A body moving towards the centre of the earth increases it’s velocity by 9.81 meters per second per second. This means, for every second a body experiences free fall, its velocity is almost 10 meters per second faster than it was a second ago. By performing an integration with respect to time, you can work out that a body of any mass falling from the height of about 7.5 meters will be moving at 12 meters per second, or about 25 miles an hour by the time it gets to the ground.
I’ve learned this twice. Once in theory, in my teens doing A-level maths, and again in practise, in my 20s.
“Im not going to ask you about your mental health problems”, the consultant beamed, obviously feeling rather pleased with his little joke, “that’s not my field.”
“So how about we start with your elbow, OK?”
The tall, well dressed Iranian leaned in and prodded. “How does this feel?”
In reality, it actually wasn’t that bad, and for a bloke who looked like he’d just done 3 rounds with Megatron I felt relatively chirpy, thanking my lucky stars the man looming over me had worked his magic on my arms and wolverined me up with some state of the art bone-mechano.
It had taken two days of solid morphine bashing before the swelling had gone down enough for the surgeons to fix the mess I’d made inside myself following a 30 foot fall onto solid concrete, that had left me with an obliterated right elbow and a left wrist that was half an inch shorter than it should have been. I’d also sustained a fractured pelvis, meaning I couldn’t roll over, sit up or take a shit without being stretchered around the ward like a war victim.
The examination was brief, and finished with another piece of a well-worn hilarity that I’d had to endure for the last couple of days, dished out by pretty much every nurse, visitor, janitor and doctor that came through the door of the ward.
“And how do you like the view we got for you eh? Heh, heh, heh!”
“Anyhow, it looks like you are making good progress. I will come and see you tomorrow.. Goodbye!”
The view he was referring to was actually a master stroke of black humour. From my hospital bed I had one of the best views in Liverpool over the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, the building I had plummeted from 2 days earlier due to some rather shonky rope prep. My route had been straight forward enough – straight up one of the huge outer buttresses with brute force. By pulling myself against the slippery surface and just doing a series of diagonal pullups I’d gotten about 85% of the way there, only to come unstuck within spitting distance of the top when a piece of slightly-too-long rope holding my scaff hook to my harness had gotten wrapped round my leg. The length seemed fine when I was on the ground, but once you’re bunched up hauling yourself up the face of a Cathedral, having loose ends flapping about is going to cause you problems, especially if the belay you’ve set up to catch you hadn’t been thought through as well as it might.. Anyway, in the ensuing struggle to free myself whilst perched 13m above the ground I ended up loosing traction, slipping down the buttress and going straight over an edge before having my shattered body bundled into the back of an ambulance by two unimpressed paramedics.
The sentiment displayed by the visitors and nurses to my bedside over the following days fell into two neatly defined categories: those who bollocked me for climbing badly and those who bollocked me for climbing at all. Without wanting to detract from the great kindness of the people that turned up to say hello and call me a prat, it rather elegantly framed the common theme of distaste displayed by most people surrounding the climbing of city centre buildings. When compared with my brother who managed to snap his leg in half playing football recently, the amount of heavy handed nagging served to me at the bedside and when I got home was off the chart. I don’t mind people taking the piss (most people did to be fair), but what I ended up receiving from one or two friends and relatives could almost have been classed as assault with the right barrister. I normally don’t take any notice, life’s too short, but with the enforced lack of movement I had inflicted on myself I had quite a lot of time to ponder this one over:
Why is climbing rocks considered a wholesome, disciplined, admirable pursuit and climbing man-mad structures considered stupid, dangerous and down-right nefarious?
Not so long ago, I went to a lecture given by the ultimate boss-master of buildering Alain Robert who was hanging about at the local climbing wall in the midst of a little tour of the UK. When he opened up the floor for questions, the first thing that came out of someones mouth was something to do with ‘asking permission’ or the law or getting arrested or something of similar nature. His response was not surprising.
“This is the first thing people always ask” he said.
“This is not interesting to me though. Does anyone have any questions not about being arrested?”
Half the hands went down.
Whilst it didn’t reveal much about Alain, it spoke volumes about the cross section of people sat in that room.
The same reason all those hands went down is the same reason Alex Honnold free soloing the 1750ft El Sendero Luminoso big wall route in Mexico got a couple of mentions on some geeky climbing blogs and a few lads taking the stairs to the top of the Shard sans permission made international news.
Most people don’t care about rock climbing because they don’t care about rocks. They don’t feel qualified or inclined to comment on such a niche pass time and they have nothing to relate to when it is described to them.
In complete contrast, people encounter the urban environment (and the expectation of how one should behave in it) on a daily basis and as such feel compelled and qualified to comment on matters relating to it. People don’t usually go out and climb buildings because you’re not supposed to, and the expected pattern of behaviour is to follow suit without thinking about exactly why it is that this activity isn’t socially acceptable. By the standards of the laws that govern our railways, roads and cities, mountain climbing should definitely be illegal. You put yourself at immense risk and also risk the lives of others who have to save you when it all goes south in a much more severe way that you could ever do within the city limits, but because its outside the understanding of the vast majority of law makers, it’s left alone. If the mountains were somehow easily accessible and in the middle of our cities, there would be laws to deter people climbing them, police to punish them when they tried and hordes of opinionated internet people to tell them off for ‘wasting tax payers money’ when they injured themselves.
The familiarity of the environment and expectation of behaviour combined with the lack of climbing know-how also massively skews the perception of risk.
Peoples perception of the harm that may come to them when partaking in any given activity is more often than not completely unrelated to the actual danger of the activity in question. I know people who won’t eat GM crops but smoke 20 Benson a day and people that are scared of flying but will happily cruise round London on a pushbike. In fact, all of the people that were having a go at me whilst I lay in my bed had done plenty of dangerous things in their life: driving too fast, snorting random powders, smoking, shagging dirty women, but because these things are all practised regularly by their immediate peer groups, they don’t seem dangerous when compared with things they’re unfamiliar with.
Of course, a man who fell off a building going off about how safe it is might seem a bit daft, but if you take a step back and look at it, climbing man made objects is WAY safer than hitting the rocks in about 99 out of 100 cases. If you place a piece of gear into a bit of rock, you have no idea if it will hold or not. It’s a rock. It’s not made for anything. It doesn’t have to support your weight and there has been no one round whos job it is to make that piece of rock load bearing or make sure bits don’t flake off and hit your mate on the head 100ft below. If you place a sling round a steel girder or pull up onto a rated anchor point, you can be pretty confident it’s not going to go anywhere. The only difference is that if you fuck it up, it weirdly becomes someone else’s fault because of the way we attribute blame in the western legal system. The only thing that tips the safety factor the other way is the fact you’re always having to hurry up, as getting out of sight of the heartless killjoys who love to make a habit for calling you in and wasting police time by getting the bizzies out to ask you to come down is normally a top priority on these sorts of outings.
We all bang on about this culture being super mainstream now but this is still only from an observers perspective served by the reddit feeds and the newspapers on slow days. I don’t know many people, even people that call themselves climbers who have thought about having a bash at anything other than the rocks and indoor climbing gyms. I think we have quite a complicated set of cultural values related to property in this country which is actually far more conservative than the letter of the law would have you believe. We’re not quite America (thank god), where you can be legally shot for standing in the wrong garden, but they don’t say that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ for nowt. A quick flick through the venom on display in the Daily Mail comments section on any story related to protests or squatting should give you the lay of the land, and when all this sentiment is mushed together with the prevailing wind of modern litigation fueled ultra-safety-consiousness, you end up with a rather heavy fog of general disapproval or fear of the non-existent consequences for pretty much anything that involves heading off the beaten track.
Anyhow, they teach you that you’re meant to get back on bikes when you fall off, so I made the leap from bikes to buildings and decided to get back on it. Within 8 or 9 weeks I was pretty much back to normal and despite the seemingly endless bollocking I was receiving from my family, turned my attention back to finish off the thing that had almost paralysed me. I’d thoroughly learned my lesson though and I wasn’t leading it again, and the sight of me in that hospital bed meant no other fucker would dare chance it either, so we had to get creative.
Catapults, fishing rods, massive sticks and even the bloody quadcopter made another (and final) appearance, but all failed to deliver the goods in getting a top rope over the building. We’d taken 2 trips out to it and even after all of this, still no one would dare lead it. The only remaining trick in our books was something Jobs had stashed away from an attempt at scaling a cooling tower at the old Thorpe Marsh power station, which involved “going to a big Asda, and then to the sex clinic”.
Honestly, it was absolutely inspired.
We filled 4 condoms with helium and tied two bunches of two together with fishing line, and then to ourselves with a further 50ft each. With a bit of manoeuvring, we managed to work our little floating stone-henge shaped sex flock into position over the cathedral and use it to pull a second line over the whole building followed by a rope. Once that rope was in place, the four of us were stood on the lower roof in about 20 minutes. Climbing a Catholic church using condoms. How very apt.
From here, it was a quick dash up the external staircase and up the main tower to a well earned place in the crown at the top. It was a journey that should originally have been a cheeky school-night mission, but ended up as a bit of a saga with all the broken bones in the middle and all, so it was an utter pleasure to finally have tamed this little nemesis of mine.
Thanks to jobs, morse and millhouse for the company and to paul for scraping me up when I decked the first time. It’s much appreciated :)
It’s worth looking at Snappels account of his trip up this building. Although I didn’t have his words in mind when I rattled this off, the vibe is extremely similar.
GO DO MAD SHIT.