The Thrill Goes On

February 10, 2012

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Decades have passed since anyone mounted a serious assault on Hoover Tower, but other buildings on campus continue to lure thrill-seeking night climbers. Today's hot spots go by names like Cool Fingers (in the outer Quad), Genocide (near Memorial Church), Torture Chamber (Encina Hall) and, yes, President's Wall (Building 10).

The University outlawed climbing on most of its buildings in 1986, but an estimated 75 campus stalwarts routinely risk trespassing citations for the sake of their sport, usually after dark. Hard-core builderers have mapped, rated and described favorite Stanford sites in several closely guarded manuals, which fellow climbers have clandestinely photocopied and passed along through the years.

Climbers today rarely undertake the daring stunts of yesteryear, and most consider Hoover Tower and Memorial Church off-limits, says Trevor Bezdek, '99, president of the Climbing Wall Club, one of three climbing organizations at Stanford. Builderers typically stay lower to the ground, with the goal of moving sideways rather than up. Many avoid using the standard white chalk to absorb sweat and improve grip because it leaves a telltale trail.

"It's important to be discreet," says Dennis Bird, an associate professor of geological and environmental sciences who admits to buildering about once a month, when his students drag him out.

Rated three stars (out of four) as a buildering site by the national climbing guide Rock 'N Road, Stanford's sandstone-block architecture serves as a prime training ground for hard-core rock climbers. Aficionados say the small, uneven handholds offered by the textured blocks help them develop finger strength. Training on sandstone buildings can keep a climber in shape for scaling natural formations such as those at Castle Rock State Park, 40 minutes south of campus.

Starting this winter, campus climbers will have a legal alternative to buildering: a four-walled, indoor climbing site built in an old racquetball court near De Guerre Pool. The University installed the new facility with the support of student fees after nearly two years of campaigning by enthusiasts. Constructed of plywood on a metal frame, the structure is lined with a resin composite. Handholds resembling those of real boulders dot its four climbing faces, which "cave" inward near the ceiling to form challenging overhangs.

Forty-nine-year-old Bird, who teaches rock climbing as part of his department's Outdoor Education Program, says he's been looking forward to training on a proper climbing wall ever since 1989, when he was caught 15 feet up the side of Memorial Church during the Loma Prieta earthquake.

And Andrew Davis, '01, co-chair of the Redwood Climbing Club, vows, "For me, there would be no point to continue buildering once there's a climbing wall."

Perhaps the indoor wall will cut down on after-hours vertical traffic in the Quad. Or perhaps not. For adventure seekers, the thrill of buildering past President Casper's office in the dead of night may be irresistible.

-- Tracy Jan, '98

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