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Great Western Power Company

on November 23, 2009

At 9 a.m., the old industrial doors of the Great Western Power Company on 20th Street are shut; if it wasn’t for a laminated sign next to one of the doors with “Weekday hours 6:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.” printed on it, at first glance the place would look abandoned.

A red hold that marks the start of a route. Name of route: Racer; level: 5.10c.

A red hold that marks the start of a route. Name of route: Racer X; level: 5.10c.

But if you look up, rather than a typical grey smokestack you see one that resonates humor. Simple icons of people are painted in white all around the coal black smokestack, each doing different activities like yoga, running, climbing and bicycling.

The door’s handle gives off a hint as to what’s inside the building. For those who are familiar with indoor rock climbing, the handle is made from a blue ‘hold,’ or the rock-like grip that climbers grab on to while scaling a wall.

When you open the front door, two rock-climbing walls are before you, each studded with multiple holds in different colors and shapes. It’s early but there are five people in their twenties and thirties warming-up for their morning climb.

Garrett Schenone, 27 is practicing on one of the two short walls that face each other in the room. He’s bouldering, meaning he’s climbing without a rope, protected by only the thick matted flooring beneath him.

He has a scruffy brown beard and a dark blue wool beanie that covers his brown hair. He’s wearing slightly rolled up jeans that reveal the tattoos on his ankles, and a burgundy colored sweatshirt that appears to be keeping him warm from the morning chill in the warehouse.

Katie Gray, 26 sits to his right taking a breather before she begins her workout. Her long brown hair is tightly pulled back in a ponytail. She’s wearing tight grey pants and a thin t-shirt that exposes the intricately designed blue and red tattoos on her arms.

Gray wearing padded climging shoes with a sole of stiff rubber.

Gray wearing padded climging shoes with a sole of stiff rubber.

“We just moved to the area,” says Schenone, who lives in West Oakland. He adds that they started climbing two years ago.  “We come here like every other day,” he says.

The other three people are on the opposite side of the room casually taking turns climbing the side of the wall.

The Great Western Power Company (G.W.P.C.) opened as a rock climbing gym two years ago, during the time that the Uptown Apartments complex across the street was being constructed. The apartments are now fully built and G.W.P.C. employee Mike Colby says that they draw customers from its residents.

Guitar music is lightly streaming from speakers in the room and Colby is folding white towels behind the front desk.  He’s been working at G.W.P.C. since it opened; he started out tiling the bathrooms and putting the carpets in, and says he now does just about everything around the building.

“People get dirty here,” Colby says adding the towel he just folded to the neat stack  at his side.

Colby’s tall with broad shoulders and a light shadow of facial hair. Wearing a wool beanie cap and a blue zip-up sweatshirt with the G.W.P.C. logo on one side, he says he’d like to keep his age a mystery but looks to be in his mid twenties to early thirties. He says that they lend out towels to everyone who uses the gym but added, “unfortunately, most people take them home with them.”

Gray and Schenone move to the next room with the ceiling-high walls. The gym’s tallest wall reaches 32 feet.  Gray fumbles with the clasps on her harness, to begin top roping — which usually means that the climber is harnessed by a rope. She grasps on to two holds with her hands and finds another near her feet to step on.

Looking serious and focused, she begins to lift her body up the wall. Schenone is below her holding on to a thick yellow rope with his legs firmly standing on the matted blue flooring. He looks up and listens for her calls to adjust the ropes as she continues up the wall.

She reaches the top and the stops.

“Ready?” he asks.

“Yeah,” she calls down, releasing her hands from her grip on the holds.

Matt Waggle,28; Thea Steele, 24;  and Justin Treadway, 30 take turns bouldering a wall.

Matt Waggle, Thea Steele, and Justin Treadway take turns bouldering a wall.

“Lean back,” he says slightly loosening the slack on the rope.

“I am,” she says letting her body move loosely in the air as Schenone controls the ropes that slowly draw her down to the floor.

She reaches the floor and takes a deep breath, looking relieved to have completed the climb.  She unclasps her harness and the two of them start eyeing the other walls to seek out their next climb.

Not much later, the round clock behind Colby’s front desk reads 10:00. A man with shaggy brown hair wearing a white t-shirt and red shorts walks in with a bicycle. He parks it near a wall at the front of the gym and begins to take his helmet off.

Another man enters the gym wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He walks straight up the metal stairs at the front of the gym, to the fitness and weight room on the top floor.

Gray sits down on a mat in the front room with a sweater over her shirt while Schenone gathers their belongings, getting ready to leave.

Outside at 10 a.m., 20th Street is a bit busier. There are more cars driving by and people walking down the sidewalks. But other than the two men who had just walked in, the gym hadn’t changed much as the day hit mid-morning. Outside on the city’s concrete street, when the gym’s doors shut, the building once again looks abandoned.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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