DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Harmony Smith loves a good problem. 

Standing atop a 14-inch thick crash pad, the 27-year-old scanned a chalk-dusted wall flecked with orange, blue and yellow tape aligned with myriad hand and footholds. She zeroed in on her path and stepped off the ground, beginning a stretching, grinding trek that had her scrabbling sideways and climbing vertically. Her goal was a green handle 12 feet above the floor.

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About five minutes later, she reached the cherished handle. Victorious, the Starbucks barista and actress beamed at her accomplishment, dropped to the mat with a gymnast’s grace and walked away, searching for the next challenge. 

Smith was in LA Boulders, or LA.B (pronounced lab), a 13,000-square-foot facility that opened last month in the Arts District, sandwiched between the Los Angeles Gun Club and the Factory Place Lofts. 

It is most easily described as an indoor rock climbing facility, though practitioners prefer the term “bouldering.” The attraction’s manager, Remi Moehring, had a different description.

“It’s an adult playground,” she said on a recent Tuesday afternoon.

LA.B is the ninth California gym for Touchstone Climbing, an indoor rock climbing company started in San Francisco in 1995 by Mark and Debra Melvin. When they decided to look for a location in Los Angeles, they set their minds on an up-and-coming, industrial neighborhood. They settled on the mammoth structure just east of Factory Place, said Touchstone Climbing’s Director of Operations Markham Connolly. The neighborhood “has a great community of fun people, interesting businesses and good restaurants,” he said. He also pointed to the site’s proximity to three freeways.

Although most people have never heard of bouldering, and particularly the indoor version, Moehring said it has been gaining momentum over the past decade. Unlike traditional rock climbing, no ropes or harnesses are involved. Instead, it’s just the climber, usually wearing special shoes that allow for a firm grip on the wall.

At the bottom of a wall, the climber chooses a color-coded path or “problem” that guides him or her to the top. Those pathways, of which there are more than 100 at LA.B, are ranked in difficulty on a 1-12 scale. 

While LA.B is a gym, complete with elliptical machines and treadmills (weights are scheduled to arrive this month), bouldering is not necessarily something people seek out as a means of getting in shape. Of course, hanging from fingertips and shifting your weight from one leg to the other to push yourself up a 17-foot wall builds core strength and boosts forearm, leg and back muscles, Moehring said. 

“Exercise is a benefit, not the reason to do it,” said Tom Clancey, a climber for 28 years and a LA.B member who signed up before the gym even opened. 

“Yeah, those guns are just an occupational hazard,” Moehring joked, pointing to the 52-year-old’s rock-hard biceps.  

When You Fall

In the Downtown facility, harder problems are interspersed with easy ones, bringing together climbers of all abilities. The community is congenial, and if someone is stuck on the wall, another climber is often quick to offer guidance.

Climbing up a 17-foot wall without rope or security harnesses raises a serious question: What happens when you fall?

It’s an answer that has evolved over the past decade, said Moehring. Some older gyms have a padded floor with additional mats placed beneath the climber, but if a person lands half on, half off the mat, he or she can be injured. The LA.B team outfitted the entire climbing area with a continuous crash pad, 14 inches thick, comprised of two layers of foam and a layer of memory foam atop that. It’s more firm than squishy, lessening the chance of rolling an ankle. 

Depending on the position you’re in, there are different ways to fall, but in general, the proper way is knees bent, then roll onto your rear end and back, Moehring said. 

On a recent weekday at LA.B, the sounds of flops onto the mat were frequent, as were high fives and the light chatter between climbers offering tips on which path to follow. Smith, her back arched, head hanging and left leg stretched to find a hold, wondered if maybe she had missed a step. She hadn’t, she just needed to figure out where to go next. 

“Problems are fun,” she said, noting that she brings her skills back into her Eagle Rock home, where her 7-year-old son will poke fun at her when she dramatically navigates the kitchen chair and counter to grab a glass from the cupboard. 

Although Moehring would not say how many people have signed up for a membership, which runs $73 per month (day passes are $15-$20), she noted that 700 people attended the opening weekend festivities in January. There are no age restrictions, but for the safety of all climbers, Moehring only recommends bringing children if the parents closely supervise. 

“It’s a scene, but not in a cheesy, threatening way,” Moehring said. “Everybody wants you to do your best.”

LA.B is at 1375 E. Sixth St. #8, (323) 406-9119 or

touchstoneclimbing.com/la-boulders.

donna@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014

Twitter: @donnadowntown