Kids climb to meet challenges at Camp Vertical in Santa Rosa

Sofia Sodhi, 10, is spotted by Irisa Kennedy during Camp Vertical at Vertex Climbing Center in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. Instructors work with kids to give them pointers on how to shift their weight and coach them past their fears. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


Isabel Lester scaled a nearly 30-foot wall within seconds on her second day of camp at Vertex Climbing Center — an ascent that had terrified the 6-year-old experienced tree climber just a day earlier.

“I made it all the way to the top,” she boasted after climbing the wall.

Lester was timid and hesitant when she first arrived at Camp Vertical, but the Santa Rosa first-grader opened up and quickly found the courage to reach the top of the wall, said Aly Alvarez, youth coordinator at Vertex.

“She blossomed. She totally came out of her shell,” Alvarez said. “It’s amazing to see that in one day.”

Aside from knot and climbing techniques, children work on social skills and develop confidence at the camp, Alvarez said. They also learn about the importance of trusting partners, including the instructors attached to the other end of the rope, and test their limits, she said.

Vertex will offer similar camps for children ages 7 to 14 from June 6 to Aug. 12. The cost is $195 per weeklong session.

Camp Vertical will be one of 26 camps offered this summer through Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks, said Adriane Mertens, the department’s marketing and outreach coordinator. The camps fill up each year, which speaks to the need in the community, she said.

“Parents are looking for ways to keep their children engaged in health, wellness and creative enrichment opportunities during the long summer months,” Mertens said in an email. “It’s important to our department to meet that need and to provide a diverse range of offerings to satisfy the interests of every child.”

The Camp Vertical summer sessions typically run from 9 a.m. to noon. Class is extended to 4 p.m. on Thursdays when organizers take the kids to Goat Rock on the Sonoma Coast to climb, said Kevin Radle, general manager at Vertex, which has been holding the day camps since 1995.

Many children are scared of heights when they arrive, Radle said. For a lot of them, he said, it’s their first time climbing.

“It’s a natural fear,” Radle said.

The instructors provide pointers as to which foot or hand the kid should use or where to shift his or her weight to get to the next rock peg, he said. They also encourage the kids to push past their fears, without inciting panic or tears, Radle said.

“It really promotes mental and physical health,” he said. “It’s a full-body workout from your fingers to your toes — and it’s a mental challenge.”

Anna Zahner, a 9-year-old Windsor girl who used to practice gymnastics, said she’s become more flexible since she started rock climbing.

“It’s scary,” she admitted. However, Zahner said she would tell herself to “keep on going, don’t be scared” when inching up the walls during the spring camp, where she learned to make figure-eight and double fisherman’s knots.

As she climbed, Alvarez offered encouraging words from below.

“Push up. You’re almost there. …  You got two more (pegs) to go,” she shouted before the Cali Calmecac Language Academy third-grader reached the top and gracefully rappelled down the wall, pushing off with her thin legs.

Like his sister, Seth Zahner, 11, also was afraid to climb. After his first day, though, he was trying trickier climbs, including one that had him upside-down.

“You can do pretty much anything if you put your mind to it,” the Cali Calmecac fifth-grader said.

Tim Zahner, their father and Sonoma County Tourism Bureau’s chief marketing officer, said he and his wife enrolled the kids in the camp because they wanted to give them something to do while on break.

“We don’t want them to sit at home, watching the screen,” he said.

Jeff Lester didn’t want that, either, for his daughter, Isabel. As an arborist who often has to climb trees, he said he wanted his daughter to get more climbing experience and meet new friends at the camp.

“It’s something not everybody gets to do,” he said. “It’s just a fun experience.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.