You don’t think it’s going to work. You step onto sheer granite and it holds you. You feel like a wizard. It feels like magic.” – Josef Maier

Few people find their passion by the age of twelve, but Josef Maier is one of them. Now twenty-six and the head route setter at The Pad Climbing Gym in San Luis Obispo, he has devoted his life to climbing, both in the gym and outdoors, from California to South Africa and all over North America and Canada.

It is hard not to like a smiling, positive, energetic and humble young man who, during my interview with him at The Pad, identified his father, Erwin, a retired self-employed tile setter who has traveled the world, as his inspiration for the way Josef leads his life; and his mother, Patty, a speech therapist, as the kindest and most compassionate person he knows. He has three older sisters and one younger brother, but he is the only one who lives to climb.

“I grew up in Sacramento and started climbing at a gym called the Pipe Works, passing time between other sports. I fell in love with climbing, became obsessed with it. I spent every day after school and all my weekends at the gym. I felt lucky when I got a little bit older and some guys in their mid-twenties took me under their wing and showed me the mountains: Tahoe, the Eastern Sierra. When I saw the beautiful places climbing could take me, it became clear it would be in my life forever. It wasn’t a sport, it was a lifestyle.”

With breaks here and there for travel, Josef has been working in climbing gyms, and teaching climbing outdoors, since he was fifteen. His friends in the climbing community feel like a family. He seeks out the climbers wherever he goes. “When I moved to San Luis Obispo to go to Cal Poly, I joined SLO OP (the gym that preceded The Pad) and met all my best friends. We climbed mostly in the Sierra Nevada, and that’s when I became more adventurous as a climber.”

Josef favors what is known as traditional climbing, where protection like cams and nuts are placed in natural locations in the rock and clipped to a climber’s rope to protect him if he falls. “I started climbing on bigger walls, places where I was unsure but still willing to go for it, to push my limits. It drew me to the sport even more.”

Bigger walls are now the main attraction for Josef. Almost all of his goals include climbing in Yosemite Valley on walls like El Capitan and Half Dome, destinations that are held in high esteem by climbers worldwide. Josef’s goal is to free climb El Capitan by the time he is thirty. Free climbing means using a rope and placing gear to protect a fall, but using no other aid but hands, feet and chalk to complete the ascent. “I’m so lucky to have grown up in California. We have these great climbing destinations in our backyard.”

Josef values the trust that’s built with a climbing partner. “We hike a few miles to remote places. There’s no one around and we have each other’s life in our hands. You have to be dependent on yourself and your partner. It’s a trust you don’t get to build on an everyday basis with other friends.” Josef has experienced only one bad fall that resulted in a broken tibia. “It was a hot day and I just slipped. It was a learning experience that showed me I couldn’t be steered from my path.”

Last year, Josef and his girlfriend, Sara Roudebush, traveled and climbed all over the world. They spent three months in South Africa where they climbed the face of Table Mountain, and three months in the Utah desert, among other places. Sara, a Cal Poly history major graduate, is now applying for teaching jobs in the area. Josef studied geology at Poly, and now he gets to “nerd out” about the rocks he climbs. Josef and Sara lived for three-and-a-half years in a modified Sprinter. “We had an apartment on wheels and our home was in some of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Josef is comfortable describing climbing as a spiritual pursuit for him. “The community itself has taught me a lot about compassion and kindness, being there for others. You learn to lose a little bit of your ego. It can be a very humbling experience. As an individual sport it makes you look inward. You have to dig deep. You may have a partner belaying you in case you fall, but when you’re leading, on the sharp end, getting up that wall is all on you. You have to be present, in the moment. In climbing we call it finding flow.”

Since I also climb, Josef and I shared our feelings about climbing on slab, rock that is more about hand and foot holds that involve friction rather than obvious ledges, cracks and other rock protrusions. We both agreed that, as Josef said, “You don’t think it’s going to work. You step onto sheer granite and it holds you. You feel like a wizard. It feels like magic. You develop an eye for it; you see holds, a path up that others can’t see. It can be a millimeter of a crystal.”

The sports of rock climbing and bouldering have increased significantly in popularity over the last twenty years. While most residents of San Luis Obispo might not realize it, every day there are climbers ascending the many routes that have been established on Bishop Peak. Josef and I talked about the environmental impact of climbing.

“Our natural environment for climbing can’t support a huge population. at much human traffic is just too harmful, even when not intended, especially in California. We have to be aware of our impact and make it as minimal as possible. Working at The Pad, I feel a responsibility to teach that to people. So many people helped me through that learning process. I have to pass it on, the knowledge of how to keep the environment healthy.”

Josef is the full time head route setter at The Pad in San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria. He and his crew create paths to challenge climbers, using a rating system from easy to hard, to help them progress physically. “It’s really motivating. As route setters it’s our job to teach people how to move their bodies in new ways. The skills they learn in the gym they can take out on real rock.” He also emphasized that anyone at any age can learn to climb, that youth and brute strength is not a requirement. I’m a perfect example of that. I didn’t start climbing until I was sixty-seven.

Josef has coached many youth teams for indoor and outdoor recreation and competition, and he has also worked with youth individually. “My attitude has always been to show kids what’s so inspiring about climbing to me, which is taking them outside. Gyms are great community builders, but since I was fourteen it’s been important to take the skills outside. For me it’s another way to give back to the community, to see if I can share my passion with them. It has shaped my life and I can see it shaping the lives of others.”

“Climbing is something I’m going to do for the rest of my life. Right now I’m pushing my physical limits, but later in life I can change my goals. Just to have adventures in the mountains doing what I love to do. I can’t imagine not climbing just because I reach a certain age. I see people climbing in their 80’s and one man, a special dude, who climbed until he was ninety-four. That’s amazing.”

You can contact Josef by emailing him at joe@thepadclimbing.org. You can learn more about The Pad at www.thepadclimbing.org.