One can only witness the true essence, the intriguing energy of buildering in the deep of the twilight. Late in the night when a change occurs. It is an athletic alchemy, provoked partly by the bartender, telling everyone that it’s closing time, they have to leave.
Some think, ‘one more cigarette or a bong session, perhaps a silly movie, maybe the twelve pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the fridge at home?’
Others think about climbing buildings.
When most everyone is sleeping, or doing other lazy activities in the horizontal, the lucky ones are, well, getting lucky, in a town of thousands just two or three may decide to enter the vertical. They will choose to builder.
In various places in Colorado, for a few years now I’ve managed to stay primarily on the outside of buildering sessions; but still remaining on the inside. While I’ve gotten off the ground a time or two, usually I just watch, especially when the buildering taking place enters the zone a fall could mean death. Just being around the excitement is enough, and in the last few years, for many nights after the bars close I’ve found myself within a cipher of builderers mixing their beer buzz with adrenaline; putting their youthful health on the line for a unique rush.
Sparks is one of those climbers people must think of when they visualize a guy in his twenties who muscles his way through a climb. Ripped, like the guys posing on the packages of underwear. For some reason his performance rarely matched up with his strength. When his mind was on an “off” day he could not perform on the rock. Though his body was strong enough, often his mind would not break through to the meditative state needed for difficult climbing. But he was way strong and once in a full moon he would be “on” and great things could happen.
Well this was one of those nights when people were in town for the holidays. The snow was falling like it’s supposed to in the mountains, maybe an inch an hour accumulating on rooftops, streets and sidewalks. Spirits were flowing. Christmas lights were lit, like we all were, buzzed so much that at a point in the party no one could come up with a reason why we shouldn’t go out.
It must’ve been a full moon and the coyotes were a howlin’. That night amidst the spirits my friends were climbing everything that looked like it could be climbed. The routes included: the outside of a ten-foot stucco ATM station next to the bank, with an overhanging bulge near the finish and a foot of snow on the top, and a plastic horse that was a sign for a local cowboy shop which was twelve feet off the ground, covered in snow.
We were a group of climbers and a couple girls that liked climber dudes who were along for the kicks.
After Sparks had climbed the ATM machine, had a few drinks at the bar, and walked a mile across town in six inches of snow he was ready for anything. A free mind, egged on by six intoxicated souls high and completely stoned into the winter moment. That -anything- Sparks was ready for, led us to the entrance of the sketchiest bar in town, the Ajax.
Outside was a large thirty foot vertical sign that read P I Z Z A, which probably confused some tourists each year to walk in and find no pizza place just second hand smoke, beer and a handful of souls there to escape whatever it was that led them to the Ajax.
The start of the building is what appears to be some average masonry: big stones two feet tall and two feet wide cemented into the wall, protruding out a couple inches so that they make great climbing holds, not at all symmetrical, but hey we’re talking about a shady bar here. These perfect holds lead up to a wooden shingled roof, slightly angled and this night covered in snow. Just right of the route was the entrance to the bar.
Now two or three of us had got to this point before Sparks and found the move too precarious and difficult to attempt. The move wasn’t very dangerous, only eight feet off the ground, so a fall was relatively safe with five spotters below.
Sparks was “on” and you could see it in his eyes, and feel it in the energy that surrounded him. After an unsuccessful attempt Sparks was about to climb back onto the wall when a bouncer poked his head out, eyes glazed over from a night of complimentary shift drinks. He glanced over at Sparks with a look that said, ‘what the hell are you doing? Sparks quickly acted like he was just checking out the well-done masonry work and glanced back at us, rubbing the wall, “Yeah this is real nice isn’t it?”
The bouncer went back inside confused. Sparks immediately got back on the wall and in thirty seconds reached the nearly horizontal roof. This move was the crux, the most difficult buildering sequence that had been attempted all night. In a sober state it would be very hard, and Sparks’ mind might have not been able to break through and conceive the move, but fueled with an adrenaline cocktail, he didn’t think, he just acted. Like a karate master he swung his foot above his head off to his right and planted it into the snow on the roof. As he dug his foot into the snow a couple, arm in arm stumbled out of the bar. Their expression quickly turned from intoxicated lust to amazement and terror as they looked up to see Sparks rocking his foot onto the snow-covered roof, pushing his hands down and moving onto the roof.
He had conquered the Ajax.
In the time when that winter melted and turned to spring there was another group of builderers on the scene. When summer came around they were extremely confident in their skills.
This summertime session occurred during the typical hours, just after the bar closed, two thirty in the morning. This group: P-Real, B-Boy Roy, T-Drizz and Lucy. The stars shined brilliantly, the moon lit the town up as bright as the streetlight. The air was cool as it always is in a mountain town at night. This light lit up one side of an old church, which this crew wanted to climb. From what I’d seen and heard nothing was off limits that particular summer: banks, government buildings, rumor had it one night these guys even climbed the police station. We arrived at the church, a forty foot tall yellow bricked building, which appeared that it was from the early nineteen hundreds that narrowed as it went higher, slender at the top, with a four foot tall cross on the roof.
We followed P-Real, who was the reason behind the partying that evening. It was his birthday. P-Real saw the lit up side of the church and found it to be to his liking.
Now, P-Real is a southern boy. In our climbing community this made him stand apart from nearly everyone else. A remarkable and unique character, that everyone in the climbing community knew, or knew of. So all four of us listened, when in his distinct southern drawl he looked up at the arête on the side of the church and uttered slowly in a rather monotone way, “I’m go-nna climb this fu-cker.”
So off he went up the church. P-Real climbed in the trademark warrior way, with no hesitation, no hint of nervousness. Just fluid movement from brick to brick that protruded from the side of the church generously and at equal increments. In this manner he quickly entered a zone, thirty feet off the ground where a fall would be disastrous. Though he had four of us spotting him, we could do little to protect him from the six step concrete stairway that lay directly in his fall path. A metal railing eight feet long to the left of the stairs ensured that if P-Real fell things would be bad, real bad. The stairway and railing was an emergency exit for church patrons, but for P-Real if he were to fall down on this, it would spell disaster, and possibly a chance to meet his maker.
All of us spotters gave each other a look. A look that we needed not put into words that P-Real could hear. The look that had the intensity that a normal serious climbing situation would have but this was different, it was three in the morning and this southern boy thirty feet above us on the side of a church, had been drinking whiskey all night. “You got this P-Real,” Roy says, defying what he may have been thinking, but sending up necessary encouragement.
“Yeah, man, looking good,” T-Drizz adds.
P-Real climbs five feet higher and is near the lip of the roof of the church, just below the cross, into the unknown. As he reached up to the top of the church a small chunk of brick falls down to the ground, hitting the rail, and making a “clink” sound. Unfazed and buzzed on adrenaline P-Real keeps searching for a handhold, the sound of his breathing just slightly increased. His tennis shoes standing firmly on a brick. His left hand on a brick, and his right hand searching for a hold to grab onto to climb up onto the top of the church.
A minute later he is still in the same spot now his left hand is feeling to top of the church for a hold. Another small chunk of brick, quarter sized falls down, this time landing on the grass. This prompts Lucy to speak her first words since P-Real left the ground, with a tone of a mother that has warned her disobeying children one time too many, “P-Real Sleeps you get down from there right now!”
A cold silence followed her words, and immediately P-Real started his retreat, gently climbing down the bricks, forty feet back to the ground.
The cipher made it through the summer without suffering any injuries. However, the more I talked about buildering with friends the more frequently I heard stories where people got hurt. Ironically these were usually top-notch climbers, who had spent countless days taking big risks on big walls and boulders; and these were their most severe injuries. Another trait that all these builderers shared was that they were men, without girlfriends.
But, just as the known dangers of STDs don’t stop random drunken hookups, people will still continue to builder, facing the many risks.
Buildering is very risky, but it is also an expression, a manifestation of energies. Something wild stirred up and buzzed, not ready for the night to end. Determined to live more. To transform. To builder.