA Climbing’s national youth bouldering championships last weekend at Madison, Wis.

Justin finished fourth in the finals, winning a spot on the USA Team.

Welch said she has put aside her personal climbing goals to boost the youngsters.

“It’s all about the women and kids now,” she said.

The gender gap in climbing is “shrinking every year,” said Sarah McKay, 39, a Vertex co-owner who started climbing in a Santa Cruz gym 20 years ago.

It’s not a new trend, she said. Lynn Hill, a pioneer climber at 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, made the first free climb up The Nose route on Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan in 1993 and came back the next year to scale it in a day.

Young women have the “ideal power to weight ratio” for climbing, said her business partner, co-owner Gorden Cooley, 30, who at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds is larger than most male climbers. (Chris Sharma, widely regarded as the world’s top rock climber, is 6-foot and 165 pounds). Girls also possess an attention to detail that most boys lack, Cooley said.

“You need to read the sequence in front of you and execute,” he said.

When done right, climbing a wall “feels like you’re dancing,” McKay said.

Considering the passions it inspires, climbing would equate to the tango, the South American dance named after the Latin word for touch and often performed in close embrace.

“There is something metaphysical about it,” said Jeremiah Kahmoson, 35, of Sebastopol, who joined Vertex in 2001.

“A thousand feet off the ground enjoying the vista of Tuolumne Meadows. It’s transformative.”

For the 600 members of the Vertex climbing community, the last half-year marked a dramatic rebound from darkness to light.

In August, Brad Parker, a 36-year-old veteran climber from Sebastopol, died in a fall from a Yosemite peak hours after proposing to his girlfriend. Jorgeson, a close friend who climbed with Parker at Vertex, considered giving up the Dawn Wall assault that he had spent years plotting with climbing partner Tommy Caldwell of Colorado.

But when the two men stood atop El Cap five months later on Jan. 14, tears and sparkling wine flowed in celebration of their historic feat and remembrance of Parker, whose final climb was on a rocky crest about 15 miles to the east.

“All of our sadness and grief turned into love and support for them going up the face,” said Kahmoson, who considered Parker his best friend. The Jorgeson-Caldwell triumph, he said, was “a cathartic experience for the community.”

Thought impossible

Dawn Wall had long been considered impossible for free climbers, who pull themselves up rock with their hands and feet, connected by a rope threaded through carabiners that serves only to catch them when they fall. Aid climbers, in contrast, use ropes and metal hardware anchored in the rock to boost them up the wall.

Free climbers are tied together, their fate literally in one another’s hands. “When you’re on a rope with someone, that’s a bond you can’t break,” said Kahmoson, a 1997 graduate from Analy High in Sebastopol.

Even in the relatively safe confines at Vertex, with five inches of foam padding on the floor, climbers on walls up to 35 feet high are paired with a belayer who maintains appropriate tension on the ceiling-mounted rope that attaches to the harnesses worn by both people. When a climber comes loose from the wall, he or she swings gently in the air.

The vast majority of injuries at Vertex occur in the bouldering room, where climbers attack walls up to about 12 feet high and every fall ends by hitting the floor. Outdoors, where boulderers encounter perplexing conditions just a few feet from the ground, their partners are supposed to keep thick, portable pads strategically placed beneath them.

Indoor climbing gyms came from Europe to the United States in the late 1980s, and Vertex was the third gym in the Bay Area when it opened in 1995, located just a few hours away from Yosemite, the mecca for California climbers since the 1950s. Vertex’s founders picked Santa Rosa because the area was home to more than 400 subscribers to Rock & Ice magazine at a time when climbing gyms were “not a proven business model,” Cooley said.

There are now 627 gyms nationwide, according to a 2014 industry report by the research firm IBISWorld, including more than 15 in the Bay Area, Cooley said. Annual revenues exceeded $150 million last year, rebounding from a slump that set in with the recession in 2008.

“Consumers are shifting their preference from yoga, Pilates and various other exercises to indoor wall climbing,” the report said, forecasting modest but steady revenue growth — driven by increased disposable income — to $161.6 million in 2019.

There’s no substitute for real rock, Cooley said, but indoor gyms afford climbers a place to “keep the edge of the blade sharp” between trips to the mountains. Close to home, Sonoma County climbers hit boulders at Goat Rock and Salt Point State Park on the coast, with roped climbing at Mount St. Helena.

All ages

Vertex, tucked into a nondescript stucco industrial park unit, typically fills in the after-school and after-work hours with climbers of nearly all ages, from grade school to grandparents. The 6,500-square-foot facility features an upper-level workout area and has a cavern-like feeling, with walls reaching up 35 feet high, some of them capped by radical overhangs that are only for the most proficient climbers.

About 75,000 holds made of plastic and fiberglass are bolted to the gym’s plywood walls, their varied shapes reproducing the features on natural granite, schist and sandstone. There are large jugs, as easily gripped as a suitcase handle, as well as tiny crimps as thin as a credit card, resembling the hold that nearly thwarted Jorgeson at Pitch 15 on Dawn Wall.

Ten times over seven days, Jorgeson stretched his left arm toward a minuscule hold on the pitch, a lateral traverse across the face of El Capitan, and 10 times he fell. On Jan. 10, he finally stuck the critical move, blood spurting from cuts to his index finger inflicted by the knife-edged granite formed from molten rock 100 million years ago.

Caldwell was waiting above, and four days later the men scrambled onto the rim of El Cap, completing a free climb that had long been considered impossible. Jorgeson and Caldwell became media darlings, congratulated by President Barack Obama’s Tweet and later appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres television show.

Recalling his earlier ties to Vertex, Jorgeson said he was “just kind of there every day,” and the gym crowd became “kind of like my friends and family to climb with. (I) very much grew up at Vertex.”

In turn, the Vertex community — a tribe with semblances of a cult and some zen influences — was energized by Jorgeson’s deed.

“This is an inherent social space,” Cooley said, where climbers make an “authentic connection” that is “missing in many people’s lives.”

Bright tape is attached to each of the thousands of holds on the walls, each color identifying a route serious climbers are expected to follow and giving the gym an almost psychedelic array of color. But their sport is not for the spacey, demanding mental focus that has a psychological payoff, climbers say.

McKay, a multi-sport athlete, stepped into a Santa Cruz climbing gym by pure chance in 1995, having won a beginner’s class ticket as a prize on a local radio station. Fearful of heights at the time and still somewhat uncomfortable up high, McKay said she was “utterly terrified and simultaneously hooked.”

She joined Vertex a day after moving to Sonoma County in 1998, started the summer camp for kids and managed the gym for 10 years before she and Cooley bought it in 2012.

No distractions

Climbers often use the word “hooked,” suggesting an addictive, some might say obsessive, attachment to their sport.

There’s no day-dreaming on a rock or a wall, McKay said. The barrage of distractions from our multi-tasking lives gets shut out by the urgency of the task at hand.

“The chatter shuts down,” McKay said. “A lot people talk about climbing as a moving meditation.”

Julie and Pat Abert enjoy climbing at Vertex with their whiz-kid daughter, Eva, a fifth-grader at Santa Rosa French-American Charter school.

“It’s a place where we know she’s safe,” Julie said.

“For Eva, it’s her second home. When she comes here she’s happy.”

Welch, who coaches nearly 30 kids, ages 7 to 17, on Vertex’s youth competition teams, said her charges are less susceptible to the fears that many adults face on walls. “They just go for it,” she said.

Eva exudes confidence, along with a strong mental focus and innate sense of balance. But she’s “still a little girl,” Welch said, prone to giggles with her female pals on the team.

Melissa White, who joined the Vertex community a year ago, considers herself a beginner, working on the climbing ABCs of hand and foot placement, maintaining her balance and battling doubt. On a recent night, she slipped four or five times off holds on the purple route and opted to drop by rope smoothly to the floor.

“I’ll probably try it again next week,” said White, a school teacher who moved from Marin County to Petaluma early last year. She joined the Bouldering Bettys, a women’s group that meets at Vertex on Monday nights, and made more than a dozen friends. She’s gone on outings with the group to Mount St. Helena and Pinnacles National Park, a rock climbing destination 80 miles southeast of San Jose.

White said she is learning to push through her fear, building strength and bonding with like-minded women. Vertex was just what she needed in a new place.

“It has been my salvation up here,” White said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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