On the shoulders of giants? mountaineering, buildering and the vertigo of others
August 14, 2013 4 Comments
“When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me…”
The Drifters – Up On The Roof (1962) Gerry Goffin & Carolyn King
We’re at the museum, exiting for some odd reason at rooftop level. My two teenage boys are standing beside me by the railing, looking over to the slightly lower roofs clustered around this summit building. Something distracts my thought or attention, and when I drift back to the roof I abruptly notice that my eldest, G has vaulted the railing and is running with glee across the shinning white-lead expanse of the profiled roofscape beyond. He’s then joined by his younger sibling, L, and they start to race each other, running in parallel away from me across that surface. I call to them to return to me, but my voice evaporates in the wind. They are whooping with joy and abandon but then something goes awry. Both start to tumble and slide down the now sloping roof. Momentarily they appear to be enjoying themselves – but then the peril of their situation dawns on them, and me. They are not in control of their descent, and are rapidly gathering pace. On the smooth surface there is nothing to grab onto, no friction, no purchase. I see G manage to wedge himself into a gully, coming to a juddered halt in a crumpled heap. But L speeds on, and beyond the edge of the roof. He flies out into space like a child from a water chute at a fun fair. This a child, but there is no water, and now no fun. He flies through the air for what seems like ages, then lands roughly on the lower roof of the next building on. A sense of relief momentarily passes through me, but even as that feeling is spreading out through my body, his body starts to move again, slipping onward down this equally smooth roof. I see him hurtling towards another edge. I sense the inevitability. All I can do is watch. I see him fly off the end of the roof. There is nothing I – or he – can do.
Then I wake up. My first thought is that my dream is all about realising that my kids are at that age where I can’t control everything that they do. I can’t ensure their safety. Then I add a gloss to my interpretation, I’m guilty about having encouraged them to see their city as a playground. All the talk of bunkers, urbex and recreational trespass has passed into them. I have made this monstrousness. Over the days that follow another – additional – interpretation steps forwards: that this is what happens if you gorge on mountaineering books. This summer I’ve been reading rather a lot of them, and there have been plenty of tales of climbers slipping off mountainsides along the way. A latter stage of the dream had the dilemma of how to drag my surviving son back over to my rooftop – across the yawning crevasse of the gap between two buildings.
I’ve been reading these books as part of thinking through the relationship between ‘classic’ exploration (mountaineering and polar trekking) and contemporary recreational echoes (climbing, parkour, urbex). I’m not a climber (I’m not good with heights) so reading all this stuff makes for an interesting tangent to my fondness for taking my adventure at ground level and in small, local, bitesize pieces – embracing the psychogeographical rather than the athletic side of ‘exploration’.
From this reading, combined with what I’ve observed of climbers so far in my encounters with the British Mountaineering Council, it appears that the link between climbing and urban exploration are not as close as one might expect. Climbing’s roots lie in mountaineering. The rise of crag (outcrop) climbing in the UK was originally as a training ground for alpine expeditions, only latterly becoming an end in itself (with the emergence of industrial working class recreational crag-climbing from the 1930s). But throughout, the focus has remained resolutely upon climbing rock. Enthusiasts stuck away from rock might occasionally scale the nearest available structure: a church steeple, a clock tower, a chimney – but such escapades seem always to have been regarded as a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and the butt of dismissive comment by both the grandees of climbing and critical onlookers like Charles Dickens who regarded climbing’s pursuit of its goal as pointless as:
“The scaling of such heights… contributes as much to the advancement of science as would a club of young gentlemen who should undertake to bestride all the weathercocks of all the cathedral spires of the United Kingdom.” (quoted in Macfarlane 2003: 96)
Nowadays climbers can do their thing far away from inspirational mountains, but the natural aesthetic remains to the fore, as Simon Thompson colourfully puts it:
“it is possible to climb in a disused quarry full of rusting cars and stagnant pools or on a specially constructed wall in the middle of an industrial estate, but for the majority of climbers the beauty and grandeur of the surroundings are an intrinsic part of the sport.” (2007: 3)
I expected to find more interest in (and/or awareness of) ‘buildering’ (urban climbing) amongst climbers than I so far have in the histories and officials who I have consulted, and despite the highly visible exploits of successive climbers of the Shard, and the conquests of Alain Robert (‘the human spider’) few rock climbers appear to take the built environment, and its surfaces and structures, as an attractive playground.
But – actually there is evidence that some do, and I’ve recently found that there is more to those passing, throwaway sentences about urban climbing in the official histories. It seems buildering is at least 100 years old in the UK. A number of climbing guides to Cambridge’s iconic buildings were published (anonymously) every few decades throughout the Twentieth century, the first – Trinity Roof Climber’s Guide – was penned in 1900 by a young Geoffrey Winthrop Young – who later became a grandee of the mountaineering establishment, a president of the Alpine Club in the 1940s. It seems that the 1930s were the boom years for Cambridge buildering – or ‘night climbing’ as it was then known. In a guide published in the 1937 – The Night Climbers of Cambridge – the anonymous author ‘Whipplesnaith’, pondered the relative anonymity of the night climber in comparison to the mountaineer. Clearly this was in part a function of the illicit nature of this recreational trespass, and the consequences (explusion) of being caught by the University authorities. The author pointed eloquently to the discontinuity of Cambridge’s night climbing heritage (now collated by the extensive efforts of Andy Buckley at http://www.insectnation.org/projects/nightclimbing/), there was no:
“continuity of purposes and cross-purposes, developments and declines, ambitions and differences which make history.” (3)
Thus the secret nature of the practice (and the then absence of route grading) meant that students drifted into night climbing (perhaps at first as an out-of-hours drain pipe shin to re-enter their halls after curfew), tried a few excursions and then left the field – there being no escalation path to stretch out their engagement longer, with declared ‘harder’ routes to work at. Thus – in Whipplesnaith’s view – the absence of many circulating accounts or gradings of routes stifled the formation of night climbing into a settled cultural practice. Yet, ironically, the Cambridge night climbing guides give an erudite and structured glimpse of buildering and its ways of doing, presenting what may have existed in an inchoate and entirely unrecorded form in other towns and minds. Night climbing became a local practice in Cambridge, capable of transmitting its ways through the generations, via these guides and memoirs. Conversely, the only way I have found to glimpse un-organised, ad-hoc buildering is in court case reports, in which judges must make sense of the vertical recreational trespass of injured youths (Bennett 2011).
Nowadays DIY cultures can circulate much more easily – via blog, fan-site and forum and we can find sites dedicated to ‘buildering’ (e.g. http://urban-climbing.com/; http://buildering.net/). The links to athletic endeavour (parkour) and an artistic, urban clique seem clear here, one that is attuned to situationist practice and urbex ethos. I’m thinking here particularly of Lottie Child’s participatory performance art pieces – her ‘Climbing Club’, and specifically its ‘Risk In The City’ offshoot, that encouraged her audience (and passer-by merchant bankers) to scale the walls of City of London buildings, marking out with bodies the peaks and troughs of financial graphs and risk analysis.
I like the idea of this mundane adventuring – of mountaineering entering the city. It reminds me of a TV version of Manfred Karge’s play The Conquest of the South Pole on Channel 4 back in 1989. A group of unemployed Edinburgh young men wander the semi-derelict Leith docks and in that liminal space re-stage Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole. They do so by co-opting boxes, crates (as mountains), sheets (as snow fields) and industrial freezers (as the cold). They stage a heroic adventurism amidst everyday ruins, animating those places with their playful intensity, showing that – in part at least – adventure is a state of mind. That play summons an image of a performative, collaborative proto-urbex. It all hinges on pretending to be penetrating virgin terrain, on mimicking that imperial ‘first-ness’. But it has an ironic tinge to it, an awareness that the event is constructed. It is also notably social.
In a recent academic article, Carrie Mott and Susan Roberts (2013) comment on interpretations of urban exploration to date (including my own). They point out a number of under-developed avenues of study. Here I will delve only into one of them: that urbex practice is rooted in a fundamentally Romantic mind-set, and as such privileges the achievement and insight of the lone (male) practitioner. They argue that urbex shows a fondness for withdrawal from society and also competitiveness at the heart of any residual sociality. There is something similar to climbing in this – that urge for the withdrawal to the mountains, the man-matter contest, some risk bearing forth insight (a la Nietzsche “that which doesn’t kill me makes me strong”) and thereafter writing up an account of that adventuring and disseminating it as a spur to status.
Reading through the histories of mountaineering what struck me was how each assault against an unconquered peak was actually a massive logistical operation – hundreds of support staff, tonnes of equipment to enable one or two men to claim ‘first-ness’ at that mountain’s summit. Like the summit shape of the mountains that were being climbed, only the summiteers are remembered.
Mountaineers may be drawn by the individualistic Romantic mountain aesthetic, and the idea of ultimate solitude attainable upon a virgin summit, but they each – to some degree – take society with them up onto that peak, and their actions affect others to whom they are connected. As Peter Hansen (2013) points out this social connection can be as physical and direct as being joined by a rope to a climbing partner, but it also extends to connection to logistical networks, political and economic contexts (e.g. the imperial opening up of Tibet in 1904 such that Everest could be approached for the first time) and also basic human emotional interconnections, for the explorers have families, friends, work colleagues who are affected by their absence, and self-imposed jeopardy.
In non-expeditionary climbing the social is still there – in the clubs, the climbing ethics, the guidebooks; and in all of the trappings of the “industry of ascent” (2003: 142) as Macfarlane deftly styles it. Through all of this rock climbing becomes a practice shaped and circulated by its practitioners. What struck me about buildering is that it has always been there, in the shadow of rock climbing, but (apart from the exception of Cambridge) not attaining a social identity until recently, with the rise of urbex and social media. And yet, in thinking about my dream urban climbing has always existed as an instinctual activity, what is new is the way that its ways of doing might come to be defined and individual builderers come to see themselves as part of a community.
My kids’ urge to climb and explore is partly innate monkey urges, but also part of a context of Romantically shaped philosophy of withdrawal and self-development through ordeal. As Robert Macfarlane (2003) puts it with regard to the heavy cultural baggage carried on George Mallory’s shoulders on his 1924 fatal ascent of Everest, born of:
“the hundreds of other people who each made tiny adjustments to the way mountains were imagined – [are] involved in Mallory’s death. He was the inheritor of a complex of emotions and attitudes towards mountainous landscape, devised long before his birth, which largely predetermined his responses to it – its dangers, its beauties, its meanings.” (226)
Whipplesnaith considered that night climbing had not progressed to form (what Etienne Wenger (1998) would call) “a community of practice”, because of the isolated nature of its performance. But the rise of social media and urbex forums would suggest that buildering may well attain an identity in the years ahead, due to its new found opportunities to solve the dilemma that Whipplesnaith had through unsolvable in 1937, due to:
“the blanket of the dark [that] hides each group of [night] climbers from its neighbours, muffles up a thousand deeds of valour, and almost entirely prevents the existence of dangerous rivalry.” (2007: 1)
But my kids, builderers, and all climbers are also and already part of their day-to-day communities. Climbing of any sort is an activity that has consequences both for the participants and those (like Ruth Mallory as an anxious wife, or me as a nervous parent) who wait for the explorer’s safe return home.
Bennett, Luke (2011) ‘Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability’, International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 3 (2) 126-158.
Hansen, Peter H. (2013) The Summits of Modern Man – mountaineering after the Enlightenment, Harvard University Press: London.
Macfarlane, Robert (2003) Mountains of the Mind – a history of a fascination, Granta: London.
Mott, Carrie & Roberts, Susan M. (2013) ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography’, Antipode, advance online publication.
Thompson, Simon (2010) Unjustifiable Risk? The story of British climbing, Cicerone: Milnthorpe.
Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice – Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
‘Whipplesnaith’ [Noel H. Symington] (2007 ) The Night Climbers of Cambridge, Oleander Press: Cambridge.
Caspar David Friedrich (1818) The Traveller above a Sea of Clouds
Shoulder stand, 1900 http://www128.pair.com/r3d4k7/HistoricalClimbingImages8.html
Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, 1911:
George & Ruth Mallory (1916) http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWmalloryG.htm
1930s Cambridge Night Climbing:
Geoffrey Winthrop Young (1930s?) http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37073/
The Conquest of the South Pole (1989) from www.film4.com.
Risk in the City: urban climbing meets financial risk analysis, 2005: http://malinky.org/wikka.php?wakka=RiskInTheCity
Urban Climber Magazine, 2008: http://www.rockwerxclimbing.com/upload/wysiwyg/urban-climber-cover.jpg
Urban climbing, 2009: photo by Chrzaszczu at http://www.panoramio.com/photo/17932791
Buildering meets climbing wall (n.d., accessed 2013): http://www.oobject.com/category/great-climbing-walls/