Big Night Out
It’s death-defying, it’s illegal, and it’s happening at a college near you. ELLIE PITHERS meets a Night Climber.
I love a bit of magic in a world that is disappointingly void of eccentricity. The only items that elicit intrigue these days are those rumours which damage the reputations of senior politicians for their involvement in an Oxbridge Drinking Society twenty-odd years ago. Quel horreur. I want to hear a story about something astonishing (which doesn’t involve University Challenge, exam timetables, or revision weight gain).
Step in Night Climbing, or ‘Stegophily’ as it’s known among devotees – the love or practice of climbing tall buildings, which the spires and towers of Cambridge provide in abundance. It’s death-defying, it’s illegal, and it’s happening at a college near you.
If you think Night Climbing is widespread, however, you can think again. This is a hobby belonging to only a handful of students. There are a number of dabblers at work, but the number who have participated to the extent of my source (think along the lines of climbing pretty much every University-owned building in Cambridge) are few and far between. This is the boy who, in Michelmas term, put up around 20 of the 25 Christmas hats on the spires of Cambridge’s most beloved colleges. In a single night. He knows his way around the motion sensors and security cameras littering the town; an unnamed do-gooder who sends anonymous emails to colleges and departments telling them that their roof is about to fall in. Those balls on the top of the SPS department? He can tell you from personal experience that many of them are not attached.
There have been a handful of books seeking to debunk the myths surrounding the ancient Cambridge tradition of Night Climbing – but as my source confesses over a Peach Iced Tea in Caffé Nero, he is the only person to have compiled a “slightly geeky” spreadsheet of all the possible climbs in Cambridge, combining those experiences of Whipplesnaith et al with some of his own invention. The punters will tell you that there is a secret society of climbers who gambol around in the twilight, Brideshead Revisited-style, drinking port with the roguish Dean on the roof of King’s Chapel, but the reality is rather different. Although many of the climbers have vague connections with each other, climbing buildings is now usually an individual or paired pursuit (climbing in large numbers means you’re more likely to get caught), in search of an unparalleled thrill.
The thing that I just can’t get my head around is the fact that there is no ‘How-to’ guide. No climb-by-numbers, no record of every dodgy drainpipe, no map of ascent. Completed climbs are the result of luck, experimentation, and maybe the off nudge from someone who knows what they’re doing. Everything is riding on the supreme body strength of a seasoned climber, and of course, sheer guts. This guy is the Spiderman of the Cambridge sky-line, and I got to spend two hours with him.
Everyone’s heard of the ‘Senate House Leap’ (see above), but the titbits of extraordinary information that this Cambridge student possesses are things you certainly won’t see on any college prospectus. Did you know that Henry VIII is holding a chair leg in the Great Gate of Trinity – not the gold sceptre he was originally endowed with? How about that Kings bridge is the most difficult to climb? Did you know, for instance, that the Hall of Trinity College has a small window in the roof, by which one can access the roof beams of the great hall? Situated on this roof beam in, alas, bygone days, was a small model duck – a test of willpower and balls-iness for generations of night climbers. The game is simple: move the duck further along the beam (without plummeting to almost certain death).
Because this is what Student-Spiderman was most insistent on impressing upon Tab readers: Night Climbing is definitely not a nocturnal mission suitable for all. It’s not even a sport suitable for anyone, according to the Po-Po, who have in the past arrested people for this kind of suspicious behaviour. Standing in front of King’s College Chapel, with my source explaining exactly how he scaled the hideously vast 150ft spire through a combination of casual climbing, shimmying, and swinging (yes, I did just write ‘swinging’, at the cheeky height of at least 130ft), I finally understood why this game is so highly illegal.
It took two men two days to remove the four Christmas hats on the top of the four spires of King’s Chapel, a fact that amuses my source greatly. He had been planning the display for two years, practising all the climbing routes so that he could complete the stunt (climbing 22 spires) in a mere 7 hours. If anything, he was upset that despite his achievement, his task of climbing all 37 spires in Cambridge in a single night had eluded him. Why did you do it? ‘For kicks,’ he replies, and it’s clear when he later escorts me around Cambridge to show me the ropes (not that he uses any), that he still gets a thrill from seeing some of his remaining hats in position around town, like the one below, which is still intact on the Old Schools building.
His knowledge of the buildings is endless – but don’t think he’s been sitting at home studying maps in his bedroom. ‘I just start climbing and work it out as I go along,’ he explains nonchalantly. Rather embarrassingly, I’m still pointing at various gargoyle-encrusted buildings and repeating ‘Have you actually climbed that?!’ in an awe-struck manner, but he doesn’t seem to be fazed. I ask whether he has ever seen anything rather unsavoury through a student window, nudge nudge wink wink? The answer comes as predictably depressing when you remember that we inhabit a city of academics of Biblical proportions: ‘the most surprising thing is the number of people who are still working away at 5am – so absorbed in their work that they don’t notice me passing a centimetre away from their window.’ And that’s not even in exam term.
His policy is one of ‘Leave No Trace’ – so far, so Bourne Identity. But as he repeatedly reminds me, one accident and it’s the end for everyone. The fact that he, nor anyone for a number of years, hasn’t sustained a serious injury from their midnight jaunts is evidence of their skill, but his honour system is far more impressive. It is extremely important to him that he is not seen, does not distress residents, and does not cause any damage to buildings. That means staying away from New Hall, then, as he reckons that getting caught in an all-girls college would involve a bit of nightmarish explanation.
His motto is simple: ‘Don’t be a dick.’ But some of you might have a bone of contention with him when he reveals his May Week strategy. ‘My Dad told me when I came to Cambridge that you must always pay for your own Ball; to break in would be cheating,’ he insists; but that doesn’t mean you have to pay for any others on offer. This guy is possibly the only person to have sampled almost every single college’s May Ball over the course of his three-year undergraduate course – who needs a wrist band when you can climb your way in, and in black tie, no less (his formal shoes apparently have the best grip)? 2 balls a night is standard fare for this seasoned pro – and when he gets bored in the single court of John’s to which he has snuck in without a wristband, he just climbs out and heads to another party.
Do his parents know? ‘They probably have an inkling,’ he murmurs sheepishly. He claims he will tell them when he graduates. What about your girlfriend? ‘I don’t tell her when I go climbing any more!’ But the question I’ve been burning to ask: Best view in Cambridge? ‘One of my favourites is the New Museums Site.’ I feel a bit deflated – surely the Gothic majesty of King’s or the solid immensity of John’s would be every Japanese tourist’s dream? ‘But if you’re on them, you can’t see them,’ he counters, knowingly.
So, the next time you’re at the Van of Death (and it’s always, most vehemently, Death over Life) queuing for your quesadillas with extra garlic sauce, maybe take a quick glance at the skyline to see if there’s a guy chilling on top of the Corn Exchange, or hanging off the nearest college cornice. Or maybe just take a look at the guy behind you in the queue – Night Climbing is thirsty work, and our source favours a Van stop-off to boost his energy levels halfway through the evening. If said guy behind you orders Chips & Meat, then you might just have found him out…