Rock star

By Cathi Choi

It’s 6 a.m. on Sunday morning and Eli Stein ’09 is late. His cell phone blares “Filter Freak,” a ringtone on his phone, and he jumps out of bed. Stein says he hates “Filter Freak,” but he has always kept it as his wake up alarm for rock-climbing days and today is no different.

He doesn’t want to keep his rock-climbing partner waiting, so he grabs his gear and bolts out the door. The sun is already up when he starts his drive to the Riverside mountains, which means he won’t have to start his climb in the dark.

On his drive, Stein blasts Power 106 in his Volvo. Forty minutes into the drive, he loses the signal and switches to what he calls “the Inland Empire equivalent.”

He arrives at the mountains where his climbing partner is waiting, drinking the hot chocolate he made for his breakfast. Stein grabs a packet of Quaker’s Oatmeal and eats it dry. The flakes and sugary powder are amazing, he says.

The Riverside mountain is not beautiful. There’s trash everywhere and there’s little to appreciate from the mountain itself, which is dry and brown. The climb itself however, Stein says, is really good and a great workout, even if the mountain is “super ugly.”

He straps around his waist a harness that has several hooks dangling off it. The hooks, Stein says, are for wedging into the mountain throughout the hike.

He also brings along a rope 220 feet long which attaches him to his climbing partner as they make their ascent. Stein describes the climb like a leapfrog: one person will go up 200 feet or so, then hold the rope for the other climber who will go up the next 200 feet. In this process, Stein says there’s a lot of falling.

“It’s good, though,” he says. “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough. You fall at most 20 feet through air.”

Today, Stein has brought a pair of shoes he calls his “comfortable red ones.” The climb on the Riverside mountain isn’t too demanding, he says, and so he can be comfortable.

In the more difficult climbs he has made, on the Dolomites in Italy, on the Palisades Traverse, Stein brings his “tight yellow shoes” along. Though they’re extremely uncomfortable, Stein uses them for his footwork, something he says is essential to climbing.

“Climbing is really athletic but it’s also really kind of calming — it is stressful. There always is that danger element,” Stein said. “It’s just you and your partner and it’s just like nothing else that matters in the world besides the next hold.”

If Stein speaks as if he has some expertise on climbing, it’s because he does. He conquered his first big mountain as a 9-year-old when he became the youngest person to ever climb Mt. Whitney’s “Mountaineers” route.

He received a letter from then Governer Gray Davis praising him for being a “model of excellence for all Californians.”

Stein practices climbing in two different gyms: Rockreation on Tuesdays and Beach City Rocks on Thursdays. And on the weekends, he’ll go for a climb on either one or both mornings, typically to Malibu Creek State Park, Echo Cliff in Malibu or Riverside Rock Quarry. Echo Cliff is where he feels most comfortable.

“It’s the place where I grew up climbing,” Stein said. “It kind of feels like home.”

One of more significant climbs Stein accomplished was the Palisades Traverse.

A year after his Mt. Whitney climb, he, with his dad, tried to finish the Palisades Traverse, a predetermined path that crosses five mountains in Yosemite Park.

Four hundred feet from the top of the first mountain, the climb got too difficult, Stein said, and they had to turn back down.

This past summer Stein went up to Yosemite again, and for three days out of his trip, he tried the Traverse again.

“That one was really special to me,” Stein said.

The “predetermined path” can sound misleading because there is not one paved trail with signs and posts.

“You know in general where you want to go, but that’s kind of like saying you want to go to this one pizza place, and all you know is that it’s in New York,” Stein said. “You know the general path you want to take, but the 20 feet to the left or right — that’s your choice.”

And so, seven years after his failed attempt, Stein returned to the base of the same mountain. It was 2:30 a.m., and he had a light strapped to his head so he could see. He worked up the mountain, Thunderbolt Peak, climbing as fast as he could. The thing about climbing, Stein said, is that speed means safety.

“The faster you’re down [from the mountain], the less time some freak accident can happen like a thunderstorm or falling rocks.”

After half an hour, Stein reached the top of the first mountain.

“And it just worked out that we got up to the top of the mountain as the sun was rising, which was really amazing,” Stein said.

The sunset, however, was more stressful. Climbing in the dark is difficult because it hinders him from seeing his feet, one of the most important things in climbing, Stein said.

“But one of the nice things is that you can’t see the ground, you just keep going and going.”

Stein finishes his Sunday morning Riverside climb at about 6:45 p.m., about 12 hours after he started, and the one thing he’s feeling is tired.

“While you’re actually climbing, it’s fun, but by the time I get into my car I’m pretty much only feeling that I’m ready to go home,” Stein said. “The ‘that was awesome’ feeling after the climb happens mainly on bigger climbs, like the Palisades Traverse.”

Stein will be back next week at either this mountain or at the one in Malibu. At 6 a.m., on a Saturday or Sunday morning, he’ll be on his way again, driving in his Volvo, listening to Power 106.

Again, he’ll strap on his harness, battle through his climb and land back down at the bottom. Why does he keep at it?

He decided a few years ago to not pursue a professional career in rock-climbing. When he was young, he says he completely idolized the people who dedicated their whole lives to rock climbing. But around 14 or 15, he stated to realize the other possible paths in his future.

“I really admire them and it takes a ton of work, and is really rewarding but I wanted my life to be a little bit more multi-dimensional,” he said. “I like to not have to answer to somebody else about my climbing.”

Even though he won’t be climbing professionally, he says that he’ll continue pursuing his hobby.

“There are a lot of things in life that you do and you have no idea what it’ll do for you, or if it really matters in the long term,” Stein said. “But when you’re climbing, you set a goal and you work really hard. You really see it come to fruition through yourself. It’s really empowering but it’s also really humbling to realize what’s possible.”