Bouldering with Bob

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Stooped low, head thrown back like some native hunter, I knife through scrappy chaparral. Today, however, I tote small rubber shoes in lieu of a hickory bow and my eyes search for chalk marks on the passing sandstone. I shimmy here, round that fallen tree, turn left at a cave, and arrive at my destination filled with excitement.

The familiar grunts of climbers, encouragements of spotters, and banter of spectators waft in the air from all directions. I zero in on my friends at the base of a massive rock jutting out of the ground at a 45 degree angle, then rising 20 feet. I lay down my pack to probe some of the edges closest to me and greet familiar faces.

Someone I’ve never seen before stands among the pack, staring at the wall from under a dark green beanie, mentally climbing the route one move at a time. “This is Bob,” my friend Paul motions with a head tilt. He is calm and reserved, like someone who has seen and done much, knows what he’s made of, and no longer wastes his time on first impressions. The climb he had been looking at, I quickly realize, was way out of my league.

Within the hour, he and Paul have worked through each step; toes lightly pointing on small dents, hands clamping barely visible ridges, body swinging gracefully from side to side. I am reminded of the World Tango Competition in Buenos Aires or a classical conductor at the Arlington. Inspired by such artful climbing, I pick a simpler melody to move to and enjoy a route more to my abilities.

After a fine day bouldering in Santa Barbara, I got a chance to talk with this climber, Mr. Bob Banks. As it turned out, my initial feelings toward the man only scratched the surface. Few know the area better or have worked harder toward route development than Banks.

He actually wrote the bible on climbing in the region, Oceans 11: Bouldering Around Santa Barbara, a reference I had used frequently myself.

While living in the Pacific Northwest, Bob first came to Santa Barbara to visit a friend who had moved here to continue dating his girlfriend, a UCSB student. Santa Barbara spoke to Banks in many languages. “I came down in ‘92 to party in I.V.,” he recalled. “It was my first taste of good Mexican food, scarfing down burritos from Tio Alberto’s and washing them down with a keg of Natty Light. I knew then that I wanted to move here, before even knowing about the climbing. Surf, sun, and burritos were enough.”

Banks started climbing toward the end of his studies at the University of Washington. “In 1993, a couple of guys I lived with took me out climbing,” he said. “Right off the bat, it basically became all I wanted to do.” Banks finally moved to town in 1996 during the second Golden Age of climbing. “The mid ‘90s were a pretty exciting time for climbing in Santa Barbara and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end,” he said, explaining that he tried “not to work very much” and climbed “as much as possible for the next several years.”

According to Banks, our little stretch of land can offer a climbing experience that some of the big names, such as Yosemite or Bishop, no longer can. “Well,” Banks stated without hesitation, “the Mexican food in all those places unquestionably sucks.” He stopped to consider. “Climbing-wise : those areas are great, but they’re awfully crowded, which is not why I go climbing. If you go to the Buttermilks [outside of Bishop] these days, you can’t throw a brick in any direction without hitting some 15-year-old and his ‘posse’ that all climb super-hard.” In Santa Barbara, by comparison, Banks said, “You can go up with a group of friends to Lizard’s Mouth or the Brickyard, which is really, really good, and have this beautiful, pristine place almost to yourselves.” Plus, he explained, “I don’t know of many places in the world where you can be climbing on stone as good as the Brickyard and 25 minutes later be in the water surfing.”

Although admittedly less monomaniacal about climbing than he was years ago, Banks still hits the rocks regularly while working for a plumbing contractor. And unlike those who want to keep their favorite routes a secret, he’s happy to tell newcomers about all the great places in the Santa Ynez Mountains, from the Gibraltar wall to Lizard’s Mouth, a great place for beginners to start. It’s also a good idea to try and hit a complete rock climbing gym, such as Ventura’s Vertical Heaven or the Goleta Valley Athletic Club, which has a good wall with decent routes.

While climbing itself is a phenomenal workout, Banks also recommends eating right. “Without proper nutrition, forget about cranking,” he said, using climbers’ jargon for doing well. “I recommend three meals a day at any of the local Mexican food joints here in town.” So bon appetit, and happy climbing!

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