This year marks the 100th anniversary of the University of British Columbia’s Varsity Outdoor Club. One hundred years of young academics getting their highs in the mountains. Several renowned alpinists have emerged from the club — Dick Culbert, Glenn Woodsworth, Kobus Barnard, Rob Driscoll, Guy Edwards, and John Millar. A lesser known activity of the VOC is the scaling of campus buildings, aka buildering, starting in the early 1960s and practiced by many club members, including some of the aforementioned alpinists. The following article documents the history of climbing on campus, and will be included in the upcoming VOC centennial journal.
Main Entry: buildering
Etymology: from bouldering, to climb boulders.
First Usage: circa 1975
Synonyms: urban climbing, building climbing, stegophily
1. the sport or activity of climbing a man-made structure, of which the design is for purposes other than climbing.
It’s the fall of 1961. A group of Varsity Outdoor Club (V.O.C.) students are spending another afternoon in the clubroom avoiding class. Dick Culbert, maps spread over every available wall and counter space, is working on his extra-curricular project A Climber’s Guide To The Coastal Ranges Of British Columbia, which will go on to be the authoritative guide for coastal mountaineering.
Tony Ellis, Tim Auger, George “Gimmicks” Headley, and Gordie Dunham are playing a spirited game of bridge in the corner. The V.O.C. executive think it’s becoming a problem. “Too much bridge, go play outside.”
Glenn Woodsworth is rifling through books in the V.O.C. library. He finds a copy of The Night Climbers of Cambridge, by the strangely named Whipplesnaith, published in 1937.
They gather around. The book documents the building climbing, a.k.a. buildering, exploits of a group of dedicated, misplaced alpinists from Cambridge, U.K.. Complete with photos and route descriptions, Culbert gets inspiration for his next project, one which will never be published, rarely seen, its single typewritten copy periodically lost and found again over the next 50 years: A Cragrat’s Guide To The UBC Campus.
The group spends their remaining college years splitting time between adventures in the mountains, adventures on the campus walls, and playing bridge. “I played a LOT of bridge,” says Woodsworth, who goes on to marry his clubroom bridge partner.
Woodsworth contributes significantly to both A Climber’s Guide To The Coastal Ranges Of British Columbia and A Cragrat’s Guide To The UBC Campus. “Over 95% of Dick’s research went into the coast guide. The buildering project was compiled quickly, as the routes were done, a few at a time. That’s why we have good first ascent info — no need for library research of letter-writing or poring over old journals.”
Culbert takes his future wife Alice Purdey buildering for their first date. The pair are listed together on many first ascents.
George “Gimmicks” Headley is prolific, coming in close behind Culbert and Woodsworth for the number of first ascents. Woodsworth can’t remember how he earned his nickname, but “he was an odd duck. In a pool of odd ducks.”
Besides the aforementioned crew, over a dozen students contribute to the guide over the next decade. Mike Wisnicki, Bob Woodsworth, Mike Warr, Monty Lasserre, Mike Lopatecki, Dave Gibson, Bruce McKnight, Frank Baumann, Rick Scott, Mike Ablitt, Rick Price, and Dave Harris make up the bulk of the first ascensionists.
More students scribble in hand-annotated notes after Culbert’s final typewritten revision in 1967, the last entry dated 1972. Chris McNeill and Neil Humphrey mug for the cover of “The Ubyssey” in 1973, climbing the newly built, and since demolished, Student Union Building — ignoring Culbert’s warning to “refrain from babbling to Ubyssey reporters, for an article would probably precipitate laws.”
A Cragrat’s Guide To The UBC Campus contains an impressive 125 routes. “About 90% of all campus buildings have been ascended by at least one route.” Notable ascents include the Main Library, Music Building, Henry Angus, Buchanan Traverse, and the Civil Engineering Building. The latter, first climbed by Mike Ablitt, Rick Price, and Mike Warr, has a particularly bold route description: “Climb the Power House, and using a grappling hook, Tyrolean traverse to the Engineering Building. This is very hazardous for the leader, who must rely on the grappling hook.”
Another tool is used for several ascents: the clawhammer — literally a carpenter’s nailing hammer. “This gadget is a local invention. Drill a hole near the bottom of a hammer handle, threading a sling through this for attaching an etrier. It is then possible to clip the claws over any right angle rim and ascend in the steps. The embarrassment of a head coming off may be avoided by inserting screws where wood comes through the top of the hammer head.”
The hammer also helped for inserting the odd nail, “handy for protection on steep shingle roofs and for rappel anchors on wood-frame buildings.”
The playful nature of the pursuit is not lost in the guide. “One should use the excuse of OPEN HOUSE in climbing the hospital, as it is closely watched to prevent the smuggling of drugs.” “If pursued by UBC P, social workers, or the like, run along roof, and drop onto balcony on Burrard Inlet side of building, greatly surprising little old ladies eating tea and crumpets just inside the balcony. Drop to ground and run.”
Encounters with officials range from “quite friendly” to “pointedly nasty.” “A little climbing practice on this building, sir…great sport..tie on the end of the rope and we’ll show you how.”
There is some attempt to separate the official, upstanding V.O.C. with the building climbers. “Above all! — when they ask if you’re V.O.C. the following answers are suggested: ‘V.O.C.? What’s that?’ or ‘those cabin skiers? Hardly!’”
The V.O.C. executive is as pleased with buildering as they are with playing bridge: “CLIMBERS HAVE BEEN EXPLICITLY ASKED TO KEEP OFF THE VARIOUS ROUTES ON THE V.O.C. HUT DUE TO MARKING UP THE WALLS. LOSS OF CLUBROOM IS THREATENED!”
In 1967 Harry Bruce makes his case for buildering in the V.O.C. journal, “the short climbing season of this region results in two types of climbers. The first climb only occasionally and are similar to the bunnys of the ski slope. The other type have been called fanatics. It is the fanatic who keeps the tradition alive. V.O.C. is, after all, a climbing club.” In the same journal Frank Baumann highlights the competitive aspect of earning a first ascent, “these climbs were typical of those completed before construction was even finished on the buildings.”
Little is known about campus climbing between 1973 and 1996. If students continued the practice, they did so quietly — there is no mention of it in the V.O.C. journals. Guy Edwards, a V.O.C. member in the early 1990s, tells a story of someone breaking their back climbing on the Henning pillars in the early 1980s, bringing a Dark Ages to buildering with increased enforcement.
In 1997, as a second year student and first year with the V.O.C., I am introduced to A Cragrat’s Guide To The UBC Campus by Culbert and Purdey’s son, Vance Culbert. From that point on buildering becomes a focused pursuit of mine.
A group of us set out to rediscover the routes still standing from the Cragrat’s guidebook, and to claim our own first ascents.
A few classic routes prove too bold to repeat. “We led everything,” says Woodsworth, which in many cases means free solo.
Modern gear, namely cams, assist in repeating the JB Macdonald (Dentistry) Building and the Music Building. Cams prove useless on other, slipperier, building materials — a lesson best learnt through ground level testing versus a lead fall.
Over the years, the number of builderers grows into the dozens — hundreds if counting everyone to give a go at the campus walls.
The following is an incomplete list of the main players between 1997 and 2014, in rough order of earliest to most recent. Participation is uncertain, moreso when within the statute of limitations: Vance Culbert, Guy Edwards, Kenny Frazz, John Millar, Mark Grist, Jay Burbee, Jeremy Frimer, Mark Huscroft, Lena Rowat, Mike Hengeveld, Conor Reynolds, Rebecca Goulding, Luke Zimmerman, Dan Perrakis, Cam Shute, Drew Brayshaw, Steve Begin, Jacqui Hudson, Janez Ales, Scott Nelson, Boris Khramtsov, Damien McCombs, Ryan Kurytnik, Andrew Golden, Jordan Tam, Stephen Lerch, Mike Fuller, Greg Dennis, Mike Blicker, Oker Chen, Mike Simonez, Christian Champagne, Chris Weiss, Grant Stewart, Sarah Flick, Meghan Anderson, Allen Roberts, Todd Mackenzie, Jason T, Ryan Goldsbury, Jonathan Elmer, Robin Avery, James Painter, Tiffany Shen, Kaspar Podgorski, and Shaun Evans.
Guy Edwards takes to the unconventional gear aspect of buildering — wedging 2×4’s into chimneys, using coat hangers to thread slings through tight gaps, and attaching C-clamps to window sills.
Jay Burbee and Jeremy Frimer develop an “anti-cam” as a school engineering project. It proves useful as a tool for building aid climbing.
Top ropes are used when necessary, unlocking ascents on Buchanan Tower (F.A. Steve Begin), the SRC face (F.A. Ryan Kurytnik), and the iconic Clock Tower (project) . All are difficult by buildering standards, ranging between 5.11+ to 5.12+. The Clock Tower proves most difficult, still awaiting an ascent without rests. Roof access for top ropes is granted via happy accidents: doors or windows left open by staff — a rare occurrence resulting in frenzied mobilization.
Kenny Franz and I write buildering articles for the 2001-2002 V.O.C. journal. We make a haphazard effort to write an updated guidebook — it has yet to go to print. Damien McCombs makes a foldable one-page “UBC Select” guide for a school art project. I start the buildering.net website in 2001, and for several years it contains an online guidebook with 150 routes described. Using Google Maps to pinpoint locations, it remains offline due to technical reasons.
Our forays rarely stray from campus, as campus provides a welcome escape buffer. First responders are almost always campus security, or campus cowboys as they’re contemptuously dubbed. Trad climbers say “when in doubt, run it out.” Builderers say “when in doubt, run.” RCMP, however, are another matter.
A few notable ascents extend beyond campus: Science World, Lion’s Gate Bridge, and the Cleveland Dam. The latter is first climbed by Dick Culbert, Alice Purdey, and Dan Tate — as described in the 1965 V.O.C. journal. It is repeated in 2001 by Jay Burbee, Dan Perrakis, Jeremy Frimer, and Mark Grist. The route sports an attractive pair of long cracks up the main spillway.
In 2004 the first UBC buildering competition is held, a circuit of 12 routes varying in difficulty. To keep in the spirit of the buildering pioneers, climbing shoes are disallowed. More importantly, climbing shoes hurt to run in.
Twenty people attend, someone wins, and nobody gets caught.
One avid reader of buildering.net from the UBC legal department is excited to meet our “buildering club.” I inform her our roster is full, we aren’t accepting new members, and point her to the website’s disclaimer:
Warning: Buildering always results in serious injury and horrible death. Property managers are extremely litigious. You will be caught, charged, sued, and convicted.
Buildering.net does not promote buildering. All stories are fictional. All images are doctored to give the appearance of buildering.
To avoid association with the V.O.C., mentions of buildering in journals and message boards are altered to “croquet.” An enthusiastic “croquet” participant contacts the real UBC croquet club and buys several of their t-shirts. It has a nice logo. For years, the “croquet” club outnumbers the croquet club.
More competitions are held over the years. The 2006 competition, with 40 participants, ends prematurely when a concerned citizen reports that we are breaking into buildings to steal chesterfields. The “chesterfields” are the bouldering pads we carry along for safety.
The most recent buildering competition takes place in 2012. It is won by a soon to be well known rock climber and alpinist Marc-Andre Leclerc.
In 2014 photographer and buildering.net administrator Andy Day arrives from London to shoot photographs for the new guide. This gives me motivation to finally, eventually publish the damn thing.
In recent years it has proven difficult to assemble a crew for outings — perhaps a societal threshold has been crossed where the rapscallion antics of buildering are no longer deemed acceptable, or perhaps I’m simply out of touch with the student-aged.
Certainly, the ubiquity of cellphones and the desire of citizens to report suspicious behaviour has been a game changer. Adding a thoroughly mobilized campus security makes it difficult to builder in peace.
At present, I spend little time on campus. I’ve lost my sense of Tuum Est, “it’s yours,” the UBC motto that emboldened me on many previous adventures. With youth and paying tuition comes a healthy sense of entitlement.
Many of the classic concrete brutalist lines have been replaced by modern metal and glass structures – an unhelpful trend for builderers. Even historic, majestic buildings like Main Library can’t survive this trend, with only the central facade surviving renovation.
Certainly, in time, a new generation of “odd duck” climber fanatics will take to the campus walls once again. Beautiful lines call out to be climbed. The untapped potential defines adventure. The illicitness adds reward. The weirdness fosters camaraderie. May the cabin skiers forever raise their eyebrows in disapproval.
“A loose-leaf style has been adopted here in hopes that climbers of future years will add to the list of routes, and make necessary changes to keep abreast of the constant tearing down and reconstruction.” – Dick Culbert, A Cragrat’s Guide To The UBC Campus
DISCLAIMER: This article is fictional. All images are fictional, with the exception of the Ubyssey front page. Those guys really climbed that.
MISSING: A Cragrat’s Guide To The UBC Campus is divided into two volumes. Volume 1 is a black duotang including routes east of Main Mall. Volume 2 is a yellow duotang including routes west of Main Mall. Volume 2 has gone missing — last seen in 2006, some time around the University Wall film project. Please contact the current V.O.C. archivist or email@example.com if you have any information on its whereabouts.
THANKS: Glenn Woodsworth for his contributions, Todd Mackenzie for the high resolution scan of Volume 1, and everyone who’s been part the UBC buildering scene. Without doubt, I fail to mention several builderers, and several diehards get lost in the list of names. My apologies. If you have a story you’d like to share, find me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on buildering.net.
Dick Culbert holding a memento from his 1962 Main Library first ascent. “I always wondered if the roof leaked after that.”
Dick passed away May 23rd 2017 after a battle with cancer. For more photos and information on Dick’s climbing achievements, visit gripped.com/news/western-canada-climber-dick-culbert-passes