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If you build it, they will climb.

By Janet Wells

The general public considers climbing on buildings shocking and irresponsible behavior. The first and most important rule is: Watch your butt. You alone are responsible for your actions.
--Marc Jensen "Buildering Ethics"

REMEMBER that guy who used suction cups to scale New York's World Trade Center? Or Woody Harrelson climbing the Golden Gate Bridge to protest logging old-growth redwoods? Take a close look around Sonoma County: Urban monkeys are scoping out their own local buildings and structures to play on.

Buildering--a term used to describe the art of urban climbing--usually isn't motivated by publicity stunts or political activism. It's about climbing human-made structures for the fun of it, traversing along a stone wall or using cracks to go up just high enough, turning engineering and architecture into a personal challenge. It's about driving down the street, spying some corner or wall, and imagining the possibilities: The fingertips and toes start to tingle, and you see yourself moving smoothly across stone, brick, or concrete. No ropes, no jangling equipment, no anchors, no long drive to the mountains or fee to the climbing gym.

Technically, buildering is just bouldering, with the peculiar enticement that you're clambering illicitly.

The biggest draw of buildering is also its biggest drawback: Buildering almost always is illegal. And it won't win you any popularity contests. Cops don't like you; landlords don't like you; most people think you're, at best, unusual and, at worst, a jerk. You have to be young enough to enjoy currying the disdain of passersby or not care about your reputation. You have to get up early or steal out into the night.

Buildering isn't exactly my cup of tea. I don't like going very far off the ground without a rope, the landings usually are bone-jarring cement, and it's dirty. I'd never worn car exhaust until climbing urban structures. But when I moved here three years ago, one of the first things I noticed was the relief sculpture on the monolithic AT&T building on Third Street in Santa Rosa. The second eye-catcher was the "Lost Autumn" granite sculpture on the south end of Santa Rosa Plaza.

"Cool," I thought. "I wonder if . . . "

Both have been climbed for years. Both have established routes and ratings, as do a number of structures in downtown Santa Rosa. On a balmy summer evening, as the sun set, a group of us lounged on the warm concrete around the train station at Railroad Square and watched one another climb the corners, doorways, and pillars of the 93-year-old station. We were just another group hanging outside the A'Roma Cafe. Instead of smoking, braiding each other's hair, or riding on the hood of a friend's car, we were looking for finger-sized edges and not-too-slopey footholds, making up new routes and noticing chalk from some previous climber's foray.

"I used to climb out at Goat Rock all the time, " says Santa Rosa freelance writer and photographer Laine MacTague. "You get bored climbing the same old thing. I'd be buildering if the gym hadn't come in."

MacTague, who once got kicked off a church for "desecrating the house of God," finessed his way up the northeast side of the station, hanging on to some less than encouraging holds. When he reached the "top"--by touching the wood overhang about 14 feet up--one young woman clapped and cheered.

"Part of the appeal is being in front of people and they don't know what the heck you're doing," MacTague says, clearly relishing the attention.

Michael Amsler

Get a Grip: The AT&T Pac Bell building on Third Street offers plenty of thrills for local builderers seeking a challenging urban climb.

I FIRST BUILDERED in Berkeley, where the climbing subsport has a colorful history. Marc Jensen's now out-of-print book Bouldering, Buildering and Climbing in the San Francisco Bay Region cataloged a popular circuit of routes at UC Berkeley. His section on Buildering Ethics was a classic:

"You alone are responsible for your actions. That includes safety and your impact on other things. Chalk on buildings and destruction of property are problems that will impact the entire climbing community.

"Buildering will probably always remain a solo weekend or nighttime activity. . . . Climbers should be aware of the legal ramifications of buildering. Trespassing laws are most frequently discussed by police officers while lecturing the apprehended. In these situations it is best to remain quiet and polite. Long hair doesn't make good impressions."

While dated by the long-hair reference, Jensen's diatribe still is right on the mark. Bay Area Rock guidebook author Jim Thornburg deleted the buildering information when he revamped and updated Jensen's book.

"I wasn't sure about the legality of it, giving people directions to climb on UC Berkeley buildings," says Thornburg, who admits that he was once arrested for climbing on the campus Student Union. "It was mostly for talking back to the cop, but trespassing was the charge."

"Because of gyms, [buildering] is not as prevalent as it used to be," he says. "I don't look at buildings any more and say, 'I want to climb that.' I used to. Back then I didn't have the wherewithal to travel all over the place and climb."

Santa Rosa doesn't have a specific ordinance against climbing buildings, and police haven't heard about or arrested local builderers--yet.

"No one is recreationally climbing a building here, but it's not to say that it can't happen. I don't want to jinx it or put the hint out there," says Santa Rosa Detective Paul Messerschmitt.

If builderers don't have permission from a property owner and the landlord presses charges, climbers could face misdemeanor charges for trespassing, punishable by fine or six months in county jail.

"Someone is going to call the police if they see someone scaling the side of a building," Messerschmitt says. "It's going to call the attention of the police, and will tie us up when we might be needed elsewhere. It would create traffic tie-ups or accidents if people were rubbernecking. It could be a real nuisance.

"If I saw someone a few feet up on a building," he adds," it would draw my attention as something suspicious to me, and I'd at least ask the person what they're doing and if the property owner is aware of it. There are liability issues to think about. I don't think any business would give someone permission."

While Santa Rosa police haven't noticed anyone playing Spiderman in town, building owners and managers have.

Safeway on Fourth Street is a popular buildering spot, with its 200-foot traverse sporting chunks of quartz and sandstone set in cement. Pillars separating the rock sections offer almost perfect hand cracks about 18 feet high. Management, however, is not amused.

"Don't tell them there's climbing here!" exclaims one store manager. "If they did fall, we'd hate to have anyone get hurt. Nowadays it's someone's mom or dad who says, 'You didn't say it wasn't OK.'"

Doug, a store employee, agrees: "I'm sure it's a huge liability. We always ask nice [that climbers stop], and they always leave. If they didn't, I'd arrest them. It's a great sport, and I wish you a lot of luck. But not here."


Where to go in Santa Rosa.

More urban adventuring in Silicon Valley.


THE KEY to successful buildering, one local climber says, is "Go in fast and get out." The lanky health-care professional, who requested anonymity to protect his upstanding reputation, planned his Santa Rosa buildering assault with care. Dressed in black unitards, he and a colleague set out early one weekend morning, starting at Safeway on Mendocino Avenue, where they were promptly kicked off. The pair headed for downtown. First on the list was a fountain at Fourth and B streets. Then the Third Street wall and the mall sculpture. They climbed up and over the doorway of a storefront next to Sawyer's News, taking pictures and feeling far younger than their 30-something years.

"It was like Mission: Impossible. Go in, complete your mission, get out. We didn't stay in any one place long, because we figured people would call the cops on us," he says.

The coup of the day was at the Flamingo Hotel: "[My partner] made a daring, daring assault on the east face of the Flamingo Hotel; he led the bold traverse to the right of the entrance," he reminisces, laughing. "He ran right in there, through the bushes, and started climbing. There were a bunch of people there. I was safely across the street taking photos."

The morning buildering foray was the first and last for the duo, who have since restricted their climbing to real rock and indoor walls.

"The whole fun of it was that we were doing something we weren't supposed to do," he says. "It was a silly little adventure in our staid professional lives."

Janet Wells, a frequent Independent contributor, is co-owner of the Vertex climbing gym in Santa Rosa.

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From the July 17-23, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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