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Colorado climbers who summit buildings instead of mountains

Urban climbing, called buildering, has a rich history, especially on college campuses, dating back to the mid-1900s
Colorado College student Noah Kane uses the crack climbing technique with a building on campus Sept. 15 in Colorado Springs. Buildering is a term used for climbing on building structures rather than on natural elements, such as rocks and mountains. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

In the spring of 2018, a University of Colorado graduate decided to climb up the north face of the Macky Auditorium, a building he had worked in for over a year. Drew Herder would leave work at 2 or 3 a.m. and gaze longingly at the face, hoping one day to climb the stacked redstone facade overlooking Boulder.

After months of scoping, Herder discovered what he considered a relatively easy route up through a boulder problem – a short series of climbing moves – to a link-up of ladders leading to the roof.

Things were going smoothly the night Herder scaled Macky. Just past the halfway mark he noticed he was in the center of a literal and figurative spotlight. A crew of university police officers were at the base of the building, commanding him to come down. Any other night, their escapade might have gone undetected, but there was a performance of “Sweeney Todd” going on inside.

At that point, Herder thought it would be easier for him and his belayer to finish the climb and wait for police at the top of the historic building. Authorities escorted Herder and his friend down through the rafters unseen by performers and attendees, but able to view the show from a unique angle before facing trespassing charges.

This type of urban climbing, called buildering, is an illicit activity with a rich history in Colorado, especially on college campuses, dating back to the mid-1900s. Many of the state’s climbing guides and professional athletes have stories to tell of how late-night ascents on their campuses, or of climbs up buildings and public art in downtown Boulder and Denver, were a formative aspect of their passion or careers.

Tyler Rizzuto climbs the 85-foot Articulated Wall in Denver. The artwork in Broadway Park was Herbert Bayer’s final project before his death in 1985. (Will McKay/Special to The Colorado Sun)

For some, the sandstone blocks and slippery limestone edifices were their first taste of indulging the primate’s desire to climb. But buildering is not just about college kids scrambling over their classroom buildings and dining halls, or for the simple thrill of scaling one’s freshman dorm.

Urban climbing exists wherever there are buildings to tempt a climber. Timmy O’Neill, a professional climber with first ascents in South America’s Patagonia and a speed ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite, has climbed a vast swath of buildings in the Denver area – earning the title “Urban Ape” in the description of a 2003 film he starred in called “Front Range Freaks.”

O’Neill points out the inherent human desire, or even need, to climb. “That’s why every little baby is called a climber,” he said. But he views urban climbing as a much different activity from rock climbing, indoors or outdoors.

“They’re so different. One is sanctioned, certified, you know, there’s a payment required to do it.

“You have to sign a waiver. The other one is the absence of all of that, right?” he said. “A climbing gym isn’t going to solve somebody wanting to have an experience that’s totally outside of convention.”

This attitude, predating climbing gyms, continues to flourish even as training facilities for climbers have become commonplace, especially in climber hubs like Boulder which has at least five gyms within biking distance of CU. Having access to climbing gyms didn’t stop Herder and his ilk from wanting a taste of something more avant-garde during their student years and beyond.

Fresh from probation after his Macky ascent, Herder climbed a perfect, parallel crack in the stone of the Boulder County Justice Center. The route would be dubbed “Justice Served.”

Fellow CU graduate Josh Weinstein documented the moment on film – one of many shots to go into a short film the two made for ROAM Media on buildering.

Footage used in “Real Rock: An Urban Climbing Experience,” was primarily gathered post-graduation and follows Weinstein and Herder pushing the limits of their buildering skills to objectives such as “Articulated Wall” – the 85-foot Herbert Bayer sculpture that looks like a stack of bright yellow french fries towering over Interstate 25 south of downtown Denver – or traveling to Tucson to put up urban routes in the city and on the University of Arizona campus. The routes they posted were later deleted by a local admin of Mountain Project, a website dedicated to offering information on climbing routes across the world.

Will Gadd, a professional alpinist and guide, spent his years at Colorado College in the 1990s scaling buildings on the campus and said that attitude of seeking something outside of the acceptable might be precisely why buildering flourishes in those locations.

Buildering, Gadd said, is “a little bit punk,” in line with the rebellious nature of youths.

The soft sandstone used to construct buildings at CC and on university campuses all over Colorado was perfect for developing good skills, he said, and the rock type remains among his favorites to climb today. Well, that and buildings.

“I never walk by a building today without wondering if I can climb it,” Gadd said.

Gadd is not alone in using the sandstone to train in the last decades of the 2000s. Long before Herder’s ill-fated quest up the auditorium, CU was a stomping ground for builderers.

So many people ascended buildings on the Boulder campus that the administration actually “designated” or rather decriminalized buildering on the Engineering Center, said Greg Johnson, a 1990 CU graduate who is now an associate professor and chair of the university’s religious studies department.

“They would (still) chase you away and whatnot,” he said. But even the off-limits buildings, which are everything but the Engineering Center, were often scaled. “Some lines were just too good to ignore.”

Of course, the CU official school policies prohibit the activity and the CU Police Department’s position is that attempting to scale or climb buildings is dangerous. “Please don’t attempt it,” spokeswoman Christine Mahoney said.

Buildering was a bigger deal back when Johnson was an undergrad. Indoor climbing gyms had not yet entered the scene, making the readily accessible campus buildings the best option for training, with the added bonus of shelter during rain, said Johnson, who went on to builder at the University of Chicago campus while attending graduate school.

“Climber has got to climb, and if the building is right there, gotta climb it,” he said.

The Engineering Center at the University of Colorado. (University of Colorado photo)

And it is not just CC and CU where buildering has taken off – it can be found on college campuses all over Colorado.

There are four routes listed on a Mountain Project climbing page for Fort Lewis College in Durango; six on the Western State Colorado University, “good for late night fun”; 38 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins; 13 at the University of Denver; and surely more hidden under nicknames and pseudonyms.

‘We just started romping up buildings’

Colorado College alumnus Soren Kodak said he grew up climbing buildings before ever getting into the sport of climbing itself. The habit began during a parkour phase. Within Kodak’s first month of college, he’d tracked down the Mountain Project page as he was trying to get into rock climbing and wanted to find routes close to campus. They were much closer than he imagined.

But Kodak was sneakier with his buildering than others – as a student on scholarship and a residential adviser, he knew the consequences of getting caught were high. Just not high enough to stop him.

“The Fireside Traverse” in Mathias Hall, first ascent by Kodak, became a regular of his when he worked desk duty in the dorm since, for the most part, he was the highest authority in the building during those times. Otherwise, this route may have been near impossible for its placement directly in the middle of the lobby. The route, Kodak said, “isn’t worth climbing” but was funny to put up because it was very “mischievous.”

Even people who had plenty of experience climbing before attending college find themselves drawn to the unauthorized activity. Grant Perdue got his start in buildering while attending CU but had been climbing since the start of high school in Tennessee.

Wanting to spend “a lifetime” climbing was a big factor in Perdue’s decision to come out West. He graduated from CU in 2021 and now works as an ambassador for the Swiss outdoor gear maker Mammut and guide for Mountain Trip in Telluride.

“All of these guys were kind of rumbling about this thing called buildering: the urban climbing experience,” Perdue said. “So we all kind of started doing it around CU’s campus in between classes and that sort of stuff. You kind of have your climbing shoes, and your backpack and a chalk bag and we just started romping up buildings.”

When asked about “the point” of buildering when there’s a plethora of gyms and even real rock nearby the Boulder campus, he said, “It’s one of those funny things, you know. It’s similar to climbing. There’s really no point to it other than having a passion and bringing you joy. ... It is its own beautiful thing that can be a lot of fun.”

Some buildings are just begging to be climbed

Though it is an entirely different beast than gym or rock climbing, buildering continues the tradition of the climbing community not taking itself too seriously, particularly in the naming of routes. Buildering on college campuses is even able to take the tongue-in-cheek humor further by playing up the dubious legality of the activity in the beta, which is climber lingo for useful hints or relevant information.

For instance, the Colorado College “area” page on Mountain Project cites access issues as “questionable legality.” The description section pokes fun at the college’s culture, “navigate carefully through the hippies and day drinkers to find these lines.” And in lieu of physical directions, the writers of the page advise getting good grades in high school.

The actual descriptions of the routes range from beta one might find on any route and potential physical safety concerns, like a long fall, to the threat of RAs on duty if one is attempting “The Fireside Traverse” inside one of the dorms.

For protection, some routes recommend a bouldering pad or other safety equipment to prevent long falls, like cams or nuts on the serious side to “consult Weber liquor (Weber Street Liquor near campus) for conditions and a proper CC rack (the selection of gear needed to safely complete a climb)” and “if you get scared, you can ask your mom to come.”

The protection and advice sections, however, are a little vague when it comes to avoiding getting caught – besides going at night. But even the cover of the night didn’t help Colorado College sophomore Liam Dietrich when he climbed a dorm last Halloween.

Dietrich said he might have gotten away with it had the campus not been crawling with safety officers. He also made the error of immediately swiping into his dorm after being caught on camera and was confronted by safety officers waiting for him to make just that mistake. His climbing partner that night was also caught. Dietrich described the punishments they received as creative, including writing a three-page essay on peer pressure and making a short film interviewing a campus safety officer.

Colorado College student Noah Kane was scolded by a residential life coordinator while being photographed for this story climbing barely 10 feet off the ground. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

This wasn’t particularly dissuading for Dietrich who said he will focus urban climbing efforts off campus now, though he does plan to buildering on campus right before or after graduation. He has also recently purchased a grappling hook to aid in his endeavors.

Getting away with buildering on campus seems to largely be an issue of luck. CC senior and “climbing influencer” Noah Kane spent an entire night not only buildering at CC but also filming the climbs and later posting the evidence to the internet, thus far without consequence. “All the power to them,” Dietrich said of those who have not gotten caught.

Kane said he learned about the legacy of buildering almost as soon as he arrived on campus from his home in Vermont, but wasn’t particularly tempted until encountering a crack on the side of his sophomore dorm that “begged” to be climbed.

Then in May, Kane and a few friends set out to climb as many routes as possible on campus, recording footage to later be condensed into a TikTok captioned “Rampage.” Even though Kane and company were fully aware of the Mountain Project, and a rumor that all CC buildering must be done naked, they decided to ignore any instructions or advice from the webpage and simply climb what called to them.

Kane was not particularly worried about his video reaching hundreds of thousands of people – his follower count was over 400,000 at the time of posting with some videos receiving millions of views.

“I highly doubt that anyone on the internet will go and call the college after watching that video,” he said.

Kane was, however, scolded by a residential life coordinator while being photographed for this story climbing barely 10 feet off the ground.

“People just see it and they’re like, ‘This is something not normal’ and don’t know how to react,” Herder said.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.