Sheer Madness

They scaled the sandstone walls of the Quad and rappeled down Hoover Tower. These postwar adventurers left a formidable legacy of mountaineering feats and legendary student pranks.

January/February 1999

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Sheer Madness

Photo: Stanford News Service

Sherman Lehman froze on his rappel rope as he heard the truck brakes screech in the pre-dawn silence. Dangling precariously, two-thirds of the way down Hoover Tower's west wall, he squinted through the light fog at the garbage truck rolling to a halt 100 feet below him. It was 5 a.m., May 22, 1950, and Lehman, '51, a math whiz and future mathematics professor at UC-Berkeley, was taping a 4-foot-high footprint made of black paper to the tower. He watched in panic as the garbage collectors leisurely stepped out of their truck, leaned back against the fender and lit their cigarettes.

Lehman's hands burned as rope slowly slipped through his grip. He could hear the men joking and chatting, unaware of the soon-to-be-legendary prank in progress above them. Although his arm and back muscles throbbed, Lehman forced himself to keep still. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, the crew jumped in the truck and clanked off into the dawn. Lehman finished taping the black paper cutout and rappeled down. Jim Moore, '51, following closely behind, attached the final foot and dropped skillfully to the lower roof of Hoover. With the operation complete Moore and Sherman retreated with Bud Gates, '51, the third team member, into the dank, welcoming darkness of Stanford's steam tunnels.

An hour or so later, the light of dawn revealed the full artistry of their escapade: five giant black footprints descending the famous tower. It was a bookend to the stunt completed almost a year earlier, when Gates, Sherman and Walt Kane, '49, fixed four black prints going up the wall. Both incidents were instant classics, taking a place in Stanford's pantheon of great pranks and providing fodder for the sophomoric tale of the Tower Monster.

In the decades that followed, campus climbers would scale the walls of the Quad and other campus buildings (See Sidebar). The University's rough-hewn sandstone blocks, providing hand and footholds and challenging vertical climbs, offered a convenient place to hone techniques and develop finger, hand and arm muscles. But it was that first postwar generation of students who forged the way, illicitly exploring routes that would become part of campus folklore.

After World War II, veterans flocked to colleges all across America. Restive spirits, many were attracted to the sport of climbing, with its combination of physical challenge and adrenaline-jolting danger. At Stanford, one such group -- Al Baxter, Larry Taylor and Fritz Lippmann -- came together to found the Stanford Alpine Club in 1946. Lippmann, '49, a B-17 pilot in the European theater, was one of America's leading climbers at the time of Pearl Harbor. Soon after he was discharged from the military, he met Taylor, '44, MS '48, a veteran of the 101st Airborne, at a Sierra Club rock-climbing outing. Taylor had developed a passion for mountains and climbing when he was in glider training near Salzburg at the end of the war and flew over the Bavarian Alps. Late in the summer of 1946, Taylor was passing the campus cobbler shop (which was located near the old bookstore -- today's Career Planning and Placement Center) when he noticed a young man bringing in climbing boots for repair. Intrigued, Taylor discovered that Baxter, '47, had been converted to the thrills of the sport following a solo climb of California's Mount Shasta that previous summer. "We had a beer and talked about his new enthusiasm," Taylor later wrote in his fraternity magazine The Tomahawk. Soon after, Taylor introduced Baxter to Lippmann and they began to mull over the idea of a Stanford climbing club.

The three climbers discovered they weren't the only mountaineers on campus. A hiking club for both men and women had been started in 1945. One of its founders, Freddy Hubbard, '49, had been a member of the Colorado Mountain Club back home and had been interested in creating a similar climbing group at the University. So when the Stanford Alpine Club was formed in the fall of 1946, eight women enthusiastically joined with 36 men.

Stanford now had climbers, and the climbers had a club. But what would they climb? The challenge of Cathedral Spires and Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley were hours away. Club members needed regular practice -- so they climbed roofs, rappeled from towers and traversed walls. In the process, they essentially invented building-climbing or "buildering" at Stanford.

But buildering in the '40s and '50s (and more recently, too) was never an openly acknowledged pastime of club members. In fact, many climbers disapproved of buildering -- either because those who did it exposed themselves to punishment and even expulsion, or because of the risk of injury in a frivolous activity.

The Night Climbers of Cambridge (1937), an anonymous tract that became the bible of Stanford's building climbers, alludes to the sport's somewhat notorious history, and offers all such adventurers a somber warning: "For outlaw he is, and unless he take the common precautions of outlawry, there will be trouble." And many Stanford builderers, also afficionados of steam-tunneling and attic-crawling, found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Geology students Rowland Tabor, '54, and George Mowat, '53, MS '54, were attempting a midnight crawl through the Geology Corner attic in the winter of 1951 when an armed Stanford police officer crawled up into the attic with a flashlight and confronted them. They were carted off to the station, where Chief of Police Gordon Davis told them they were lucky they weren't shot or bitten by black widow spiders. "The Chief said he would give our names to the dean," recalls Tabor, now a geologist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey, "but we never heard any more of it."

At 285 feet, Hoover Tower was the highest peak in the range and the most cherished campus objective. The Hoover escapades of 1949 and 1950 were the apex of campus climbing capers.

On May 23, 1949, a party of six made the first assault. Walt Kane, now a physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratories, was the ringleader, and the group included fellow-Alpine Club members Julie Boyd, '50, Sherman Lehman, Bud Gates and two others. They set out in the still dark of early morning with a plan to enter the building through the steam tunnels. A music student who had taken to playing the tower carillon after hours had shown them a manhole, hidden in the shadow of trees about 200 feet away from the main library. The passage led into the tower basement; from there, they climbed upstairs onto the lower roof, then into the tower and up to the observation deck.

The group carried 600 feet of rope for rappeling, four large feet cut from black paper and rolls of 1-inch adhesive tape for attaching the feet. Kane was first to fall back into the foggy depths, checking the equipment and looking for obstacles. Gates rappeled down next and attached the first two footprints near the top of the building. Then Lehman pushed himself off, with two big feet rolled up and stuck in his pockets along with adhesive tape.

Kane jerked on Lehman's rope a few times to indicate where to place the third footprint. "It was hard trying to find the end of the roll in the dark," says Sherman. "Actually, I was dangling about 8 inches from the wall because it is recessed." After the footprint was neatly secured, Sherman started down to place the fourth. But by now, he was in a lot of pain. The braided manila rope ran between his legs, and, when the hat he was using for padding slid off, the rope began badly chafing what Lehman later described as "delicate body parts." He placed the fourth footprint according to Kane's signals and completed his painful rappel to the lower roof. Everyone then retraced their route to the ground floor, where the exuberant party exited the building by a side door.

"Next day people stared in amazement," Lehman proudly wrote in his diary. Four footprints plodded their way up the tower, evenly spaced between 70 and 120 feet from the ground. Former president Ray Lyman Wilbur, who had an office in the tower, was amused: "Those boys will be bringing cows up next." The Palo Alto Times reported that Davis, the police chief, thought "the mystery was probably an inside job" and that a group had lowered one of their own in a bosun's chair. Lehman's still-raw "delicate bodily parts" only wished it were so.

Nearly one year later, Sherman Lehman's dizzying sequel produced the new set of five footprints. The Daily reported: "A legend formed among students that a Monster had made his way up the side of the building…. Then yesterday morning the earthward prints appeared…. Last year there were four very large prints evenly spaced. This year there were five smaller prints, unevenly spaced. Conclusion: The Monster was well and healthy when he climbed the tower and after a year had become so emaciated that he had shrunk, and stumbled on his way down."

Not everyone appreciated the derring-do. Hoover Institution spokesperson Inez Richardson later told the Daily that the Hoover Institution was a "world famous center housing material of international value" and that students should show more respect. She added, "All we have to have is one slip, and these people will be laughing out of the other sides of their mouths."

The Hoover Monster may have gone "to take cheaper lodgings in a lower-class tower across the bay," as the Daily put it, but students continued climbing. In the early 1960s, Alpine Clubbers took to the campus sandstone walls with a renewed enthusiasm. "New routes, undreamed of only a few years before, have now been opened up," wrote Lucy Ames in a 1964 guidebook, Mountaineering, Freedom of the Quad.

In the late 1970s, a new type of builderer appeared when Jim Collins, '80, arrived on campus. Collins, today widely known as co-author of the best-selling book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, integrated buildering into rigorous rock-climbing training regimes. This winter, the sport has been brought indoors with the opening of the climbing wall near DeGuerre pool, where a mere Stanford ID will get you onto the rock face. It's a long way from Hoover forays, steam tunnels and the "outlawry" of midnight buildering. Those early Alpine Club veterans left some monster-sized footsteps to fill.

John Rawlings is a librarian at Stanford University Libraries. He has previously written for Sandstone & Tile.

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