Fifty years of misinterpreting architecture at the University of British Columbia

Article originally published in Summer 2013 edition of Coast Mountain Culture magazine. Used with permission.

By: Dave Quinn

The Varsity Outdoors Club (VOC) at the University of British Columbia has long been the breeding ground of climbing inventiveness, creativity and tenacity. Big names, like Dick Culbert, Guy Edwards, Tim Auger and Hamish Mutch, all found companions in the VOC to help push the limits of what could be done in the mountains.

Dangerous studies: in spring 1967, lead climber Mike Wisnicki and partner climb without protection, risking a ground fall. Photo: Glenn Woodsworth

For the climbing fanatics, however, the mountains were painfully far away from campus. VOC members were often distracted by nuisances, such as studying and classes, and often the windows of opportunity were too short to work on new routes up the Squamish Chief or even to escape to Lighthouse Park for a sunset cragging session.

It is little wonder that buildering took off like wildfire at UBC in the mid-1960s. Climbers, used to staring at rock walls looking for cracks, routes and features, found themselves gazing with the same critical eyes at the angular concrete-and-stucco facades of the university buildings. Not only were these structures great for practicing climbing moves and staying in shape, the illegality of buildering made it almost as exciting as the real thing.

Photo: Glenn Woodsworth

Buildering was not invented by the VOC. As early as 1895, alpinist Geoffrey Winthrop Young described some of his building ascents around England’s Cambridge University, and in 1901, he anonymously published The Roof-Climber’s Guide to Trinity (the second edition was published by Oleander Press in 2009). In typical VOC fashion, club members took buildering to a thrilling new level, paving the way for modern spectacles like Alain Robert, a.k.a. “The French Spiderman,” who freesolos the world’s largest skyscrapers as thousands of gapers crane and squint from the pavement below.

In 1965, Dick Culbert wrote the definitive and irreverent Cragrat’s Guide to the University of British Columbia, the same year his well-read Climber’s Guide to the Coastal Ranges was published. The year prior, the club had held evening “Cat Burglary Training Courses” for VOC members and interest in the sport blossomed.

By 1967, Culbert estimates over 90 per cent of university buildings had at least one route established. Cragrat’s offers the following advice to aspiring builderers: “The general rule is to be as sneaky as necessary to avoid being seen, but once observed or challenged to look as casual as possible.” Other recommendations include avoiding conversations with the press, having a “girl or professor along” (presumably to smooth over potential encounters with university security) and denying membership in, or even knowledge of VOC if accosted.

It’s easy to imagine the excitement of the times with the guidebook’s descriptions of the custom grappling hooks required to finish tricky routes, the pitons inserted and removed with fingers, and which drainpipes could do with more secure attachment to their buildings. The 1967 Varsity Outdoor Club Journal goes on to describe the nocturnal Tyrolean Traverse required to summit the civil engineering building.

Classic UBC buildering routes include the Incinerator, recommended only on a Sunday as it is “very hot indeed” during the week, and Mary Albert Hall, the women’s dormitory. The latter is recommended as a daylightonly ascent, so there is “less suspicions regarding purpose.”

Another well-known route on the armouries is called “One-Pin Wonder,” a nod to the custom-built single piton used to protect the route, held in the custody of the club’s climbing chairman. The ascent of Meteorology House is described as a “wee bit hair-raising” and includes an approach shimmy out on a tree branch that “has that brittle feeling.” Classic buildering.

Now many universities have their own clandestine buildering guidebooks, and there is even a website dedicated to the sport,, whose byline is “Misinterpreting Architecture Worldwide.” Cragrat’s continues to be
updated as university infrastructure changes and new routes are put up. Today, VOC members continue to misinterpret the changing architecture of the University of British Columbia, with the same joyful irreverence practiced nearly 50 years ago by their predecessors.