Meet a Real Rock Star

Alumnus Dave Hamilton goes “5×5″ on the glories of rock-climbing, how you’re never too old to try, and assaulting the sandstone pillars of Moab.

Dave Hamilton ’03 has rocks in his headmake that on his mind. Continuously. The CMC alumnus, who graduated with a degree in psychology, manages all three of the Hangar 18 indoor rock-climbing gyms located in Upland, Riverside, and South Bay (http://www.climbhangar18.com/). And on the days he’s not in the gym, he’s teaching rock climbing to students at The Claremont Colleges, the University of California, Riverside, and Caltech.

To hear him tell it, Hamilton knows what makes climbers climb, and although you might question the connection between rock climbing and a Claremont McKenna education, make no mistake. Hamilton says every hour of every day he’s tapping into CMC-learned skills.

“I could not do my job without them,” he says. “From writing marketing copy for our ad campaigns, to crunching the numbers on demographic research and doing cost-benefit analyses, to strategizing how to keep my staff happy and productive, it all comes into play.

“CMC helped give me the confidence that I needed to start making changes,” he says.

The athlete is currently writing a textbook for college outdoor education classes, along with having already written several training manuals for climbing industry staff, and recently co-authored the Climbing Wall Instructor Course Manual for the Professional Climbing Instructors Association. This last project, Hamilton says, gave him the opportunity to redefine the national standard for teaching lead climbing protocols, and introduce a number of new safety protocols that had been largely neglected by all regulatory bodies to that point.

“Climbing as a sport has something for everyone; from the adventure-lovers to the adrenaline-seekers, to the everyday person looking for a fun afternoon. I feel that I have a unique opportunity to change the entire sport for the better, and I have a moral obligation to try,” he says.

These days, Hamilton, whose competitive climbing accolades include winning the Sydney University Climbing Competition on his semester abroad, is more interested in the administrative and coaching side of the sport.

“One of the kids that I used to coach actually just placed fifth in the world for men at the World Cup competition last year,” he says. “The competitions are a newer twist on the sport and are attracting a new, younger crowd. Competition motivates them to push their own limits, and the limits of climbing, one step farther.”

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Q: How did you go from “psych” graduate to rock-climbing enthusiast and leader?

A: I learned a lot as a psychology major at CMC, but after graduation and working at the Claremont Autism Center on campus, I felt that I wanted to take my life in a different direction. Following a brief stint as a bungee jumping instructor at Bungee America, I found Hangar 18 Indoor Climbing Gym in Upland.
I come from a family of climbers, and I had worked at a few climbing gyms in my home state of New Hampshire, so working in the climbing industry seemed like a fantastic way to incorporate one of my main passions with what I did for a living. The climbing community is an extremely open and positive subculture, and the high level of social interaction along with immersion in a favorite sport were both extremely appealing to me. Now, six years later, that single gym has become the dominant gym franchise in the Los Angeles area, with three locations, 80-plus employees, and just under 3,000 members. And we are continuing to grow every day.

Q: To what do you attribute the increasing popularity of rock climbing, and what ages seem most attracted to it?

A: Rock climbing has played a more prominent role in pop culture, from the increased exposure of the sport in Hollywood to the proliferation of indoor climbing gyms throughout the world. Climbing has never been more accessible to the general public. We get climbers of all ages and from all walks of life, from parents sharing the sport with their kids, to the ever-growing faction of students and professors from the 5C’s, to grandparents coming in with their families looking to join in the adventure.
Our largest demographic for new climbers is the 16-25 age range, but the beauty of the sport is that you don’t need a team, or a league, or a season pass to do it; once you are a climber, you can be a climber for the rest of your life. My parentsarguably the coolest people that I have ever metare in their sixties and still routinely climb thousand-foot rock faces all over the country.

Q: It seems like such a solitary discipline. What are core strengths/skills needed to be an outstanding climber?

A: The best part of climbing as a sport is that as long as you have a solid base in the safety fundamentals, you don’t need to be one of the strongest climbers in the country to have unbelievable adventures. Many of the best routes in the country are thousand-foot long climbs of moderate difficulty. Climbing can take you to some of the most beautiful and amazing places on the planet: from the sandstone pillars of Moab to the limestone stalactites over the ocean in Thailand, and everywhere in between. The core skills needed to be an outstanding climber would be a combination of safety skills, good judgment, and a solid sense of adventure.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake most greenhorns make when they first take up the sportoverconfidence? Not securing themselves properly?

A: The biggest mistake is the assumption of infallible safety. Climbing can be an extremely safe sport when taken seriously, but it can also be extremely dangerous if done with a flippant attitude toward safety. No matter how much fun rock climbing can be, no recreation is worth dying for. My staff and I always try to hammer home the concept that even though climbers may view the sport as anything from a fun distraction to a spiritual experience, it is still extremely perilous to those who don’t take it seriously.

Q: What’s the most fun aspect of teaching it?

A: There are a lot of upsides to the job that I have. First and foremost, climbing is an empowering experience; teaching climbing allows me the opportunity to introduce people to something that can really make their lives better. I have now taught more than 13,000 people how to belay, and over 2,500 people how to lead, and nearly all of those people have walked out of our doors feeling like they have truly accomplished something.
Whether I am teaching new techniques indoors, helping students rappel off of waterfalls or climb hundred-foot granite cliffs, or even doing safety consulting or stunt coordination work as an independent contractor, it can just be fun to get out and do something active with work, instead of sitting in front of a computer all day.
In terms of running the franchise, the best part is being able to look at what the business has become and know that it is something that I built, and am continuing to build. It is always gratifying to see the tangible fruits of one’s labor.