At a balmy 72 degrees, it wasn’t exactly a ‘send temp’ kind of day. But with clear skies on a slow Thursday, it was too beautiful to stay indoors. With our minds made up, the three of us piled into my Honda Civic and headed out to climb.
Car parked and gear accounted for, we scouted out our first project. As boulderers, we’re well accustomed to the typical questions our crashpads earn us:
‘Are those mattresses on your back?’
‘Are you going to sleep on that?’
‘Is that what you camp in?’
Today was different. We were met with a surplus of double-takes and eyebrow raises by suspicious passerby. One truck slowly drove by, wearing a puzzled expression while rotating a thumbs-up as if to ask ‘Are you hitchhikers? Do you need a ride?’.
Based in Jacksonville, Florida, climbing is not an easily accessible sport. Our closest crag is a seven hour drive away, and our small (but proud) gym is still the biggest within a 100 mile radius. Even though we grow bored of spending hours upon hours in the gym, a tight budget and busy schedule doesn’t afford us as many outdoor trips as we would like.
So what’s the solution? Buildering. Ok, yes. I understand how it sounds. There’s already a big enough debate between boulderers and sport climbers regarding the ‘purity’ of the sport, but now we’re adding ascents of man-made structures into the mix?
Camera in hand, I followed Jack and Gabi as they studied the urban landscape. In the heart of the Bold City, we were surprised by the amount of climbable features we found. Bridges provided fun heel-hooks and compression moves, while the foundations of on-ramps allowed for more technical footwork. The excitement was tangible and creative beta was bouncing around like any other climbing session. The more we looked, the more we started to visualize potential on every street.
Night fell, but the stoke was still high. We were eager to find more creative spots, but the art piece in mind had a high risk of police involvement. The three of us scoped out the giant red rings of the sculpture, skeptical of the logistics, and growing more apprehensive by the minute. We were ready to pack out when Gabi stepped up to crack the beta. Without chalk or climbing shoes, she was determined to make quick work of the climb.
After an awkward mantle, a slap to the connecting ring was the final move of her inadvertent project. The excitement of sending was abruptly stolen—seeing the enormous ring tilt dramatically, Gabi let go and slid to the crashpad below. Panicked and immediately convinced that we had destroyed a city landmark, we continued to watch it slowly rotate. Unknown to us at the time, the “top-out” piece of the art structure has a kinetic design; it is meant to sway when weight is applied. Needless to say, we vacated the spot and vowed to do better research next time.
As we drove home, we reflected on the climbs in terms of applying a grade. When I asked Jack and Gabi, they couldn’t put a precise number on them. No, they weren’t particularly challenging or something you would brag about on Instagram. But, in short, we realized that it really didn’t matter. As far as we knew, we were in uncharted territory. There were no predetermined start and top-out points. There were no tick marks or hints in the margins of a guidebook. It was just satisfying to push yourself as far as you could, traverse the steel foundation under a bridge, and challenge your lockoff strength as you dangle over a river. Free of grade chasing, we were able to remember why we started climbing in the first place: it’s fun.
While it could never replace the feeling of real rock, buildering is simply another outlet for physical creativity. When the gym becomes stale and the waves are flat, expect to see Floridian climbers searching the city for sending potential.
Florida-based photographer, climber and action sports enthusiast trying to provide the life my cats think they deserve.