Urban Climbing: Over And Above A Dead-End World

If you are hankering for a serious attack of nausea consider viewing the Channel 4 documentary Don’t Look Down (featuring James Kingston) or the RT documentary ‘Russian Daredevils’ or, perhaps, best of all, go to Mustang Wanted’s webpage. The folks in these documentaries are ‘urban climbers’ – young folks, invariably men, who free-climb up skyscrapers, cranes, bridges, television and cellular towers, and then, at the top, perform further stomach-churning feats: hanging off ledges, back-flips, riding skateboards, push-ups and pull-ups. I’m prone to sharp attacks of vertigo when confronted by heights so the mere viewing of these films is a task calling for some backbone; and yet, I find myself–strangely and perversely perhaps–drawn to them again and again.

Reactions to these sorts of feats are invariably polarized: some describe these young men as ‘idiots’ who are ‘irresponsible’ and wish them a speedy death, preferably captured on live television; yet others write glowing comments on their Facebook pages, wishing them the best and admiring the size of their manly parts. The responses of the urban climbers also follow predictable patterns: don’t copy us; we are all going to die someday so talk of death is neither here or there; we are only doing what we think we are capable of; and so on. (Some of the contempt directed at urban climbers seems particularly vicious; methinks those who articulate these sentiments doth protest too much and should simply change the channel and move on.)

I have only two observations–inter-related–to offer. First, the Russian and Ukranian climbers clearly seem to be articulating a felt need for an activity that promises a form of deliverance from their otherwise dreary surroundings and prospects: conventional modes of escape such as hanging out at street corners, drinking, clubbing, and the like have lost their charm and seem merely to draw them into further zones of boredom and disillusionment. (Interestingly, at least two of the climbers I saw featured in these documentaries–Russian and English–lived with their mothers in scheme housing, their fathers having walked out of their lives a long time ago.)

Second, and perhaps more interestingly, the climbing is ‘urban’; it does not take place in conventional venues like rock faces and the like; it happens on cranes, buildings under construction, bridges. Sometimes these sites are abandoned, sometimes they are active; often, the climbers are risking arrest for trespassing. I find the climbing on construction sites the most intriguing: these are invariably of corporate office buildings or apartments, places where the urban climbers will almost certainly not find a place to work or live. But while they climb on them, they develop a relationship with these buildings that their eventual residents will never have. They turn these venues of rejection into their own.

Down on the ground, there’s just rejection and boring jobs and dead-end careers. But as they climb (and prance and cavort and hang and dangle) they raise themselves up above a world in which, down at ground level, there is little for them anyway; while they are up there, they can tower above it all.

6 comments on “Urban Climbing: Over And Above A Dead-End World

  1. To be honest, I never thought there was much motivation behind urban climbing beyond a perverse desire to be a daredevil in pure “Jackass” style. But now I see there may be more to it…

    • Samir Chopra says:

      LV: Most definitely. There are some ‘jackasses’ in there for sure but there is also a philosophy of sorts to be found in their pronunciations. Check out ‘Don’t Look Down’ at the least.

  2. There is something like poetry in your analysis of what urban climbing may signify for these young people. The human spirit is amazing, almost beyond comprehension.

    Suddenly just now I randomly thought of Sting as the Ace Face in The Who’s Quadrophenia, and how the acme of “Mod” turns out to be a bell boy. And then there’s John Travolta’s Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, who rules the local disco but has a dead-end job at a neighborhood hardware store and lives at home with his parents.

    I don’t know why your post reminded me of these two movies. I guess there must be something inside all of us that, despite our everyday circumstances, aspires to greatness.

  3. Samir Chopra says:

    Katherine: Thanks for the comment. I was quite struck by how at the heart of what just seems to be just stunts, there is an aesthetic vision of sorts – after all, the view from the top is just amazing and has to be a transporting experience of sorts.

  4. Linda Jordan says:

    Sure the reasons they do it may be painted in the romantic light of the human condition but when you’re dead, there’s no more climbing, no girlfriends, friends..family……just a bunch of mush someone else has to clean up. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

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