First ascent boulderer Chris Summit
By Chris Van Leuven
Summit, a climber of nearly 30 years, practices his trade close to home, scrubbing endless rocks and exposing clean lines for others to follow.
I’m behind the wheel somewhere outside Santa Rosa, blindly following fanatical rock climber and guidebook author Chris Summit’s directions to the rocks. We crest a small hill then drop over the other side, the car’s body lifting slightly before settling back onto its shocks. Golden fields of wild grasses and oak trees cover the hillsides. My rig is filled to the brim with giant foam crash pads, some torn at the edges, others stained with I don’t know what. Summit is so excited about the treasure hunt he can barely contain himself—he’s buzzing and talking non-stop how incredible the climbing will be.
We pull up to a lone roadside bloc framed by barbwire fencing on one side. To most drivers passing by the rock, what we’re visiting is nothing to look at. And at first glance it’s nothing of value to me either; the holds have sharp edges that will surely cut into my fingers when I grab them, the footholds are crumbly piles, and the landing is a mix of broken glass and gravel. The chunk of stone looks like something that was plucked from the bottom of the ocean and plopped down in this valley. It resembles packed mud that’s been cooked by the sun for thousands of years. The vibe is uninspiring, at least at first. But I try anyway, make a few moves over the prickly stone and then snap! A bulbous plate rips off in my hand and nearly smacks me right in the face before I land flat on my back on the crash pads.
But Chris’ contagious attitude and sheer love for our surroundings don’t wane. So I try again, this time following his directions regarding what to grab and where to stand, and it’s suddenly fun again. It’s then that I remember that nothing’s changed since I met Summit in a dusty, cramped climbing gym in San Rafael some 25 years ago. Though I’ve gone on to explore big walls and venture on expeditions near both poles, Summit has remained content with climbing within a two-hour drive from his home. He’s an explorer just like any other, but Northern California is his home and he wants to touch every climbable chunk of rock in his backyard. He even has a bit of a cult following, with young climbers inspired by his routes and tales of his adventures. Some visit his narrow paths through the woods with hopes of finding his unveiled creations.
“I’ll probably never leave Santa Rosa,” the 45-year old tells me, divulging in the same breath that he still lives with his mom.
I’ve been around him long enough to know he likes drinking cheap-ass vodka out of a plastic bottle with no chaser. But most of all he loves thrashing through poison oak, scrub brush and thickets to find previously unclimbed rocks. He believes he’s authored 1,000 first ascent boulder problems in Northern California, a number rivaled by few others, except maybe the most recognized name in modern bouldering, John “Verm” Sherman, who has put up thousands of boulder problems. To put those numbers in context, it’s rare that the most avid of climbers—especially gym rats found in scattered gyms throughout the States—will be lucky enough to author a single new route.
Summit documents each of his new climbs in a notebook and often these notes make it into one of his many climbing guides. To date, he’s put out seven books: Bay Area Top Ropes, Bay Area Bouldering, Tuolumne Bouldering, NorCal Bouldering, NorCal Climbing (with Marty Lewis and Tom Slater), Wine Country Rocks, and a staple-bound guide to Mount Saint Helena, which he printed up at Kinko’s when he was 20. Today he ekes out a living as a route setter at Bridges Rock Gym in El Cerrito and as a climbing coach at the Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa.
My earliest memories with him date back to my early teens, when he mentored me and a small crew of my high school buddies on the rocks around Marin County. He taught me how to belay, how to read the rock and how to appreciate every bit of stone, whether it was coated in pine needles and inch-thick carpets of moss and sticks, or whether it was marble smooth, with jutting prows and impossibly long moves to connect grips. That’s what he’s dedicated his life to: exposing young climbers to his favorite spots. And these young people carry his teachings with them through life. For example, I recently met up with the manager at The Spot bouldering gym in Boulder, Colorado, and we spent the afternoon reminiscing about our lively times with Summit. Then we got in a car and drove along a canyon road in search of unclimbed rocks, just like Summit showed us how to do during our youth. At every pullout we’d hop out of the car and examine an overgrown river rock upwards of 20 feet tall, looking for weakness and sequences for us to follow, our creativity bubbling out.
Vans Shoes & Christmas
His mother gifted him a pair of climbing shoes 28 years ago, when summit was 17, and that’s the day he “officially” became a rock climber. Up to that point, he’d been scrambling in his skateboarding footwear, a pair of Vans with faded canvas uppers and broad, gummy soles. His buddy Marcos Nunez wore rigid mountain biking shoes. Despite their unfit footwear, the two were able to edge and smear their way up hard routes. He and Nunez spent a year climbing that way, top roping the scrappy rocks near their homes before getting proper climbing shoes.
Summit was an angsty teen that liked skateboarding and also causing trouble. He met his biological father only a few times even though the man lived only an hour away in Ukiah. Summit’s stepfather was a journalist and helped him publish his first books. Summit has two stepbrothers and is “12 percent Cherokee Choctaw Indian; I’m proud of that,” he says. After causing a ruckus, he got kicked out of regular high school and attended the secondary school, Ridgway High School in Santa Rosa.
Around the same time his mother gave him climbing shoes, he and Nunez connected with Jason Campbell, a climber who would go on to be one of the stronger faces to come out of the Golden State. Nunez and Summit marveled at his footwork and tried to emulate his moves.
College wasn’t in the cards for Summit. As the years progressed, he found he was more drawn to unroped climbing—bouldering—preferring to be close enough to the ground when he fell so he wouldn’t get injured. Bouldering is climbing distilled to pure movement, and Chris liked the simplicity and challenge of it. Though some climbers—myself included—competed at regional and state-level events, Summit never liked competing against others. “To me, comps are a fleeting thing,” he says. “Climbing on rocks is never ending and it’s an open-ended scale.”
“I had friends winning competitions and I was a little jealous,” he says. “I wanted to be that rad too. But my specialty was finding rocks and so I did that. There were so many for the picking.”
Sharing the Love
When Summit and I caught up over the phone last week, we talked for close to two hours. We shared our favorite climbing stories, reminisced about our lifelong friends, and he talked at length about his fascination with authoring dozens of new boulder problems at Pinnacles National Park. As the call continued, he got to the meat of what climbing locally meant to him, weeping out of joy mixed with nostalgia.
“First ascents are weird,” he shared. To get the line ready to climb, he’ll carry a ladder and get up on it with giant brushes to scrape off every bit of dust from the rock. Sometimes he’ll drill a bolt on top of the stone so he can rappel in and clean off what he can’t access from below. To get the route just right, he’ll spend hours, sometimes days, preparing it so that when he’s done members of the community will get a kick out of it after he’s climbed it.
Even after all the hard work, holds still snap off unexpectedly. “I’m fine with plates hitting me in the face. That’s a proud day,” he says. “Cleaning shit is a gamble. If you win the gamble, you get a classic. If you don’t and the holds just keep breaking off you go home and try again.”
“Sometimes I’ll spend hundreds of dollars on a new climb [factoring in gas and food]. Then I remind myself that it’s about sharing and giving back. It’s a full value thing.”
Along the lines of giving back, Summit has his eyes set on starting a business using climbing as a treatment to help youth and adults overcome depression and also build self-confidence. He’s started a Facebook page called Rock Climbing Therapy. Visit it at facebook.com/rockclimbingtherapy. To follow Chris Summit on social media and check out his writings on the web, Google “Summit or Plummet.”