AUSTIN MURPHY THE PRESS DEMOCRATApril 21, 2021, 6:52AM
Kevin Jorgeson wasn’t standing on top of the world, but it seemed pretty close.
On a recent weekday, at a construction site between Highway 101 and Santa Rosa Avenue, a boom lift had brought him to the junction of two steel girders — the apex of what will be Session Climbing, an indoor climbing, yoga and fitness center, when it opens in early 2022.
“Standing up there made this crazy dream seem real, for once,” said Jorgeson, a Santa Rosa native and world-renowned rock climber who has toiled for more than five years to bring his vision to life. The fact that the multimillion-dollar project survived a recent, near-death experience — a crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic — made the moment sweeter still.
Before he ever heard about COVID-19, Jorgeson did battle with Pitch 15, a damnably difficult traverse across El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, in Yosemite Valley.
That vexing, 70-foot stretch of granite, with its sparse, minuscule and razor-sharp holds, nearly derailed the Santa Rosa native’s pioneering 2015 ascent of the Dawn Wall with his climbing partner, Tommy Caldwell. In the end, both solved Pitch 15, and went on to complete what many consider the most challenging climb on the planet. And then they moved on with their lives.
Jorgeson married Jacqui Becker, who was there to greet him at the summit of El Cap. They bought a house in Santa Rosa’s Bennett Valley neighborhood, where they live with their 2-year-old son, Edsel. Now 36, Jorgeson is an Adidas-sponsored motivational speaker whose nonprofit, 1Climb, puts up climbing walls in Boys & Girls clubs across America.
But his most ambitious, highest-profile post-Dawn Wall project is this 55-foot-high, 23,000-square-foot structure now rising beside Highway 101, just south of the Highway 12 interchange. When it’s completed, Session Climbing’s appeal, Jorgeson thinks, will stretch well beyond the community of hard core climbers.
“We’re now underneath where the mezzanine will be,” he told a visitor to the site. Jorgeson was standing in the middle of what will be the central lounge, or, as he put it, “the heartbeat” of the building, a place for people to sip a beverage, nosh on “small bites,”and hang out with friends when they aren’t climbing.
The purpose of Session isn’t just exercise, said his business partner, Mike Shaffer, who has climbed with Jorgeson for two decades, and is a professor of English at Santa Rosa Junior College. “It’s climbing and fitness as part of something larger, more well-rounded: a life lived well.”
Conceived by Jorgeson and Shaffer in 2016, the project nearly died 13 months ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic in its early stages, Session Climbing’s lead investor, Kenwood Investments, pulled out of the deal, a decision Jorgeson described as “totally understandable.”
The CEO of Kenwood Investments, Darius Anderson, is also managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat and other regional multimedia publications. Anderson confirmed that with the onset of the pandemic he decided to back out of the project.
Whether it was finding the right property, wrangling permits from the city or arranging financing, Jorgeson and Shaffer already had overcome plenty of obstacles.
“And I always thought, welp, it might take a little longer, but we’re still gonna do it,” Jorgeson said. “But when COVID hit, that was the first time I actually became resigned to the fact that this might not happen.”
It is happening because Brad Baker came to the rescue. The chief executive of SOMO Living, which owns and operates SOMO Village in Rohnert Park, Baker already was involved with Session Climbing. In the early stages of the project, Baker agreed to buy the tract on South A Street, which cost around $1 million, and lease it back to Jorgeson and Shaffer.
In addition to being a natural fit with SOMO Living, and the active, healthy lifestyle it embraces, Session Climbing had a personal appeal to Baker. After moving to Sonoma County in the late 19th century, he said, his family once owned the land on which the building sits, a few blocks north of the Baker Avenue overpass on Highway 101.
When Kenwood Investments backed out in March 2020, Baker stepped up. In addition to buying the land, he would now be lead investor of a project which, when complete, will have cost around $9 million, he said.
“We were already kind of partners,” he recalled. “This just makes it more formal.”
Making it easier for Baker to ride to the rescue was the fact that he didn’t have to negotiate with Jorgeson and Shaffer. A deal was already in place.
“Creating a deal can be messy sometimes,” Baker said. “I’m friends with these guys.”
By taking the lead on the same project Kenwood Investments had stepped away from, he avoided those issues.
“For me,” said Baker, gazing up at the building’s steel framework, “this is like coming full circle.”
Baker is pleased, also, to help bring something “new and exciting” to a part of Santa Rosa that could stand some sprucing up.
Even with Baker on board, Jorgeson and Shaffer remained hesitant. As virus case numbers and deaths surged, Jorgeson worried not just about his project, but about climbing gyms across the country.
“Here’s a business model predicated on a lot of people, recreating indoors — on getting hundreds of people through your doors every day,” Jorgeson said. “And I was wondering: does this work in a post-COVID world?”https://a256a8029a1d3a705e53b89eb30af42e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
As months went by, and it became clear that a number of vaccines would become available, the partners decided to go full speed ahead. When Session does open its doors, it will be Sonoma County’s first such facility since Vertex Climbing Center opened in 1995.
Back in 2016, when he’d first started fundraising for Session, Jorgeson would joke, when asked when it might open, “Hopefully it won’t take as long as it took me to do the Dawn Wall.” The planning and execution of that climb had taken six years.
“I thought it was a pretty good punchline,” he said. “But here we are, almost 5½ years later. And when we open, it’ll probably end being six years, right on the nose.”