Editor’s note: In the very first line of “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas,” author Rebecca Solnit writes: “Every place deserves an atlas, an atlas is at least as implicit in every place, and to say that is to ask first of all what a place is.” That “Infinite City” (University of California Press: 2010) happens to be about San Francisco stems mostly from the fact that Solnit herself is a San Francisco native and resident.
According to the book’s acknowledgement section, the project began when Solnit, author of, among many others, of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” and “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” was asked by the public relations curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to propose a project for the museum’s 75th anniversary. She proposed an atlas.
But not just any atlas: One of the best and most-original atlases conceived and produced in the last century. (And please understand that statement comes from a fairly serious atlas-o-phile/collector.) Better, even: an atlas concept that, true to her opening sentence (as well as true to Solnit’s peculiar way of looking at the world), can be translated to almost any city on earth.
Verily, ever since “Infinite City,” hit the streets, Solnit has been visiting other cities — such as Tucson, New Orleans and Dublin, Ireland — helping resident artists, writers, historians and cartographers conceive and execute their own local versions of “Infinite City.”
One of those cities was, of all places, Laramie. When Solnit took a month-long gig as an eminent writer-in-residence at University of Wyoming in February 2011, her plan was to see if her “Infinite City” model would work in a smaller town in the heartland. Long story short, the end result of the experiment was “Laramie: A Gem City Atlas,” which, while it has not taken mass-circulation book form, was turned into a display at the University of Wyoming Art Museum. It has also been displayed at the California Institute of Integral Studies and will be at the Seed Gallery, Thoreau Center for Sustainability, at the Presidio in San Francisco through June 8.
The “Gem City Atlas,” like “Infinite City” before it, contains a wide array of stunningly original maps and accompanying essays. Included in the Laramie atlas are maps covering everything from “Ghosts and Cottonwoods” to “Saloons and Salons” to, for our purposes here, “Quarries and Climbing,” reproduced above.
The following story, with its included artwork, stems from Solnit’s efforts/influence in Laramie. Author Paula Wright, a creative writing student at UW, took Solnit’s seminar and opted to combine her love of climbing with her love of local history. The result was “A Climber’s Guide to the University of Wyoming,” a story that is much more than the sum of its parts.
Please go to www.terrain.org/articles/29/kelley.htm for more information on the “Gem City Atlas” project.
Warning: climbing is a dangerous sport in which death or serious injury may occur. This guide is intended for archival purposes only. The University of Wyoming prohibits climbing on campus buildings and has not endorsed the distribution of this information.
Natural rocks, unnatural places
In local climbing lore, legend persists of the Vedauwoo hermit, who resided among the lichen-speckled granite domes for several summers in the late-1940s or early-1950s. The hermit likely made first ascents of many faces and cracks in the rocks without documenting the dates, difficulty or names of his new routes. In summertime, the air of Vedauwoo is dry, warm and fragrant with sage and juniper. Scrambling around the mounds of rust-colored boulders, the Vedauwoo hermit would have encountered the same water-carved pools teeming with algae and swimming insects that I’ve seen, or climbed through the narrow, dark alleys I have.
Documented climbing in the Laramie area began with members of the 10th Mountain Division’s return from World War II to the University of Wyoming. At Vedauwoo and in the Snowy Range, climbing continued to evolve, as the University Outing Club explored and made the first recorded ascents, as opposed to those unrecorded by the Vedauwoo hermit, of the regional rock faces. Students in the club also opened up the University of Wyoming campus to climbing when they noticed the features of the buildings’ sandstone façades.
Viewing campus with an eye for climbing may turn buildings into vertical structures without an internal use — the summits of the Classroom Building and Half Acre become mountaintops, the Physical Sciences Building and the Union become cliffs. One would assume that building climbing, or buildering, would feel sterile, artificial, as opposed to the “freedom of the hills” offered by mountains and granite domes. But, as I imagine traversing my way across the walls of the Classroom Building, hand over hand, I think of the life held inside this new rock. I picture the students roaming the halls inside as I climb past, I think of traversing above the room where I taught my first class of Freshman Composition, and the nervous energy that perhaps another teacher is emitting now. I imagine ascending the walls that enclose the Classroom Building’s coffee shop, where, although someone may be whipping up a delicious cinnamon-honey latte, the café always smells of cheap hamburgers and fried onions.
The chiseled sandstone features lining campus buildings have been drawing students out of the dorms and lecture halls for decades, whether during warm spells of the spring semester, or in the early days of Laramie’s short-lived fall. An early University of Wyoming architect noted that the campus is one in which “broken perpendicular lines predominate, and the whole gives an impression of mass, suggestive of the natural rock and cliff formations of the area.” As the first cluster of deciduous trees was planted in the plains surrounding campus around its inception in 1886, so too were these new, artificial cliffs in the form of Old Main and the Sciences Building erected. Nature was quarried, tamed and re-imagined as the University campus. Most of the stone now seen covering the campus buildings came from a quarry located about ten miles northeast of town. The sandstone is a dusky, tan and rose — a few shades lighter than the rough crystals of Sherman granite that make up Vedauwoo’s domes 20 miles east of town.
West of Laramie, in the Medicine Bow Mountains, the University architects’ intent for campus to reflect the natural features surrounding it has not been overlooked. Wyoming climbing legend and Snowy Range guidebook author Ray Jacquot informs me that many of the formations of the Snowies were named by Walt Sticker between 1948 and 1954 or thereabouts. In the mountains, the quartzite slabs of the “Old Main” formation rest above Mirror Lake. The “University Avenue Traverse,” according to Jacquot’s guidebook, is a fourth-class climb that follows a “brown diabase rock rib which horizontally splits the face from Old Main to First Street.”
Degrees of difficulty and desire
In the route descriptions of this guidebook, I attempt to provide a sketch of each climb’s character and difficulty of ascent. Since I have not attempted all the climbs myself, I consulted with fellow area climbers in order to determine the route grades using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). This system is common throughout climbing ratings in the United States and signifies ascent difficulty from class 1 (hiking along a trail) to class 5 (technical climbing). Once in class-5 territory, the grade further breaks down into levels from 5.0 to 5.15 (and counting); a grade of 5.0-5.7 is typically considered easy, 5.8-5.11 intermediate and over 5.12 advanced.
For some, a vast majority of climbing’s appeal comes from the climber’s knowledge of the grading system and of completing routes at higher levels. My climbing partner Brian described it well when he linked the drive to climb to the desire to “defeat the former self” — to know that your technique, strength and mentality have improved from season to season. While some may fashion climbing as a competition with nature, others see it as a competition that comes from within.
This desire for difficulty may seem like an arbitrary goal in which one solely aspires to improve along a numbered system; even so, some climbers have spent years trying to take their sport to the next level. A 2010 Sender Films production featuring two young boulderers trying to take their sport “to the next level” shows them rehearsing the same crux moves — involving sometimes no more than six feet of rock face — for over a year. Their reason for doing so becomes a mantra throughout the film — “to add something to climbing,” as one would “add to” the fields of physics, geology or other disciplines built up through an accumulation of knowledge and practice over time.
Perhaps another reason why climbers delight in their sport has something to do with humans’ common ancestry to chimpanzees. Animal biologists have documented these apes in the wild climbing trees, not to feed or nest, but for fun. Knowing myself the sheer joy of climbing — of moving vertically over obstacles, sometimes with my heel hooking around an arête while I swing myself up the rock, or by using my knee as a stopper in a crack so I can rest, hands-free, 100 feet off the ground — I take comfort in knowing that another species shares in this pleasure.
Select Climbing Routes at the University of Wyoming
1. Half Acre Traverse: Start in southeast facing corner and traverse around to the lamppost nearest the entryway; 5.9, 1 pitch, 50 feet.
Climbing on campus most likely started with the Half Acre traverse: a fairly low-commitment route in which the climber moves horizontally across the wall just a few feet above ground. A sloped sandstone ledge used to wrap its way around the entire building, and above and below the ledge, the building walls were all made of cut sandstone. Renovations to Half Acre Gymnasium have eliminated portions of the original traverse route, thus modifying the character and difficulty of the climb over the past fifty years.
While the desire to scale heights of constructed brick and mortar, sandstone and concrete may seem like an odd pursuit, it came quite naturally to the early campus climbers. When I interviewed Ray Jacquot, one of these early building climbers, he said, at the time, the decision to climb on campus structures was not at all strange — just the result of “a bunch of kids with spare time on their hands.” Jacquot told of how, back in the late-1950s, climbers would find themselves having dinner at the Knight Hall cafeteria and, on the way to the library for the evening, they would stop by to do a few laps of the Half Acre Traverse. When I ask where the idea to climb the buildings came from, Jacquot responds, “I think it was just something we made up.”
Jacquot reveals that, around campus, “anywhere there [was] natural rock … was attractive” for climbers. The locally quarried stones that were used to construct campus buildings (until the early-1990s) contain features one could expect to encounter while climbing anywhere in the natural world. The rose-colored sandstone bricks were cut, when the quarry was still active, just up the road on north 9th Street, in the building that currently houses Heather Plumbing and Heating. The stones were saw-cut on five sides, but the exposed face of the stone had to be chiseled to give the completed façade an evenly cragged look.
The Half Acre Traverse is also where the accomplished climber and area developer Davin Bagdonas got his start climbing. While he was a student at the UW Lab School, the gym teacher encouraged students to get out and try buildering on the face of Half Acre just across from the main entrance doors. This recess pastime continued until Davin and his friend were featured in a photo in the Laramie Daily Boomerang, the local newspaper, with the caption “Local kids climb Half Acre up to window of women’s aerobics class.” Though the caption was a joke, it incited the wrath of the then-principal, and Lab School students were no longer encouraged, yet alone allowed, to climb campus buildings. The photographer was probably not aware of it at the time, but capturing this small moment played a role in the tradition of buildering’s demise.
2. The Paint Shop Chimney: (since removed). Begin with a hoist from your belayer up to the roof, and from there aid-climb 30 feet to top of chimney. Descend via rappel with your belayer holding the other end of the rope on the ground on chimney’s opposite side; 1 pitch, 5.6, A1, 40 feet.
The Paint Shop Chimney has since been replaced by White Hall, the farthest-west of the campus dorms. The chimney was adjacent to Talbott Hall, which went up in 1890. Talbott closed for student use in 1958, and soon after the space was taken over by the university painters. The brick-and-mortar chimney rose out of the old Talbott kitchen, connected by a thin hallway to the old dorm hall. On the ascent, climbers pounded pitons (metal spikes driven perpendicularly into rock faces with a hammer) in the chimney’s rotting cracks. Usually attempting climbs only under cover of darkness, early campus climbers rarely ran into trouble with law enforcement. However, as the process of pounding creates a high-pitched sound, those climbers did not escape the neighbors’ notice. While night climbing, Jacquot recounts, he was once visited by a campus cop who arrived on the scene, car lights beaming, to make a surprisingly simple request. “Could you guys quiet down a bit?” the cop asked, “We’ve had some complaints about your noise.”
The Paint Shop Chimney was razed to the ground shortly after (though not because of the climbers’ night-time escapades). The story of this climb’s first ascent and demise reminds me of the transience that is unique to buildering. The orderly bricks where men once stood to view the glittering lights of the Gem City at night suddenly became a chaos’d pile on the ground. True, rock slabs also slip and crumble off mountainsides in nature, and I’ve seen places where the ice that had once held against the cliffs melted, after spring thaw, and caused a rock face to shear and spill to the ground. The shedding of the rock slab, however, unearths a new face of rock — a little lighter, cleaner and less-weathered in appearance than its surroundings. None such markers exist to show where Talbott Hall once stood, and the histories of those who once gathered there to commune or climb slip away without walls to hold them in.
3. Union Traverse: Begin on the southeast-facing corner of the Student Union, above the water-spigot. Proceed left, turn the corner, and finish at the intersection of the sandstone and brick wall; one pitch, 40 feet, 5.12 (low route), 5.11 (upper route).
As climbing across the world slowly changed to favor “pure climbing” — or climbing natural rock without the help of aiding devices — so too did the character of the climbs at the University. Climbers were no longer found dangling from the ends of ropes on slick brick walls, their shoes smearing black rubber smiles on the buildings’ faces. Instead, climbers focused on the process of purely climbing, unhindered by the placement of gear, and without harnesses wrapped around their legs and waists. Bouldering is perhaps the form of climbing that is most unhindered and so, naturally, bouldering easily lent its style to the art of buildering.
Local climber Davin views climbing as a process — “not an outcome” — that structures a climber’s life. Some put climbing in the same category as drugs, in terms of addiction; they believe climbing develops brain chemistry similar to those on drugs or in a trance-like state. Having only been on the rock for three years, I have not been able to channel the spirit of monks on the wall; too often, my mind lingers in between moves on what might happen if I were to fall. But for experienced climbers like Davin, climbing has become “a process of meditation … and an entire lifestyle.”
4. Half Acre Aid Route: Exiting the Outdoor Program office, turn left and walk 20 feet to an in-cut wall facing the Student Union. A line of old expansion bolts winds its way from the left to the right side of the wall, just above the first roof. A second route begins in the corner and goes to the top. Rappel from fixed anchors; one pitch, A2, 30 feet.
Before the sport-changing invention of spring-loaded camming devices, much roped-up climbing was done with the use of smaller gear that took patience and skill to fit into the rock, thereby slowing down the process of climbing considerably. Then, as climbers like Lynn Hill made history by free-climbing (using only one’s body to progress up the wall) the Nose of El Capitan in under 24 hours, aid climbing (using gear to assist in climbing the wall) seemed to be on its way out. Aiding is still required for many big-wall ascents, in which the climbing party might find itself suspended from a portable ledge on the side of a 3,000-foot wall for several nights in a row. Perhaps due to the cost of aid gear and the damage that placing gear does to the wall, this form of climbing has not survived on campus. Another factor may indeed be the existence of a structure built exclusively for climbing inside the gym, a mere sixty feet away.
Still, a tribute to the pioneers of rock climbing and mountaineering remains on an outdoor sidewall of Half Acre Gymnasium. Sometime around 1970, a climber placed the old expansion bolts in the building’s side. Curving their way up the wall, the bolts are about eight feet apart in the sickly, creamed-yellow painted bricks. Aid climbing on campus saw its heyday from 1969-1971. Inside Half Acre, during the severe winter weather, climbers could also be found pounding aid gear into the walls of the old infield (now armory) on the gym’s east side. Once the climbers reached the ceiling, they would tie slings around the girders and continue climbing the roof, 40 feet off the ground. An adventurous climber might still find some old hardware on these long-forgotten routes, with the names of their owners etched into the smooth face of the abandoned metal gear.
5. The Trench: (Building renovations to Washakie Dining Hall have made the Trench unclimbable in its original fashion. However, the traverse on the opposite wall of the entry way still exists). Horizontal traverse; 5.11, 50 feet.
Once the prime buildering site at UW, The Trench no longer exists in its original form. A new entryway to the dining hall and glossy windows (terrible for smearing, even with sticky Stealthâ Rubber soles) has gutted the former sandstone face once awash in crimpy, crystally holds. The Trench offered a long, uninterrupted training wall where climbers could increase their strength and endurance. It had the added bonus of being virtually hidden from view. As we sit down for a beer at The Library, local climber Jay Jurkowitsch recalls studying in the dorms early one afternoon in 1976, and looking out his window to see Todd Skinner doing laps on the traverse below. At the time, there were no indoor climbing gyms within a 1,000-mile radius of Laramie.
One cannot mention Laramie, Wyoming, and climbing history without also talking about Todd Skinner and Paul Piana. The Trench is where the famous climbing duo met. The pair were pioneers of free climbing on big walls around the world. Skinner, who died in a climbing accident in 2006, is often referred to as “the most diversely accomplished climber of his generation.” Having grown up around Pinedale, Wyoming, Skinner made history with his (and Piana’s) ascents in Yosemite, Mt. Hooker, the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada and elsewhere in Pakistan, Vietnam, and Venezuela. One of Skinner’s many feats also includes climbing Devil’s Tower in 18 minutes — the 500-foot trip to the summit usually takes climbing parties four hours.
6. Physical Sciences Finger Crack: Located on the southeast corner of the building. Start in the crack and finger-lock your way up, turn the roof, and descend via a leap from the top, with plenty of encouragement from your spotters; 5.12, 12 feet.
This thin, beautiful line was developed after someone picked out the rubber from the expansion joints in the concrete late at night. As Davin describes, the point of all this is often “just to climb a rock for the sake of climbing a rock” — not to summit — but just for the sheer feeling and rhythm that comes from moving your body vertically over a face of stone. The small, open crack of the Physical Sciences Building is of the type that draws climbers by the thousands to places like Indian Creek, Utah, where cracks in the walls perfectly split the burnt-auburn and sienna-colored rock face without changing in width, whether the cracks are finger or fist size.
The Physical Sciences Finger Crack is also the area test-piece for crack climbers; if your fingers are still slender enough to fit inside, you probably have not been climbing long. For experienced climbers, like Davin, the crack is barely wide enough for one weathered, climber’s fingertip. My hands are tree-like, long and slender, and so my fingers slip in between the cold concrete slabs beautifully. With my index and middle fingers in the crack, thumb pointed down, I rotate my shoulder ninety degrees and feel the weight of my body settle in on the knuckle and first joint of my index finger. Smearing my feet on the wall corners, I lift myself off the ground and slip the fingers of my other hand into the cold, concrete crack. With most of myself resting on the few inches of surface area on my fingers, I feel exhilarated, though barely a foot off the ground.
7. The Classroom Building: Start at the east-facing doors and traverse 360 degrees around the building; or, start in a shallow fist crack to the right of the skateboard rack and climb 15 feet to the first roof, walk five feet and climb a hand-fist size crack to the top. Descend via downclimbing; 5.9-5.11, 40 feet.
Though buildering on campus was permitted when the activity began in the 1950s, by 1970, it had become the bane of many a campus security guard. Climbing in tight, sticky-soled shoes has a clear advantage for the climber, but wearing them was a good way to insure getting caught by campus security while hobbling away, toes mashed and pinched together. Todd Skinner helped many a climber, such as Jurkowitsch, avoid disciplinary action by advising them to boulder in sneakers, not climbing shoes, so that they could run away. Skinner also advised the college-aged crowd to not carry any form of identification while climbing, to give fake names to campus security if questioned and, at times, to climb as another persona entirely, perhaps even wearing Halloween masks of the former presidents. (Jurkowitsch recalls that Skinner and Piana were fond of Washington and Jefferson, respectively; Jurkowitsch himself went as Warren G. Harding, but confesses that he never needed a mask.) In the 1990s, however, young climbers discovered that bringing their bicycles to the buildering site provided quicker getaways. On bikes, climbers could ride off to places where police cars couldn’t easily follow.
8. Geology Building Traverse: Begin on the northwest corner of the new wing of the Geology Building, and traverse up and right; 5.11, 60 feet.
The Geology Building Traverse was the first traverse on campus to gain in elevation from start to finish, and is also one of the few routes whose first ascent is known (Davin Bagdonas, circa 1995). Yet, with the building’s remodel and addition (the new wing officially now the Earth Sciences Building) also came the advent of artificial rock on campus in the form of machine-made sandstone. Since 1995, most new building faces are made of the same artificial sandstone: a composite of sand and glue pressed together.
After Davin informs me of the University’s use of artificial sandstone, I begin to notice a difference between the dusky-rose, earth-toned hues of the natural rock and the pallid shades of the artificial sandstone. The glued-together stone, as it appears on the Health Sciences Building and newer renovations around campus (including the library and College of Business), appears quite uniform in color from brick to brick — too perfectly even to occur naturally. When I press my palm to the wall, the rock feels coarse and crumbly, as though it might simply erode with the weight of my fingers. It is a reminder that, as the student body population grows and walls are torn down to make way for new labs, classrooms or offices, these walls too may disappear with time.
As Talbott Hall and the Paint Shop Chimney vanished from campus fifty years ago, so too will the trace of climbers’ fingertips, toes and bodies moving across the stone. It is not that I am concerned with losing the simple history of who climbed what small span of rock first or in the most perfect style. Rather, I think that even building climbing plays a part in the story of our desire to interact with the landscape, no matter how tame or wild.
Epilogue: Why I Climb
On a wintry Laramie afternoon, I find myself once again at the Half Acre climbing wall, traversing back and forth over candy-colored plastic holds. As I climb to the bouldering boundary line, a thick brown strip painted 12 feet high, I let my mind wander out the gym, west past Elk Mountain, the Red Desert and through the Wind River Indian Reservation. Suddenly, I’m driving along the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway above Cody, Wyoming, in June of last year. In between hairpin-turns on the road, I identify the Madison formation (a limestone whose tell is a pattern like Charlie Brown’s shirt: a thick, dark zigzag crossing a pale, yellowish-tan) and the Chugwater (a gorgeous, rust-red shale and siltstone that looks and feels like velvet). Trying to concentrate on the switchbacks in the road, I avoid thinking about Bighorn dolomite, the rock that makes up a majority of the climbing areas in Ten Sleep Canyon, my destination. Now, hours later, I’m coming up on the town of Ten Sleep, about to make the ascent into the canyon. I feel the adrenaline slowly slip into my veins as I imagine climbing up the vertical faces of rock, gripping the wall’s smooth pockets, pinching my fingers down on its finely-grooved ledges. Vanishing from my belayer’s view as I climb over a ridge, I look back to see the canyon spread below — rock buttresses protruding like ship prows over a sea of green pines and sage.
Paula Wright is a poet and climber with a MA and MFA from the University of Wyoming, and the author of “The Gathering,” forthcoming from Binge Press. She has never been arrested for climbing.