Features

For thrillseekers, campus buildings a concrete jungle

Student adrenaline junkies risk life and limb scaling various campus structures

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 20, 2013

Students have climbed atop structures like Metcalf, Faunce, a RISD building, and the statue of Marcus Aurelius on Simmons Quad, pictured above.

Robyn Sundlee ’16 scaled a fire escape, clambered over a grate, hauled herself on a railing and swung over an abyss — all to watch the stars fall. It was early spring. A meteor shower had hit Providence, and she wanted the best possible view.

The clamor of traffic, din of drunks and warbling of the Thayer Street saxophonist had all faded out, muffled below four stories of brick. Sundlee and a friend climbed to the roof of Littlefield Hall, equipped only with a blanket and  adrenaline.

The roof of Littlefield is now where Sundlee, a Herald opinions columnist, comes to relax, to emote and to revitalize. “This is my place,” she said. “To mellow out, all wrapped up by the sky.”

Sundlee is among a handful of avid climbers on campus. To these students, Brown can seem like a veritable urban jungle of structures just aching to be climbed. And for some, rejuvenation comes best with elevation.

Started from the bottom

Many of the University’s most enthusiastic climbers have backgrounds in the field. But the climbing varies from indoor rock climbing and mountain climbing to urban exploration.

A life-long climber, Conor Wuertz ’16, could not even recall the first structure he climbed. Before Brown, he scaled elementary schools, high schools, University of California at Davis’ “Death Star” building and even an old abandoned tomato paste cannery.

“I have this urge to conquer a building,” Wuertz said. “It just sits in my head until I satiate it.”

Logan Harris ’16, who lives on Mount Tamalpais in California, said climbing grounds her. “There are no mountains in Providence,” she said. “You don’t have a sense of where you are unless you climb.”

Both mountains and buildings present distinct physical challenges to climbers.

Mountains and rock formations must be scoped out before climbing and require immense finger strength, Wuertz said. Buildings, on the other hand, follow patterns and aid the climber with right angles and ledges, he added.

“Sometimes you need to hurt your body to climb,” Wuertz said. “But it feels so good.”

Ain’t no building high

While the Metcalf Chemistry and Research Laboratory retains a reputation as the site of virgin climbs, other structures on campus — such as the statue of Marcus Aurelius, the roof of Faunce House, the bear outside Salomon Center, the perimeter of the second story of Caswell Hall and a Rhode Island School of Design building, to name a few — have been conquered by routine climbers.

When Sundlee missed entering the Van Wickle Gates during convocation, she devised an easy fix: climb over them.

Sujay Natson ’16 mounted the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the middle of winter, the snow and ice making his climb particularly slippery, he said.

On one trip, Sundlee carried a watermelon to Littlefield and catapulted it off the roof. It exploded the instant it hit the ground. “Watermelon shrapnel went all the way to Sayles,” she remembered.

“(Sundlee is) so agile when she climbs,” said Charlotte Kim ’16, a novice who climbed with Sundlee around a week ago. “She’s like an ant.”

In general, these climbing aficionados have no group, official or unofficial. Most climbs are spontaneous and often introduce newbies to the University’s structural terrain. “It’s always exciting to encourage somebody to be less scared and experience something really cool with you,” Sundlee said.

One goal uniting these students may come as a surprise: the Sciences Library. It represents the ultimate test, a crowning prize of climbing at Brown.

Wuertz has spent hours on the 13th floor scoping out a possible path. Natson and Harris have long speculated about the view. “That place is Fort Knox,” Sundlee said. “There are unlimited alarms up there.”

Come down now?

The Department of Public Safety receives an average of two to three official calls per semester from workers or officers who have spotted students climbing structures they should not climb, Deputy Chief of Police Paul Shanley said.

DPS considers climbing University structures a safety violation and will collect the information of the offending students to forward to the Office of Student Life for disciplinary procedures, Shanley said.

“They just want to gather and talk and party,” Shanley said. “But god forbid they fall.”

J. Allen Ward, senior associate dean of the OSL, echoed Shanley’s prioritization of students’ safety, saying his office enacts disciplinary measures for each case on an individual basis, considering the student’s intent and whether he or she had entered a locked building.

While punishments extend as far as probation, most students caught in the act who cooperate with DPS just receive  warnings, Ward said. In the case of uncooperative, intoxicated students, the OSL makes sure to have conversations with them to discourage further similar behavior, Ward added.

Shanley could not recall any instances of students hurting themselves by climbing buildings in his time at the University.

The risk of injury is just part of the responsibility students must take into account when climbing, Natson said.

Some students enjoy the thrill of getting caught. In her first week at Brown, Harris went to the Rochambeau House to take a Spanish placement exam only to be confronted with long lines of students waiting to take the test. So Harris and a friend opted for an adventure — and ended up climbing out of the window of an upstairs bathroom onto the roof.

They had circled the roof twice when a man with a French accent yelled at them to come down, Harris said. The two students attempted to flee the scene, but the man and a woman — both French — headed them off in the waiting room with a stern lecture. The woman ended up proctoring Harris’ placement test. “She was glaring at us the entire time,” Harris added. “But that’s what made it exciting.”

“You might be scared out of your mind,” Sundlee confessed, rubbing a swollen, purple bruise the size of an apricot on her forearm, a souvenir of her last Littlefield jaunt. “But there’s always peace at the top.”

  • Gravity works

    Let them climb! Natural selection.

  • martin murphy

    The sciences library was conquered in the early 1970’s, right after it was finished. The climber (who I knew) went up from ground level to the roof by “chimney jamming” in the recessed space in the center of the side without the big windows. (He had a safety line.)

    class of 1973 alum