Berkeley Building Climbing Forty years Ago


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Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 11, 2006 - 10:33am PT
Building climbing in Berkeley was this kind of secret science. It almost always had to be at night. You were never sure who else was doing it, but you knew there were other worthless characters slithering around too, because their climbing shoes left definite black tracks all over and chalk marks appeared as well. Sometimes some of the decrepit concrete castings would come off also. Building climbing did no harm, we told ourselves, and we stood on tradition thinking that “The Night Climbers of Cambridge” was our justification and bible, even though none of us had a copy, nor had ever read it. But we knew Al Steck and all of his group had, so we kept on going. Nothing stands in the way of belief, obviously. And the awesome vigor of young climbers hopefully on their way up.

And as for lore, there was tons of it. It had been going on since the fifties or earlier. Roper was rumored to have tried to nail the entire Campanile. It had this granite veneer on it, with failure cracks that went up a ways, but certainly not all of the hundreds of feet it stood. Sacherer or Pratt was supposed to have first done the long expansion joint cracks on Memorial Stadium. And of course, Vandiver and I tried to get Royal to come with us, but he could not expose himself to the likely arrest.

We were good though. And really damned bold, gaining important experience in pure counterforce climbing. Wurster Hall had a really slippery S-chimney that was around 5.9 and four stories tall…. Many “chimney-up-the-large-window-and-reach-out-over-the giant-cornice- for-the- perfect-edge” climbs were mid 5.10s and could have been fatal. Edwards Field had all these kooky shallow heel-and-toe chimneys 3” deep and weird liebacks also. And I guess it was Wheeler Hall that had a traverse on it just a few inches off the ground that was so tricky and nearly dynamic, that only a couple of us ever got it. The Life Sciences Buildling had all these different animals cast in the walls, kind of providing what now seem like present-day gym holds of all shapes. I don’t know, perhaps most of this is now lost to oblivion, indoor climbing, and generally more appropriate comportment.

Out of all those weird nights on the loose, we only ran into the University Police once and were merely told to leave. Other tales related harsher situations, though, as part of lore. Most of the time we were unroped, but on the big stuff we would toprope.

I took this interest to UC Santa Cruz in 1966 as a crazed freshman and began tearing things up pretty good there too. Recessed lite fixtures were falling out of the new building soffits, long black marks adorned the huffy Modern Egyptoid Natural Sciences buildings, and I am sure walking all over all those copper roofs was just great for them too. I don’t recall breaking any glass though.

It did not matter that we owned nothing, practically ate nothing, and basically lived nowhere. It mattered what we were doing and all else was kept firmly and completely out of focus. What we found through movement and risk, left us with nothing else on the agenda, it seemed to be the big secret. Gullich later claimed that climbing was just a sport, trying to shut off any metaphysical and spiritual trash-talk, but we knew better. It was nothing short of True Natural Religion. And in kinder moments, we almost pitied the rest of humankind for what we saw as its poverty of spirit. And of course could see all of this when building climbing.
Roger Breedlove

Trad climber
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Aug 11, 2006 - 10:44am PT
Heady days of a new sect of TNR. Nice recollection Peter.
scuffy b

The town that Nature forgot to hate
Aug 11, 2006 - 11:41am PT
That fabulous traverse was on Dwinelle Hall, Peter. It repelled
so many attempts it was pathetic. I'm pretty sure Fred Cook got
it, and I assume Dale as well. Shocking contrast between seeing
you do it and the feeling of attempting it.
Over the years some of my favorites were
Hildebrand hand crack: you could do this one fast enough, in any
shoes, that you didn't even have to lock your bike.
Evans Hall: not the bottomless chimneys (I was not hard enough
for those) but the shallow wide cracks at the western entrances.
One faced left, one right. From the top, enter 2nd floor door.
Sunday Crack: near Hearst Ave, lieback to undercling to lieback,
traverse to chimney descent, though I heard you and Mike Irwin
had toproped it to the roof.
Pratt got caught atop one of the pillars near Hildebrand; told
the cop he couldn't get down; mysteriously disappeared when the
cop went looking for a ladder to save/arrest him.
Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Aug 11, 2006 - 11:56am PT
Yeah, Peter, Those stadiums cracks were great.

Scuffy, that's a great and short Pratt story.

I remember back in the early 1970s getting chased off buildings by campus security.

Stealth climbing... or guerilla climbing may be a more apt name. ;-)


Mountain climber
Lake Forest, CA
Aug 11, 2006 - 12:11pm PT
I don't know about now, but there used to be an annual tradition known as "pumpkineering."

Here's a link I googled up:

Ski club? Um, yeah, that's it. It's the ski club's fault!

Another link that I found:

Truckee, CA
Aug 11, 2006 - 12:18pm PT
Great post Peter!

As a kid I tried to follow Scott and Nat around campus a few times but I was really challenged by some of the purity of force application required. (no little footholds to use) I did gauge my crack climbing progress by doing the Lawerence Hall cracks many times, I was psyched when I could hop off the bus from high school and solo the hard one in my tennis shoes. Then some kind of seismic event or building shift happened and the hard crack got wider and easier. I can smell the eucalyptus and feel the dripping fog when I read your story.

You guys pulled really hard back then. The legacy of Berkeley cranking is a proud one.

scuffy b

The town that Nature forgot to hate
Aug 11, 2006 - 01:50pm PT
Yeah, but Peter, when the hard Lawrence crack got easier
a third one, further left, became possible, just barely.
Nat and Scott could do the hideous undercling approaches
to those bottomless chimneys on Evans. I thought they
were appalling, myself.

Trad climber
one pass away from the big ditch
Aug 11, 2006 - 02:31pm PT
In secret we So Cal folks followed the northern sect if not in purity of building cracks, in spirit of flaunting our heights at the terrestrial yuppies of so cal's phony world of trophy wives and BMWs.

Volcanic rock weakly cemented to building facades.
Following Fry's laps on the Adams st bridge.
Leading up Archer and Jarvi routes at the 57 fwy.
Chapman streets bridge for a different venue or when the river was flowing upstream.
Hart Park's horrible crimps and watching the cowboy booted master.

Chicken Skinner

Trad climber
Aug 11, 2006 - 09:07pm PT
I grew up in Davis and had three buildering circuits. One was on the UC campus, another at the High School, and one was on a jewelry store wall that was shared by a dentist office. The dentists receptionist actually came out once to ask me to pursue this activity after 5:00 pm because it was disturbing the dentist while he was drilling on his patients teeth. I complied, but this added the problem that it looked like I was trying to break into the jewelry store after hours. I was chased by the police countless times and was caught three times but was never officially arrested. There was a campus police force as well as a city police force and I was well known by both though I usually got away even though they got a good enough look at me to know who I was. I think it was probably as much fun for them to chase me as it was for me to get away. It was actually good training for moving up to the Valley in '76 because I was already used to the fact that climbing was considered wrong by some and I could expect to be chased by law enforcement or security at any time because I was a climber and was not welcome in all areas of the Park. I became good at disappearing quickly when I could see trouble coming my way.


Trad climber
Gunks end of country
Aug 11, 2006 - 09:11pm PT
mysteriously disappeared when the cop went looking for a ladder to save/arrest him.


And there are no pictures in this thread, because...

Trad climber
Santa Cruz, Ca
Aug 11, 2006 - 09:26pm PT
I definitely spent my entire four years at UC Santa Cruz bouldering on the various buildings. There were the obvious glue-ons, zen wall and the one under the bridge by Earth and Marine Sciences and of course the fantastic marble circuit in the upper quarry. I found the aretes on the music department, the HUGE off-width behind merrill college, kerr hall chimneys and the shallow cracks on Thiemann hall to be the best, and most exciting!!
Since they built the new parking structure, they included a four story fist jam crack with ready made top rope anchors at the top!
If there was ever an ethic to building climbing, which sounds ridiculous, just stay low profile! Some of us, like Peter, find a lot of joy in it!!!
I spotted those cracks on Berkeley's memorial stadium one day. They seemed to good to not be noticed, so I'm glad to hear some of the legends were on them!!
Who has tried the Doe Library traverse?
Anyone been to UCLA? There are two handcrack GEMS that I know of there!!!

Trad climber
New York
Aug 11, 2006 - 11:14pm PT
And I guess it was Wheeler Hall that had a traverse on it just a few inches off the ground that was so tricky and nearly dynamic, that only a couple of us ever got it.

Is this the problem that is in the West Coast Pimp video (I haven't seen it in a few years... I don't recall...) It looked nutty, leaping around corners and whatnot all dynamic-like...

3hrs to El Cap Meadow, 1.25hrs Pinns, 42min Castle
Aug 12, 2006 - 09:08am PT
Doe Library is the one in West Coast Pimp. I try it every time I spend the night in Berkeley, but there's three moves I can't do. I doubt I'll ever be able to do the last one--a flying leap to the arete, which you stop by flagging your foot while somehow avoiding a barndoor around the corner. Sick.
Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Aug 14, 2006 - 08:44am PT
Columbia College has (at least in 1974-77) great buildering. If the rock in the arboretum was unclimbable because it was snowing or raining you had the main admin building and could climb there with the terrace/balcony providing protection from the elements and campus security never really bothered you.

Big Wall climber
the Southwest
Aug 14, 2006 - 10:36am PT
Peter, did you ever head down to Palo Alto and climb on the Stanford walls? Lots of good stuff there, too.

By the way, thanks for your posts and great stories from the past.

John Middendorf
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 14, 2006 - 10:57am PT
HI John,

Thanks! Yeah, I did some climbing in the old sandstone quad at Stanford, before it was illegalized, and before we pulled off even more flakes from it . It was kind of good, and very popular by the early 70's and I guess it had a long history by the time I got there. And at La Canada College (nr hwy 280), that jam and roof crack. Building climbing was kind of our early gym climbing, and some of us did really a lot of it.

And I also wanted to tell you that your story of survival on the back side of Half Dome is one of the really great climbing accounts in our language!

best to you, PH
Rick L

Trad climber
El Dorado Hills, CA
Aug 14, 2006 - 12:34pm PT
I remember buildering with Dale and Allan Bard fairly often - circa 71/72. There was a hand/fist crack in the corner of a parking structure somewhere south of campus near Telegraph. It was about 3 stories high- about 25-30 feet. One sunny, warm/cool afternoon, we worked our way around the campus problems and made our way over to the crack. We were clad in the crack climbing "uniform" of the era- white pants and turtlenecks. We wore EB's that were tight enough to have been fitted by the Marquis de Sade. Dale and I climbed the crack and were leaning over the parapet wall watching Allan. Along comes a cop who starts yelling at Allan to get down. He tries to explain that it is much easier - and safer- to go up. The cop isn't buying it and starts running up the nearby stairwell. Allan jams like hell and tops out as the footsteps are hammering up the metal stairwell. We dash to the far end and down another set of stairs with the cop still in hot pursuit. We hit the crowed avenue and disappear into the flotsam and jetsam that is Berkeley street scene, giggling- in spite of our throbbing feet- as the cop scans up and down the sidewalk in a classic "Where'd they go" stance. He would have caught us if he had known to look for three guys with white hands hobbling down the sidewalk.

Peter- Thanks for triggering the great memories. I also remember us top-roping an off-width on campus at Santa Cruz. As I recall, the start involved a plate glass window on the left side that was pretty damned slippery and passing- at a snail's pace of course- several girls' dorm rooms. They were a bit perplexed but seemed to take it in stride, although watching someone climb an off-width up close must look mildly disturbing.

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Aug 14, 2006 - 01:15pm PT
Hi Rick,

Here is the exact crack climb you are recalling, the one you did, except it has Alan Bard in it, around 1973-5.

There were several of these, but this one is the best as it had a narrows, where the concrete forms had collapsed. It also had grooves every 10 feet or so, that provided a semi-tenuous rest. Top roping was from an accessible deck off the upper dorm hall, anchored to massive pipe support.

And here is another climb, at UCSC, that I did back in 1966, but with Alan doing it that same day in 73-75. I must have taken you to this also.

best to you PH

Big Wall climber
the Southwest
Aug 14, 2006 - 07:50pm PT
Jim Collins was one of the master Stanford builderers. I got a glimpse of him once in a while when I was there. His problems were usually the finger tendon ripper deals.
Karl Baba

Trad climber
Yosemite, Ca
Aug 15, 2006 - 12:06am PT
I spent my first two years at UC Davis, where the Resident Director caught me doing a skyhook traverse outside the third floor dorm lounge. It was sketchy because the hooks started to chip off the 1/2 ledge I was hooking.

Second two years we UC Berkeley. Can't remember the names of the halls but there was one vertical hand crack that was truly fun and bomber. Nice pump between classes.

But no Gym in those days. I hardly got to climb at all, Nobody was EVER at Indian Rock and I couldn't even figure out what to fool around with. I had to buy a motorcycle to

1. Park near campus

2. Keep up my adreniline addiction


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