Bob the Builderer
The discipline of rock climbing known as bouldering involves climbing relatively short boulders allowing the participant to focus on more difficult and technical sets of moves that aren’t as prevalent on rock walls. An odd spin-off of this discipline is “buildering,” which is to say using the urban environment as opposed to rocks.
For this project, inspired by how skateboarders reinterpret features of the urban environment to practice their craft, I went on several walks with the intention of doing the same thing.
Walk 1: boy this feels awkward alone.
On the first walk I began to see potential spots nearby, but an interesting balance must be struck. Too simple and it can’t quite be considered rock climbing, most concrete structures, however, tend to be flat and without variation. A keen eye was needed for varied features that would translate to interesting boulder problems.
The wall above has shallow pattern in the concrete, but the low height and repetitive nature meant that while you could cross the length of it, it wouldn’t make a very interesting route. Decent finger training though.
The image below also shows potential, that gap between the cantilevered block and bridge can act as an ceiling crack. Crack climbing requires a technique known as “jamming.” Instead of holding onto the rock, hands are jammed in a crack and the friction between surface in the crack and hand is what keeps the climber from falling. A crack of this width and on a ceiling was potentially doable, but not by me. The concrete was very smooth compared to granite, the crack an awkward width, and filled with enough dirt and dust to make the problem beyond my current capability.
Walk 2: bring a friend
On my second walk to discover places to play in the city, I made what in hindsight was an obvious decision, and brought a friend. Together we found a variety of spots that had potential for fun problems, such as this building corner at the PNE. The art deco style meant there was a lot of potential for interesting problems and the corner pictured below became a fairly simple V1 route.
We walked under an underpass made of concrete arches with rounded corners with a few centimeters between each gap. The sloping curve and tiny crack made it pretty impossible as a crack climb, however, the arch at the mouth of the underpass had a shelf that could potentially be used to navigate a route up.
The underpass continued and we came across these stylized lock blocks. Definitely climbable, a little uninteresting but worth recording.
Finally we found a REAL LIVE BOULDER. While there was a decent boulder problem on it, it was short and simple. I think for urban climbing to be fully appreciated, a high density of problems is required with enough variation in difficulty and style to keep a variety of skill levels engaged.
Walk 3: Langara
The following evening I explored langara with a friend. The brutalist campus had all kinds of odd concrete features with potential to be climbed. The repeating pattern of troughs throughout the school provided a good basis for challenging moves, it became about finding parts of the building where the shape gave that extra bit of purchase required to make a route. Langara highlights a potential. The same way one would develope a rock face with multiple routes, the repeating pattern allows for similar development on the campus.
Walk 4: Seeing with new eyes.
On a walk back from school, I was staring at the concrete rainbow wall I’d explored on my first walk. With a keener eye of what to look for I realized to the potential for two short but simple routes.
The intention with the project was to investigate how unused urban infrastructure can become an environment for play, so it’s pretty important to only be passing through, and not risk disturbing less restless residents.
Finally, I felt as I’d found what I was looking for. The moves were varied and difficult enough to feel like proper bouldering.
Rockclimbing has it’s routes in counter-culture, the term “dirtbag” is used as a sign of honour in the climbing community to name someone who’s rejected a steady job and material comforts in pursuit of the spirt. But the sport becomes increasingly gentrified. A car and enough free time are required to access most climbs and boulders. Climbs are usually in woods and provincial parks meaning rent is high and the sports popularity is driving prices higher. Every year more people move to Squamish, and in a number of months feel local enough to complain about all the people moving to Squamish.
There’s a reason for the sports exploding popularity and I can’t sum up all of it here. But it gets you outside, it gets you in touch with your body, activating muscles that have long been used only meanially. It connects the participant to their physical body as well as to the land.
This exploratory practice’s aim was to increase the availability of this sport to those that lack the time and resources to access proper climbs. I hope to continue to search for more urban boulders and share them with the community. There are many apps used to map climbs and where to find them and I hope to begin to expand the “builder” section of it.
Climbing lets a rock become more than a rock but a collaborator. Every tiny detail of it is focused on and appreciated as stone and person work together to manoever a body to it’s goal. In pottery, hands move to shape our clay, in climbing, rocks stay still to shape our movement.
Our built world is worthy of this appreciation as well.
…but I might wait until spring before I continue.