Real Rock: An Urban Climbing Experience

Behind the making of ROAM Presents Real Rock: An Urban Climbing Experience

By Gaby Pilson

Gaby is an experienced outdoor educator and freelance writer with a demonstrated history of working in the outdoor industry

What if your next rock climbing trip wasn’t to Indian Creek but to London, New York, or Paris? Instead of bouldering on your next day off, could you go buildering?

For most of us, the dirty streets and skyscrapers of a city aren’t what we think of when we picture an epic day of climbing. Rather, images of high alpine peaks and perfectly featured granite fill our heads as we plan our next adventure.

Understandably, it can be hard to imagine that a city could be the perfect place for a climbing trip, but what if we could change our mindset and see the concrete buildings of the urban landscape as the ultimate climber’s playground?

In their new film, Real Rock: An Urban Climbing Experience, Drew Herder and Josh Weinstein remind us that with a little bit of creativity and a whole lot of stoke, anything is possible – especially when it comes to climbing in the city. We sat down with the filmmakers to learn more about the film, what inspired it, and how they got into buildering – the act of climbing buildings – in the first place.

On what buildering means to them:

Drew Herder: I guess it kind of expresses both of our personalities because we’re both pretty “out there” people. As far as our climbing goes, that’s how we met – trad climbing and doing semi-dangerous things. We’re pretty rambunctious people, so it kind of just makes sense. I don’t think people think twice when we’re like “Oh, I’m just going to go climb that building.” People probably think we’re joking about everything but they also think we’re half serious and they never actually know where the line is between serious and if it’s just a joke.

Josh Weinstein: I think for both of us, [buildering] was an opportunity to take something we both enjoy that has an element of quirkiness to it and make it more meaningful for us. Climbing has just become so mainstream that buildering was a fun way for us to get away from the mainstream attitude and make climbing our own.

On buildering as a way to bring climbing back to its roots:

DH: I feel like climbing, I don’t know how many years ago – a couple of decades ago, was pretty fringe and people looked at it the same way that we’re doing with buildering now. Climbing is just so mainstream that it almost takes the fun and the fringe and the danger out of it these days. So, I guess buildering is kind of our way of putting how climbing used to be back into it.

JW: I suppose [buildering is] also making [climbing] more mainstream in a sense of anyone can be on the fringe. We both live in Boulder, but you don’t need to have access to the Flatirons to be out doing cool things or the pushing limits of yourself or society. Buildering takes something perfect like a right angle building but allows you to create your own work of art on it in a way.

On the perfect buildering line:

DH: I’m a sucker for a good hand crack… like the one we climbed in Tuscon that’s called the “Supercrack of Tuscon.” That’s one of my favorite because other cracks we climb tend to be bricks and mortar which chips off a bit and hurts your hand. Concrete, on the other hand, is so smooth, it’s almost like climbing granite. It’s pretty awesome.

JW: I’d say there are a lot of different elements that go into making a good line. For example, where is the building, what sort of climbing is it – is it climbing little edges or climbing a crack, how public is it, how close to a police station is it? I think one of my favorite lines is probably the Humanities Tower on CU Boulder’s campus, just because it kind of pulls in all of those elements. It’s very heady because you’ve sort of got to get on and get off because it’s pretty public, so you get that element of time constraint and excitement but you still have to be executing everything perfectly because you’re just climbing these little edges.

DH: There’s definitely something about knowing you have to do it quickly and get out of there fast but you don’t know exactly what the climbing is going to be like, so it’s kind of a mystery. You don’t know what’s up there and what’s going to happen or if you’ll be able to pull it off.

On the risks and benefits of highball buildering:

DH: I think [managing risk while buildering] just comes from climbing a lot in your life and looking at something but being able to tell if it’s within your limits or not. Basically, every line we’re climbing, you’re thinking, “Can I reverse those moves? Can I down climb this whole thing?” I’d say probably about 95% of the lines we’ve done, we’ve actually climbed back down them.

JW: There was actually one building that I went up to get onto this balcony and I got up there and I was going to throw my hand onto this ledge, but I decided to climb past it before I did so and then step on the ledge instead. There was this wire running along the ledge and it turns out it was electric wiring and it was hooked up to something, so it definitely could’ve electrocuted me. So there’s this issue with the fact that there’s almost always no way to preview a line, so you just have to go for it. That requires constant vigilance from the ground up.

On their craziest buildering experience:

JW: I think for me, it was the first time I climbed the Humanities Tower on CU’s campus. It was just a really angsty day, a lot of work to do, and I just stepped out of class and I was like, I’m going to climb this thing. I had actually scoped it out from the inside and saw that there was this door that I could walk down from, so I just started questing up it. I thought it would be best to do it during a passing period because it would be so crowded that the cops wouldn’t be able to maneuver through the crowded walkways to get there and I’d be off by the time they’d get there.

But then I reached the top and there was netting preventing me from getting to the door and by the time I reached the top, there was a crowd of about 300 people at the base all watching and cheering, which I didn’t realize was not good for the mental game, either. Then it dawned on me that I was pretty pumped but that I’d need to downclimb back down it, so I shook out and just kind of headed back into the mass of brick and made it down just in time for a quick escape on my bike. But it was definitely a surreal experience.

DH: I climbed Mackey (CU Boulder’s Auditorium and Concert Hall) once, that’s was an experience. I worked at CU for a little bit and I worked in this dark room, which is in the film building. Every night after work, I would be looking at this line after work because all of this brick lends itself to these little holds. I finally went for it, but I didn’t realize that the building is on top of a hill and you can see it from miles around, so the cops came when I was 3/4 of the way up the wall and it was just heinous. They ended up just watching me and there was a play going on in the building. They ended up shutting down the play and then they found some roof hatch in the building so they could come and get me.

Luckily, I didn’t get arrested or anything, but I did some community service to make up for it. But they were asking how I had access to the building and how I had gotten in and I was like, well I just climbed up the side. I didn’t tell them I had a key card because I didn’t want to lose my job. In hindsight, I probably should have told them that, because I got a trespassing charge on the one building I actually had something to do with,

On the similarities between buildering and rock climbing:

JW: Well I think at the heart of it, buildering is a sport that requires fitness, it requires the mental side of climbing that so many of us are hooked on, so they’re quite similar.

DH: I think buildering is even more so on the mental side of things [than climbing] because you’re planning this whole thing out and you’re thinking about what can happen. It’s not even just about whether or not I’m going to send, or if I’m going to fall. But it’s also about if I’m going to have to downclimb this or if are the cops going to come. I think there are just a lot more variables at play so buildering really lends itself to people with a strong mental state.

JW: I think one of the things buildering shares with the sport of rock climbing is that there’s always that high pedestal around “first ascents” and making a route your own. In reality, it’s actually really hard to do unless you’re climbing really high grades or happen to come upon a hidden valley. In buildering, there are a lot of opportunities to make your own routes, to make your own crag, to make this sport yours and to share that with other people. I think having that ownership really feels good.


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