Sonoma Coast's seaside cliffs a thrill for climbers

FORT ROSS STATE HISTORIC PARK - From a Highway 1 pullout north of Jenner, Colton Edson hiked down a steep, winding path along an ocean bluff, his mop of brown hair tucked inside a cap and a large bag containing climbing gear strapped to his back.

His Cocker Spaniel-mix, Chance, tugged at his leash, dragging the pair across a deserted beach to the base of a massive boulder, roughly 18 feet high.

Unzipping the bag, Edson took out a foam pad and spread it on the pebbled sand. Those few inches of foam would be his only buffer if he fell.

The 19-year-old climber had taken the day off from his part-time construction job for a mid-morning workout on a slab of rock made slick by sea spray. He chose one of his favorite spots along the Sonoma Coast, pulling his Nissan Xterra into a spot above Kolmer Gulch Beach with Chance riding shotgun. In the truck's cab was a well-worn copy of “Bay Area Rock,” which many climbers consider the bible of local climbing hot spots.

Edson routinely visits the coast to hone his climbing skills. He discovered the sport at 13 when he stumbled upon his father's climbing gear in the family's garage. He left Montgomery High School his junior year to enroll at Pathways Charter School in Rohnert Park, in large part for more freedom to travel and climb, before graduating in 2015.

Now devoting most of his free time to climbing, Edson is being favorably compared with Santa Rosa's Kevin Jorgeson, a bona fide celebrity whom Edson considers a mentor and friend.

The young climber's recent mission has been to attempt some of the same routes Jorgeson made famous. That includes a route along a 60-foot boulder in South Africa that Jorgeson named for a climber who was killed in 2009 while climbing in Mammoth Lakes.

Such deaths bring home the risks associated with the sport.

“If you feel you are going to die, you call it free solo,” Edson said, explaining the styles of rock climbing that don't involve the use of safety equipment such as ropes or harnesses. “If you feel like you are going to break a bone, you call it highballing.”

Edson has done both types of climbing, as well as higher treks up sheer rock cliffs using anchors and ropes. He's also big into “bouldering,” climbs lower to the ground that nevertheless still carry a certain amount of risk.

One of his favorite challenges is the rock at Kolmer Gulch Beach, at the north end of Fort Ross State Historic Park below a sharp turn on Highway 1, south of the Fort Ross Store. On this morning, fog encased the cove and waves from the incoming tide pounded the sand.

Edson took off his jacket and slipped on tight-fitting climbing shoes with rubber soles. He scrubbed his hands with a sanding block to soften callouses earned from prior climbing excursions and his construction job. He then dipped his hands in a pouch filled with white chalk.

Standing before the boulder, Edson sized up the challenge like a chess master plotting his next move. He has spent countless hours at this spot working on bouldering “problems,” a term that refers to the routes climbers take.

Using his fingers and feet to latch onto crevices, Edson climbed crab-like, easily reaching the top along a moderately-rated route known as “Fort Rastafarian.”

He repeatedly failed in his efforts to summit the boulder along more challenging routes. His fingers kept slipping from the wet rock as he swung his body around the boulder's ocean-side face, seeking a higher grip. He fell hard onto the pad, coming perilously close on one occasion to striking his head on a rock.

Edson said he has tried for a year to top the boulder along the harder routes without success. But he views such failures as challenges, saying his passion for rock climbing stems from “pushing yourself to see what's possible.”

He looks to Jorgeson for inspiration. Last week, the pair visited Yosemite National Park together to boulder and celebrate Jorgeson's 32nd birthday.

Sonoma County climbing opportunities don't have the same cachet as Yosemite or Lake Tahoe. Certainly none of them compares with Jorgeson's epic 19-day ascent of El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite with partner Tommy Caldwell, a 2015 feat generally regarded as the greatest rock climb ever.

Jorgeson said Sonoma County is “underappreciated” as a rock climbing destination, en route to a speaking engagement in Beaver Creek, Colorado.

“If you don't live here, you don't appreciate everything it has to offer,” he said.

Edson said few places he has visited compare with climbing on the Sonoma Coast, where seaside cliffs offer soaring vistas of the ocean.

“You don't get to climb over the ocean in too many places in America,” he said.

Edson recommends that newcomers to climbing hit the gym first to learn how it's done. He's a regular at Vertex, a popular climbing gym in Santa Rosa where crowds on many days reflect interest in the sport.

“Climbing is a very dangerous sport if you don't take the time to learn how to do it correctly,” he said.

Edson has a few sponsors who pay for some of his equipment and travel expenses, but he's not sure whether he'll pursue a career in climbing.

For now, he's content to take it one boulder at a time.

“There are years and years of climbing all along the coast,” he said, before packing up his gear at the Fort Ross beach and heading back up the cliff, Chance leading the way.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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