Daniel Hutton, 13, reaches for a hold during a session at Agility Boulders in Capitola.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

They kept on climbing: Agility Boulders embraced the COVID challenge, found footing in Capitola

The rope-free climbing discipline of bouldering has a Santa Cruz County foothold with the opening of Agility Boulders in Capitola, with owners John Hester and Shirley Yang weathering COVID’s challenges with the help of a welcoming community.

When John Hester and Shirley Yang first met through the San Francisco climbing community, the couple was excited by all of the opportunities available through gyms like Dogpatch Boulders and Mission Cliffs.

Yet as they continued to travel down to Castle Rock State Park and the Santa Cruz area to focus on their interest in bouldering, they asked: Can we create our own space here and bring bouldering to this area?

Now that dream has turned into a reality, with the two cutting the opening ribbon on new bouldering gym Agility Boulders in Capitola on May 15.

Agility Boulders opened last month on 38th Avenue in Capitola.
Agility Boulders opened last month on 38th Avenue in Capitola.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The space — set in a large and open warehouse, with an obstacle course emulating the “American Ninja Warrior” television show and ever-changing challenges along the bouldering walls — has already seen people across the bouldering spectrum coming in.

Guests as young as 6 and as old as 74, from absolute newcomers to seasoned veterans, have stepped through the doors to test out the area’s first gym dedicated to bouldering, a discipline that involves climbing without a rope and typically within 15 feet or so of the ground.

Hester noted longtime Santa Cruz climbing gym Pacific Edge as an inspiration and model for what he and Yang hope to achieve with Agility Boulders, all while continuing to inspire others to join in on bouldering.

“Bouldering as a sport and as an expression has evolved quite rapidly over the last 25, 30 years,” Hester said. “It was once considered the ‘ugly stepchild’ in the climbing community, but has definitely evolved into its own activity.”

Cecile Novembre, 12, climbs at Agility Boulders in Capitola.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Officially, the gym has been in the works since January 2019, when Hester and Yang explored spaces in the greater Santa Cruz area for their vision. They settled on Agility’s current location — at 1404 38th Ave. in Capitola — in April 2019, entering a lease in May 2019 and proceeding to work with builders and get their plans into action.

It took time to receive approval from the city’s planning department, which was finally granted a few months later — in April 2020, immediately after the first COVID-19 shutdowns.

Far from losing hope, Hester said, the team found a great deal of community support as they cautiously proceeded on constructing their dream bouldering gym and getting it open to the public.

“Our architect is a climbing friend we met, our legal counsel is a climbing friend — our incredible landlord believed in our project and in us,” he said. “We never knew definitively what was going to happen, but we got it done.”

Hester notes that there are still a few loose ends but said so far the team is satisfied with how the community has come together to join in.

General manager Galen Wangberg helps out an associate at the front.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

General manager Galen Wangberg — who’s been connected with Hester and Yang through the Dogpatch community for several years — said the progress on Agility since its inception is exciting.

Yang, a trained veterinarian, and Hester, who leads a small IT consulting firm, were concerned about how they could transfer their business to the Santa Cruz area to be able to balance their love of bouldering with their work needs.

Yet, as the pandemic shutdowns began and Hester’s work moved from face-to-face to virtual, the move seemed more doable, and the pair made the transition in July 2020.

After the various complications of building during COVID-19 — including serious limitations on the number of contractors on-site — Wangberg has been grateful to see the community come together to make the opening so special.

Agility Boulders general manager Galen Wangberg and new employee Miya Rich check in a climber.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’ve seen all ages and all walks of life, from families with kids to climbers in their 60s and 70s, to newbies,” he said. “People in the community really care, and anybody who walks in, we want to help them and make sure they enjoy the space.”

Climbers from both Hester and Yang’s San Francisco group and the Santa Cruz community have become integral parts of the experience; in fact, members of the Pacific Edge team helped Hester and Yang with route setting prior to opening, and Hester is already in discussion regarding a potential Monterey Bay-based circuit competition across multiple gyms.

Daniel Hutton scales a wall at Agility Boulders in Capitola.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’re all about the community and helping people enjoy movement and their bodies and connecting with those around them,” Hester said. “We ultimately want our gym to be a safe space for everyone to leave the day behind and just enjoy —we’re a community center disguised as a rock climbing gym.”

And with vaccinations increasing and restrictions easing, even better days could be ahead. Currently, Agility is at 50% capacity, and recommends guests make reservations online to ensure a spot.

Day passes start at $15 for climbers 13 and unders and $25 for adults, with specialty and early-bird discounts. Masks are required at all times in the facility. To learn more about the gym and upcoming events, visit its website at agilityboulders.com.