In the deep of the twilight, the night, buzzed on something, spirits, smoke, the usual, a change occurs: an athletic alchemy, different urges, some of the chances and opportunities of the night have passed, with no possibility of getting laid, you’ve stayed up too late to get really good sleep, some sense to experience more, and not just sit around and talk about things, besides the bartender is telling you to leave, stumbling out onto the streets, some think, ‘one more cigarette or a bong session, perhaps a silly movie, maybe the twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the fridge at home?’
[story by Luke Mehall]
Others think about climbing buildings.
Enter the mind and body of a climber, in an urban concrete jungle we call a city. Enter their heart thumping and pumping blood. Look through their eyes at the buildings with a desire that no one but a climber could feel, an inclination to interact with them, to enter a different dimension, the vertical realm, one with substantial risk. The usual risks of climbing: the consequences from falling, abuse to joints, bones and muscles. Also, legal risks: trespassing, the chance a cop may drive by and see you, though he would hardly think to look for someone twenty feet up the side of a building at three in the morning.
When most everyone has entered the dreamworld of sleep, or other lazy activities in the horizontal, the lucky ones are, well, getting lucky. In a town of thousands, just two or three may decide to enter the vertical. They will choose to builder.
For a few years now, I’ve managed to stay primarily on the outside of buildering sessions, while still remaining on the inside. While I’ve gotten off the ground a time or two, usually I just watch, especially when the building at hand enters the zone, when a fall could mean death. Just being around the excitement is enough for me, and in the last few years, for many nights after the bars close, I’ve found myself within a cipher of builderers trying to climb anything they please, mixing their beer buzz with adrenaline, putting their youthful health on the line for an intense rush.
I don’t know if Sparks builders much these days, but he did, and during a winter night in a cold town called Gunnison, Colorado, he had one of those mystical, magical moments, which involved several elements, as you’ll see.
Sparks is one of those climbers, that people must think of when they visualize a guy in his twenties, who muscles his way through a rock climb. Ripped, like the guys posing on the packages of underwear. For some reason, his climbing performance rarely matched up with his strength. Climbing requires a mental discipline, a vertical meditation that often Sparks lacked. When his mind was on an off day, he could not perform on the rock, he could not complete the difficult move because his mind would not focus. Though his body was strong enough, often his mind would not break through to the meditative state needed for difficult climbing. But he was strong, way strong, and once in a full moon, he would be on and great things could happen.
Well it may have been a full moon, the coyotes must’ve been howlin’, cause that night, amidst the psychedelics and the beer, we were climbing everything that looked like it could be climbed: the outside of a ten-foot stucco ATM station next to the bank, with an overhanging bulge near the finish and a foot of snow on the top, a plastic horse that was a sign for a local cowboy shop which was twelve feet off the ground, also covered in snow, even a route that was so difficult it hasn’t seen a known repeat ascent in years on Main Street, a route climbing up the front side of the sketchiest bar in town.
It was one of those nights when people were in town for the holidays. The snow was falling like it’s supposed to in the mountains, maybe an inch an hour accumulating on rooftops, streets and sidewalks. Spirits were flowing. Christmas lights were lit, like we all were, buzzed so much that at a point in the party no one could come up with a reason why we shouldn’t go out. This was one of those nights. We were a group of climbers, and a couple girls that liked climber dudes, who were along for the kicks.
Climbers, especially the ones that are in their young twenties, are scruffy and rough around the edges, many have unkept beards, pants and clothes with holes in them; a result of spending money first on gear and road tripping and second on clothing. No surprise, they also tend to be open minded. Climbing rocks, mountains, and in this case, buildings, requires a free mind that can come up with creative solutions to challenges. In addition to this, climbers must create a sense of believing, a sort of willing the body through dangerous and improbable situations. This is a positive characteristic that successful climbers share, and it is no surprise many people say climbing works at creating metaphors for life.
Give climbers a little booze and this open mindedness can get them into trouble. Like this night, where minds were altered by some additional things, and we were climbing all over town as if the structures in town were just rocks, eyeing a building that looked climbable and giving it a go, ignoring whether it was affiliated with a bank, a church or the government. Add some success on a couple of routes, which provided some sweet adrenaline and there was quite a cocktail of chemicals running through the veins.
So after Sparks had climbed the ATM machine, had a few drinks at the bar, and walked a mile across town in six inches of snow, he was ready for anything. A free mind, egged on by six intoxicated spirits, high and completely stoned into the winter moment. That anything Sparks was ready for led us to the entrance of the sketchiest bar in town, the Alamo, a place known for coke usage in the bathroom and a constant haze of cigarette smoke hanging over the pool tables and the patrons. Outside was a large, thirty foot vertical sign that read P I Z Z A, which probably confused some tourists each year to walk into the place and find no pizza, just second hand smoke, beer and a handful of souls there to escape whatever it was that led them to the ‘Mo. Leading up to the infamous, out of place pizza sign is a difficult buildering route, which as we walked by, caught the attention of our group.
The start of the building is what appears to be some average masonry, big stones a foot tall and two feet wide cemented into the wall, protruding out a couple inches so that they make great climbing holds, not at all symmetric, but, hey, we’re talking about a shady bar here. These perfect holds lead up to a wooden, shingled roof, slightly angled and, this night, covered in ten inches of snow. Just a foot right of the route was the entrance to the bar.
Now two or three of us had made it to this point before Sparks and found the move too precarious and difficult to attempt. The move wasn’t very dangerous, only eight feet off the ground, so a fall was relatively safe, especially with five spotters below, with their hands up, ready to protect the climber from hurting himself.
Sparks was on fire, and you could see it in his eyes and feel it in the energy that surrounded him. After an unsuccessful attempt, he was about to climb back onto the bar when a bouncer poked his head out, eyes glazed over from a night of complimentary shift drinks. He looked at Sparks with one of those, “what the hell are you doing?” looks. Sparks quickly acted like he was just checking out the well-done masonry work and glanced back at us, rubbing the wall, “Yeah, this is real nice isn’t it?”
The drunken bouncer went back inside confused. Sparks immediately got back on the wall and in thirty seconds reached the nearly horizontal roof. This move was the crux, the most difficult buildering sequence that had been attempted all night. In a sober state, it would be very hard, and Sparks’ mind might have not been able to break through and conceive the move, but fueled with the adrenaline cocktail, he didn’t think, he just acted. Like a karate master, he swung his foot above his head off to his right and planted it into the snow on the roof. As he dug his foot into the snow a couple, arm in arm, stumbled out of the bar, their expression quickly turned from intoxicated lust to amazement and terror as they looked up to see Sparks rocking his foot onto the snow covered roof, pushing his hands down and moving onto the roof.
He’d conquered the Alamo.
As the snow continued to fall and the couple walked away uttering drunken babble, Sparks climbed down a ladder on the backside of the bar to receive his prize, hugs and high-fives from his crowd of admirers.
Click here to continue to Part 2 of This is Buildering
This piece is an excerpt from Climbing Out of Bed, a definitive collection of rock climbing and mountain town stories, available in print and on Kindle and Nook.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.
We have also published two books: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall.