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The Silver Chalice
The Most Dangerous Game
In the Constellation of Rooster and Lunatics
For a few minutes after it landed, no one touched the body on the
macadam street. Finally a NewYork City policeman pulled a card from
the dead climber's pants pocket: "Harry F. Young. Work guaranteed on
flagstaffs, church steeples, water tanks, and impossible places to reach.
America's unique and original steeplejack and stuntist."
That one bare image of conceit collapses into a penny tombstone. Young
had earlier wisecracked, louder than necessary, to a hotel detective, "If I do it,
have the bath ready. If I don't, get a shovel."
At noon on March 5,1923, Young approached the Broadway facade of the
Martinique Hotel. It's not unlikely that he kissed his pretty, bob-haired wife
of two months just before wiping his hands on his pants and grasping the
masonry. One foot, then the other, left the ground. With the bustling 34th
Street shopping district fat with shoppers, his audience was immediate, as
anticipated. Young was a professional; the climb was a matter of contract: 100
dollars. The next day's New York Times reported the event:
Frequently, in order to give the crowd ... an extra thrill, Young seemed purposely to
let his foot slip, holding tightly to the coping.... Up, up he climbed, resembling a giant
moth, but his figure growing less and less conspicuous as it faded into perpendicular
He made the eleventh story. People stood thrilled, their heads thrown further
and further backward. Young's foot slipped. They thought he was again making
believe, but in an instant they learned their mistake. For an incredible moment
Young seemed to stand in space, then his white form came crashing down ... in a
quick plunge to the sidewalk. A prolonged "Ah!" went up from the crowd.
Within five weeks the city aldermen had passed an ordinance forbidding
human flies to climb the buildings of New York City. The fine was to be ten
dollars, ten days, or both. Urban ascent was, for the first time, criminal
trespass. Being in a place you're not supposed to be is also called other things:
arrogance, stupidity, hubris . . . and no doubt the dead climber suffered
further calumny that day. To an extent, the pejoratives will always apply;
every time a climber enters the vertical world he's thumbing his nose at
biological propriety. Human beings simply aren't built to live on a ninety-
Nevertheless, given a monolith that is taller than a man—whether it's
made of granite, limestone, ice, or cement—twentieth-century humans will
come and struggle to the very death with it. For all its sophistication and
evolution in the past fifty years, ascent remains as old-fashioned and violent
as ever, drawing at raw muscular thought and transforming it into a hole
beneath your feet.
Even more antagonistic to the social order than people who crawl around
on rocks and walls in the wilderness are people who crawl around on buildings,
infiltrating those spaces which society has taught us men cannot go. It
seems especially impertinent to go clambering around on cliffs made of steel
and concrete, on glass waterfalls, and on marble and asphalt bergschrunds
instead of the real thing.
A city, after all, is the very epitome of modern civilization, typified by
regulation and technological achievement, and obsessed with the new and
current. To have climbers reminding a skyscraper not only of its origin, but
also of its artificiality, is to remind the rooster of the egg, an unwelcome
pecking order. Harry F. Young must have expected the pejoratives. A letter to
the Times editor chastised the police for permitting Young to risk his life for
such a poor purpose: "The inclination to meet danger—to find a certain charm
in it—is a valuable quality, when reasonably controlled." Citizens cried for
control, reasonable control. Which, of course, is why Young made wisecracks
about dying and why he was being paid 100 dollars on that day when he found
himself halfway to the ground from a place beyond control. Reasonable control doesn't always lead to the place you want to be.
Take Joachim Richter, for instance, a young German lunatic who was internationally publicized in the 1920s because he climbed out of three asylums. In eluding the police on the second of those escapes, he climbed a smooth wall to the fifth floor of an apartment house in Berlin and entered a window. "Don't worry," he told the screaming woman who lived there. "I'm the Kaiser. I just came to wash my hands." He did so, then ate the bar of soap. The authorities recaptured him, but the same week Richter bolted for freedom
again, taking to the prison wall... beyond control.
There was more substance to these early human flies than their circus
courage and criminal modes of independence. Their portraits would be super-
ficial cartoons if they depicted nothing more than roosters and lunatics. But
there is always that constellation of reasons we call ego, and there were some
big ones making the circuit half a century ago. An unemployed steelworker, a
bellboy, a sailor, a half-baked boxer: proletarians without real access to the
public nonetheless made themselves bigger than life, front-page material.
Reading the accounts, one discovers that almost every one of these men
proclaimed himself the human fly, the unique stuntist, the one and only. Some
were fair athletes, no doubt, with egos like beacons.
After climbing the Woolworth Building and the tower of the Chicago
Tribune building, Johnny Meyer ("The Human Fly of America") set off for
Europe, where he planned to climb the Kaiserschloss in Berlin, the dome of St.
Benedict's in Paris, and numerous tall steeples in England. His sole purpose,
he crowed to the press, was to become world famous. "Everywhere I go, people
will point me out." And as persistent as a shadow was the fairy tale of instant
wealth: "I can sell my nerve tonic and my picture, then."
Because no legacy is left by a building climb, especially viewed from a
distance of fifty and sixty years, people have forgotten some of the more
spectacular ones: Bill Strothers' ("The Human Spider") ascent of the Brock-
way Building in Los Angeles (1919); Harry Gardiner raising money for war
bonds on the Brooklyn Eagle Building (1918); and Steve Peterson, who fell
three stories because he was past his prime ("It was a bum break," he said as
he jauntily smoked a cigarette on the way to the hospital in 1928).
The penchant for provoking attention wasn't intractable, though. More
daredevils cooled into ordinary citizens than didn't. A few fell, fewer still died,
and as for the majority of human flies, the world simply ceased to hear about
them. They became anonymous neighbors in neighborhoods without a litera-
ture to glorify them. Sometime in the early 1930s urban climbing quietly
Recently, though, urban ascent has regained a visible profile, catalyzed
by George Willig's success on Manhattan's World Trade Center building on
May 26, 1977. Building climbs had been on a number of climbers' minds
before that, but quietly, like a masonic word, Willig's Trade Center climb
would have taken me by complete surprise if it hadn't been for Ed Drummond,
who introduced me to the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.
Wily and innovative, Ed had been considering skyscrapers for years
before letting me in on the idea. He was thirty-two at the time, coincidentally
the age of Harry F. Young when he fell in 1923. Without assembling too many
similarities, I should add that Ed's pocket was rarely without his own business card, which advertised his Bulldog Construction Company, a fledgling
organization that offered scaffoldless steeplejacking for such jobs as sand-
blasting and goldleafing. And the steeplejack's wife, Mrs. Drummond, like
Mrs. Young, was pretty and youthful—just twenty years old.
Somewhere in his past, Ed had escaped to America from an unfriendly
English climbing scene—something to do with his abrasive habit of renaming
already-established routes and generally outraging the local lads. A tall and
sturdy poet, Ed espoused a sort of bastard Jack Londonism, according to which
extraordinary men are on fire, living so intensely that when they die, they
disintegrate in a sudden furious blaze. His updated version of this character
was the intellectually alert climber capable of one-arm pull-ups with either
arm and able to survive for days without water. Ed had done that once, near
the end of a twenty-day epic of stone. It was on the Trolltind Wall in Norway
when he and his partner, Hugh Drummond (no relation), ran out of water and
had to hang marooned in their hammocks until rain came. In the process, Ed's
bladder closed off, creating the painful, dehydrated condition known as trench
penis. Despite such adversities, the two men finished the ascent.
To silence any doubts about which of the two Drummonds was the
animating force behind that ascent of the Troll, Ed later repeated his amazing
survival act during a ten-day solo of El Capitan's Nose in Yosemite. It's
important to concede solitude's brunt when you're soloing a wall. Three
thousand feet above the ground, tied into knots that no one else can check,
dependent on judgments that are either right or fatal, you become absolutely
crucial to your own continued existence.
The exit pitch on the Nose consists of a line of old bolts angling up a
blank, overhanging terrain of granite. As with so many dangerous sections on
extended climbs, this final pitch has acquired a small history. In June, 1973, a
pair of young climbers reached the bolt ladder after a week on the rock. One of
the men led up to the summit acres; the other— a nineteen-year-old—made a
small mistake in his jumaring technique. Climbers 2000 feet below, hearing
the fluttering hum a rock or falling haul bag might make, turned to see the
wingless boy. Months later, alone, Ed navigated the listing rock wall,
finishing that terminal pitch in a gray autumn snowstorm. On fire, naturally.
The plan to climb the Transamerica Pyramid—an 843-foot skyscraper in
downtown San Francisco—was more a civilized heresy than the conspiracy
we pretended. In late November 1976, Ed invited me to join him on a special
climb that had been percolating in his mind for a year. I'd never heard of the
Transam, but the immediate thought of police and punishment made me
reluctant to consider it seriously. There were far too many unknowns; yet I
listened as Ed methodically spread out the contents of his plan, and we
concluded by agreeing to survey the building. It was nearly Christmas when
we met. The lights of San Francisco were powdered with a slow, colorless fog.
Its windows glinting, the Pyramid jutted up forcefully from the city's atomized glow.
It has been said that the Pyramid is "too tall for its site, too unconventional for its surroundings and altogether unsuited for a city like San Francis-
co." Even before it was constructed, the thirty-million-dollar building was
fiercely opposed by San Franciscans who feared for their skyline. Zoning
authorities had, in fact, already declared that no new buildings could have a
total floor space greater than fourteen times the ground area of the site. This
edict was specifically aimed at excluding skyscrapers from the neighborhood.
Architect William Pereira—adhering to the standards for floor space—
foxily tapered his proposed building into an elongated pyramid. People were
outraged. The Northern California Chapter of the American Institute of
Architects demonstrated that the same office space could be built into a
structure 500 feet shorter. The Transamerica Corporation compromised by
giving up ten stories, and when disgruntled protestors still showed up, there
were well-groomed Transamerica secretaries on hand to serve tea and fortune
cookies. The Pyramid was built.
Beginning as a gothic square occupying fully half a city block, the
building tapers gradually to a needle point 843 feet higher. Windows dominate to the forty-eighth floor, where, along with two symmetrically opposed
elevator fins, the building's sharp nipple builds itself out of mysteriously lit,
louvered panels. The climb looked furtively possible as Ed diagrammed its
three distinctive features: the columns at the base, the windows, and the
louvered summit. By shimmying up the sixty-five-degree columns with the
aid of webbing, Ed projected, we could get to the windows, where jamming,
liebacking, or stemming would take us six hundred feet higher to the headwall of strange metal scales. His wife, Grace, would climb with us, Ed
reiterated. In the spirit of joining the enterprise, I welcomed her as a partner.
Our research in the next frantic month was to belie that rudimentary
strategy. Like any plan, ours required more and more knowledge as it developed, drawing on fields that were immediately useless, but in the long
range proved relevant to our chameleon purposes. Detailed information was
more significant—and more difficult to obtain—than we'd first thought. Exactly how far apart were the jutting window frames? Did they spread near the
building or pout open at the outer lip? Or were they parallel? Were there
anchors for window washers? Would pairs of window frames take a nut, a
piton, or a cam? How did the windows open—up and down, or in and out? How
high would we have to climb before we were out of range of fire truck cherry
pickers? Should a rope or carabiner accidentally drop, which wall would have
the least number of spectators below? Would a Saturday or a Sunday be better
than a work day? And in the likelihood of police action, was a large crowd
better for us than a small one? The more questions we compiled, the less
adequate our speculations and opinions appeared.
We toyed with various dodges and masquerades to glean dimensions and
facts, lamely posing by turns as architecture enthusiasts, an aspiring window-washing team, assistant professors of engineering, and tourists from
Kansas. Ed had already been denied permission by the managers to climb the
building, so we had to be careful about raising further suspicions.
For the most part, each bit of solid information we acquired would satisfy
an entire segment of the project. Once a single pair of window frames was
calculated, all the pairs of window frames were understood. We had half a
dozen oak wedges, five-and-a-quarter-inches wide, made up—an expression of
certainty about that much of the building.
Other statistics gradually accumulated, but the key to that last portion
of the Pyramid—the 212-foot spire of louvered panels, which seemed both
solid during the day and opaque at night, both grilled (and therefore passable), yet smooth (and impassable)—eluded our studies. We visited the city
building commissioner's office, applied for twelve microfilm slides of blue-
prints, and returned the next morning to peruse the vital data. Instead, we
found that the slides listed only serial numbers for hundreds of individual
blueprint slides, each of which cost twenty-five cents. With 500 dollars we
might have found the right slide. We changed tactics, costumes, assumptions,
and tried different approaches.
In the course of our research, the architecture of San Francisco—and
architecture in general—started to take on a more fluid tone for me. I began to
regard the exteriors of buildings as something more than basic geometric
adornments of space. Among ourselves we envisioned—only half in fun—a
whole generation of climbers who would someday grope about on these manmade houses of cards. We talked about all the strange new media involved-
glass, metal, concrete—and how new styles of climbing would necessarily
In a sense we were challenging the architects, engineers, and builders by
equipping ourselves with secret techniques to solve their secret techniques. In
making skyscrapers, they had built external faces that were as physiologically inhuman (read "unclimbable") as anything nature has ever designed. Now
it seemed that climbers as silent as ninji would creep out of the wilderness to
paw the urban skylines.
In another sense, however, and one that I began to appreciate the more I
read, our proposed climb shared affinities with the bold, intelligent
architecture of the Pyramid and certain other structures. I came across many
examples of architecture that dared as much censure as our climb would attract.
Some of the boldest, most exciting designs have remained unbuilt, for the
simple reason that they were too bold.
To my eye, Raphael Soriano's United Nations Tower—created in 1969,
but never built—is one of the most elegant designs ever conceived. The
all-aluminum, 110-story tower would have tapered in the center, creating, for
the climber, a gentle but ever more insistent overhang above the seventieth
floor. Thin, embellishing struts would have provided some intriguing climbing not totally dissimilar from that which the Eiffel Tower has offered alpinists in the past.
Bolder yet, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a mile-high office tower to be
located in Chicago. At the time (1956), it would have been five times higher
than any other building in the world—so high, in fact, that he designed its
windows to be set four feet back under metal parapets "to afford a human
sense of protection at such enormous heights." It would have housed 130,000
people and challenged generations of building climbers.
For the greatest height (a feather in the cap to some architects and
climbers) none can top Siah Armajani, who designed what was modestly
entitled "A Fairly Tall Tower." It was to be 48,000 miles high. At 24,000 miles
above the site (somewhere in America) Armajani proposed a "synchronous
joint." This is the balance point in space where the force of gravity equals the
centrifugal force moving objects away from the earth. If it could be built, I
daresay it could be climbed. Architecture that might have seemed aesthetic-
ally or structurally ridiculous on paper now exists in cities around the world.
Similarly, climbs that at one time seemed utterly fantastic—Everest, the
Matterhorn, or the Eiger's north face—by now have been repeated to the point
of disinterest. Someday, no doubt, an expedition will climb the 60,000-foot
dead volcano that Voyager spacecraft have discovered on Mars.
Our excitement in climbing manmade objects was not limited to sky-
scrapers alone. As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge one night, Ed described
the understructure to me, laying out a traverse that he hoped to accomplish
someday among the gulls and iron shadows beneath the highway. Later he
confided that, to celebrate his forthcoming American citizenship, he had
considered climbing the Statue of Liberty.
Ed and I approached our project from quite different points of view.
Intellectually, I was fascinated by the various architecture, but I couldn't
really see making a career out of urban climbing. For Ed, the Transam
beckoned not only as a climb, but as a manic vocation. In a way that he
insisted was incidental, he wouldn't have minded making a quarter-million
on a TV contract as well. Failure was highly possible, though, and as a way of
dispelling his anxieties about this ascent of the Pyramid, Ed would speak of
an even larger pyramid in Chicago.
On one foray to reconnoiter the Pyramid, Ed and I went to the Bank of
America Center two blocks south of the Transam. After being reprimanded by
a security guard for bouldering on an amorphous sculpture in adjoining
Giannini Plaza, I put my sandals back on and insouciantly entered the
building proper. As we walked in, immense panes of window glass reflected
our images. It took us only a moment to project a manner of ascent for them.
Glass damps—the large suction cups used by glaziers—would certainly negotiate
the long stretches of upright glass. It was dizzying to conjure a climber on
vertical panes of fifty-foot glass, suspended from one suction cup which might
loosen as he was setting a second clamp higher. Worse, a slight misstep would
collapse the whole sheet. The glass climber, then, faced not only a fall-off
but a fall-in, a fragile duplicity of elements that climbers face only rarely on
certain kinds of waterfall ice.
One of dozens of high-speed elevators took us to the fifty-second floor of
the Bank of America Center, where a plush restaurant and observation deck
are fitted out with floor-to-ceiling windows, sod-thick carpet, and a handrail
for the acrophobic. The maitre d' of the Carnelian Room made himself conspicuous,
and with his most baleful glare reminded us that this was his domain.
Exuding the nonchalance of realtors—though distinctly handicapped by our
shabby clothing—Ed and I pulled binoculars and telescope from our day-
Directly across from us, the Pyramid stabbed the misty sky at an altitude
shared by few other buildings in the city. Set among lesser structures, the
Pyramid swept up from its massive root in a manner suggesting that the
building's sole purpose was to support a solitary red dot, the air beacon, on the
skyline. We murmured conspiratorially when we saw it, for we hoped to be
hanging our hammocks from that very beacon in a few nights. For a full hour
we studied the upper third of the skyscraper, attempting once again to de-
cipher the mysterious metal grill on the final expanse. We spied several new
variations to our line of ascent as well as two or three blind spots invulnerable
to police retrieval. But as the sun set, the upper louvers of the spire still eluded
our understanding. With only a few days left before our secretly scheduled
ascent, we could do no more than prepare for several eventualities.
As the ascent drew near, Ed became ever more inebriated with the
project, loping throughout San Francisco for advice, mechanisms, free rope
and slings, confidential talks with newspaper and radio people, and meetings
with a group of amateur filmmakers who hoped to secrete themselves in
neighboring skyscrapers. So much was riding on the venture by the last week
of January that Ed went so far as to declare we should not surrender unless
the police drew their guns, and even then that we should resist.
Compounding the hazards of ascent with guns and arrest didn't appeal to
me, nor to Drummond's wife. The closer we got to the date of the climb, the
more timid she became. The debates about how we should react to arrest
exposed my own hesitancies, too. Each of us began to assess the commitments
we were willing to make, aware now that the game was not entirely a game.
Ed insisted that once we started, the police would let us finish the climb,
especially if we showed an attractive bravado and style. He pointed to Phillipe
Petit—the French aerialist who walked a tightrope between the World Trade
Center towers in 1974—as an example of how a city loves its daredevil heroes.
When asked to justify his stunt, Petit had explained, "If I see three oranges, I
must juggle; if I see two towers, I must walk." He escaped with a slap on the
hand and was ordered by the court to perform aerial tricks for children in
Central Park. Ed assured me that we could exchange court leniency for
instruction to police and fire departments on ways to snatch suicides and
future climbers from building ledges. I did not share his conviction that we
were going to be heroes. Finally Ed compromised, moderating his resolve to
bluff police artillery.
On the evening of January 28,1977, a cool and cloudless Friday, all the
conspirators gathered at the Drummonds' apartment. What had begun as a
modest trespass on the Pyramid had swollen to include an eight-person film
crew, a photojournalist from the San Francisco Chronicle, a. physics professor
from Berkeley, friends with "program notes" to be handed out to spectators
and policemen, and letters to be delivered to San Francisco's mayor George Moscone, Police Chief Charles Gain, and Governor Jerry Brown. A helicopter
with a camera mount was scheduled to make two sweeps of the building at 250
dollars per sweep. Miscellaneous gear included a rubber chicken, balloons to
be released from the summit, and three clown's noses purchased from a local
magic shop to keep things light.
Once the idea of a two-day spectacle had become fixed in our minds, each
of us had begun to rehearse our performances. Ever ready to advance his Lone
Ranger morality, Ed went so far as to write a pamphlet that condemned the
Transam owners and portrayed the building as a showpiece for the Mafia.
Less interested in grandstanding a cause, I decided to do street-theater pro-
gram notes to offset Ed's ferocity with a little frivolity. Grace bashfully wrote
That night everything was prepared: the cameras were loaded; portable
microphones were taped to our backs; and hammocks, parkas, piss bottles,
food, tape for our hands, glass clamps, water, hard candies, and the rubber
chicken were all packed into a tattered haul bag. Ropes and hardware were
placed into smaller packs. Attempts at festivity were few and subdued.
Whether we would even get off the ground was a matter for real concern; if the
police or security guards were on their toes, the efforts and money of dozens of
people would be wasted.
At two in the morning I retired to the bathroom for what might be the last
relaxed chance for days. At 3 A.M. our tiny caravan drove to a spot two blocks
east of the Pyramid and parked. The photojournalist from the Chronicle
watched us heap the gear onto our backs and stealthily accompanied us from
beneath an overpass. Our first misfortune occurred one block later when a
second reporter suddenly materialized from the shadows.
Gambling that the police would be less likely to shoot first if a bona fide
reporter was present, Ed had informed the Chronicle of our secret climb
twelve hours earlier. By way of securing the paper's confidentiality, he had
also sworn not to alert any other news agency; this would be their exclusive.
The Chronicle reporter was predictably upset to discover a competitor on the
scene, and she made several caustic accusations. (We later learned that her
husband worked for the second reporter's radio station.)
As our attempts to pacify the two fuming reporters muttered to a close, a
police car slid down the street. The officers didn't look at our tense cluster, or if
they did, passed us off as innocent rabble. Startled by the sight of the police
car, we mobilized. Ed sauntered toward the garden restaurant located beneath the east wall, stood atop the stair rail, and pulled himself onto the
canvas awning that tunnels out from the restaurant. Grace was next, then I
One by one, afflicted with the cold and anxiety, we balanced on the
awning ribs and quietly relayed our equipment onto the restaurant roof
before sliding up and over the lip ourselves. Grace was shivering, the only
perceptible trace other uncertainties about the climb. In the past few weeks,
she had finally stitched together some formula of resolution. Ed caught her
wrist; I pushed her foot. The Pyramid loomed above us.
Fumbling at the coils of rope as we slumped against a pillar, we realized
for the first time that our line of ascent was directly in front of the guard's
coffee room. The cubicle was well lit and illuminated our selection of pillars
like a spotlight. We couldn't go left, for it would put us too close to the street; if
we shifted to the right, we would be immediately above the restaurant's glass
roof. A fall would mutilate the unfortunate leader. We could only hope that
the coffee-room window would deflect the guard's vision until dawn equalized
the lighting. By that time we were sure to be higher.
The pillars section, for which we'd prescribed half an hour in our time-
table, instantly rebuked us. In trying to walk the pillar in the fashion of
lumberjacks ascending a tree, Ed's loop of nylon webbing shredded and then
stuck on the concrete. Had the webbing allowed more mobility, Ed might have
risen twenty or thirty feet only to rocket backwards when the sling finally cut
through. The cement was rough and sharp and had us all bleeding after a few
touches. While I belayed him from the shadows, Ed next attempted to hug the
steeply slanted pillar and scoot himself up. He could have gone higher, but the
futility was apparent: thirty feet up and he would have needed to anchor
himself in with slings—without a hand to spare. A half hour had passed.
Nervous whispers from the garden below informed us that the coast was
clear, more a report of affairs at sidewalk level than for our benefit. The
whispers did nothing but frighten Grace and me even more. It seemed very
possible that the cement might have ears. Grace huddled in her green cagoule
at the root of the monolith, her smallness emphasized by the immensity of the
Pyramid. I considered surrendering to the night while we were still undetected. Some other time we could return with a mechanical answer to the
pillar. Grace later told us she'd crawled off to a corner and peed in a trough of
roofing gravel "like in a kitty box."
Besides holding offices in its neck, the Pyramid also contains a bank. The
significance of this surfaced as we looked at the coffee machine that was bound
to lure bank guards to our molecule of activity. Ed and I whispered wkh
unsaid anger, strangely cocked to blame each other. The unnatural silence,
the merciless concrete, and the threat of eventual arrest combined to create a
sharper feeling of anxiety than I've ever met with on a mountain or rock. We
were being beaten by magicians who really had made an insoluble architecture, but rather than admit it, we were daring each other to say the profane
word "retreat." At the same time, angry as we were, we were racking our
brains for the key to the pillars and glass. Then, abruptly and in perfect focus,
I spied a way to continue. In pointing out the dubious possibility, I also
realized that I was not good enough to perform the maneuver myself.
Before we lost all momentum, Ed snaked across a bridge of horizontal
pillars and lodged himself at the bottom of my proposed route. With his rump
seated against the pillar, he gently pressed his feet against the ribless glass
that hung above him. The counter-pressure was sufficient for him to scoot a
little higher, then reset his feet. One misstep concentrating too much pressure
on too small an area of glass, and he would have shot his foot through, leaving
one sheared leg on the second floor and his body dangling above the pavement.
It was impossible to protect his ascent, so Ed gingerly continued with an even,
apelike meditation. I watched horrified as other, equally deadly, consequences to Ed's motions occurred to me, but I didn't communicate this fear to
Grace. She lay against a pillar, suffering Ed's boldness without a glance. Ed
was halfway up the pillar when she finally admitted that she didn't want to be
where she was. She then returned to muteness among the packs and the haul
Ed's dare was the sleekest, fiercest act I've ever seen, and it worked. With
ruthless happiness, he allowed himself to fool the sharp, massive contours of
the building, gluing and ungluing his hands and feet and body across the
glass as if exploring the genitals of a giant. At last he began to marionette two
ropes into position, one on each side of a pillar. I clipped jumars onto these
ropes, which by arrangement draped the pillar on either side, and then
walked up in opposition to Ed's stance. Fairly quickly I was level with Ed,
though fifteen feet distant from him. He peered at me from beneath the false
ceiling he had arrived at. I looked up at the windows, elevator fins, and
headwall as the sun started to paint them flamingo pink.
We'd lost two hours and still hadn't reached the windows. I hauled the
sack of gear up to where I hung, then whispered down for Grace. Dawn was
traveling down the canyoned streets, poisoning our cover. We were certain
now that we'd be caught, though how high we could reach before the first
alarm remained an open question. We still hoped that dangling in grotesque
suspension from the skin of the building, we could persuade the police to let us
make ourselves safe. If we had our way, that would not be until we'd topped
out. Ed prodded Grace with the special language of married people, and
silently she allowed him to haul her up.
Meanwhile, two janitors had appeared in the room just opposite our
stance on the pillars. With an easygoing monotony they were changing
light bulbs; one man would hold a three-foot stepladder as the other jockeyed
old and new bulbs. The first to see us, their sole reaction was to render us a
Calmed by this incident, we set to work gaining the windows. Failure
again seemed imminent after a few attempts, and again retreat was on the
tips of our tongues. I fastened a stirrup to what had become a cobweb of ropes
and slings and stood in the highest loop. Ed then clambered up my leg and
back and stood on my shoulders, then on my upstretched palms, but repeatedly the cliffhanger he was trying to hammer into a seam in the concrete popped
out. The joint angled downward and spat out all the inventions Ed came up
with. Each time he tried to stand in a stirrup his foot would come slamming
down onto my shoulder or head, and I was seriously weighing the chances of a
crooked neck if he continued much longer. Another effort and Ed managed to
stack two tenuous cliffhangers in the seam. The stirrup held and Ed victoriously
squeezed up into a downsloping window well. Like an animal, he
surveyed the cliffs and linear gulfs from his private cave, delighted with his
own audacity. It was nearly 8:30. The Saturday-morning city was still restive
and hushed, but beginning to sparkle. Looking around, I saw a dozen office
workers standing at a fourth-story window across the street. One, absolutely
silent and insulated behind his plate of glass, toasted us with his cup of coffee.
As we'd hoped, the windows were only moderately difficult, and, of
course, architecturally uniform. In minutes Ed was up to the seventh floor,
anchoring himself to a window-washer's bolt. He cautiously backed up the
bolt with several tube chocks and one of his special wooden pitons, then called
for Grace to join him. Steeling herself, Grace repeated her wish to go down.
At that very moment a security guard, alerted by someone, dashed to the
garden entrance and frantically scanned the wall above. It took him a moment to locate us—the perspective was unnatural—and then he exploded.
Small and distant though he was, he looked tempestuously muscular in his
rage. Luckily, the daylight exposed us as something other than tardy thieves
or he might have drawn his gun. The guards, we later learned, were supposed
to check the outer grounds regularly, but seldom did. They didn't fail to
respond, however, once we were spotted. The Berkeley professor, a balding
man with a look of husbanded wisdom, stepped up to the guard and tried to
soothe him as per plan. This only provoked the guard; the professor's later
dealings with the police landed him down at the holding tank. The guard
ranted at us for several moments more, then disappeared to call in more
The stage was set for a race against arrest, but the situation was visibly
remote from climax. We were still near the foot of the Pyramid, the climbing
was slow, and we lacked dynamism. Again Grace relented and allowed herself
to be pulled, hand over hand, up to the seventh-story windowsill where Ed was
perched. As I watched Grace dangle upwards, a window far above and to my
right opened. A white-haired head popped out, sighted us, and vanished.
Moments later, a second window, lower and still to the right, repeated this
sequence. Finally, triangulations focused and the window next to Ed opened.
It was the head janitor. He proved to be a pleasant man; at first gruff, he
became warmer after Ed's invitation to join us for the remainder of the climb,
even agreeing to meet us ten floors higher with coffee and sandwiches.
Below us, reporters and television cameramen had begun to congregate,
heralding the arrival soon afterwards of fire trucks and police cars. To my
surprise, the crowd was dominated by professional media people and uniformed men—people who channel thoughts and control activity. The people
we'd hoped would enjoy the climb with us, the common city dwellers, were
uninterested or at best bemused, and definitely in a minority. The climb had
not been created as a performance—we weren't climbing for publicity—but
knowing that we would be climbing publicly, Ed and I had expressed a mutual
wish to include San Franciscans in our sojourn. Instead, there were reporters
and cameramen who would package us on the second page, display us on
January 29 television, and sell us to the Associated Press. As for the law, one
fireman was overheard volunteering to remedy the problem with a sharp
knife. It was obvious we'd anticipated something more (or less) than the urban
The moment Grace reached Ed she began crying, scared of the building
and yet exhilarated, but also disappointed in having to confront Ed with her
decision to go down. She was firm this time: she had faced the Pyramid and
now, facing Ed, there was nothing more to fear. Ed lowered her. As she spun
lazy circles downwards, Grace looked relieved. We exchanged salutations as
she went by, and then she looped gently into a tight circle of newspeople and
Soon I began to join Ed.jumaring the line that hung from his intricate
anchor. Working around an overhang, I could hear the police before I saw
them. A young, articulate officer had set his call radio on the ledge beside Ed.
As I got closer, I could hear the static and verbiage of numerous murder, theft,
and fire alarms that were thronging the city's airwaves. Now and then the
officer would lean out and identify one of the calls as being from his district.
Normally, he pointed out, he could have responded to this or that genuine
emergency. He never went so far as to declare that we were directly responsible, but he did throw the burden of economic guilt on us. I counted six
firetrucks and eight police cars near the garden entrance. A fire alarm crack-
led through the radio and three casualties were enumerated. The officer
politely showed us which trucks should have been on the scene.
Nearly up to the seventh story, I could hear Ed busily trying to set the
logic straight and have the fire trucks and police cars dispatched to their
areas, but the officer was adamant. We were unknown factors in a map of
hourly emergencies, and because we were outside the ordinary computations
of crime and emergency, the authorities overreacted, then insisted on their
overreaction without really justifying it. The argument would have lacked all
force except for the radio that snapped off casualty numbers and calls for help.
It affected both Ed and me, even though we knew the logic was fuzzy.
The police had chosen to react in absurd numbers; they flocked beneath
us and milled silently inside the window behind Ed. With the radio imparting
a heightened sense of urgency to each successive minute, our arguments for
the climb as an aesthetic survey of the Pyramid—and as a climb in itself—
seemed incoherent even to me. The idea had been to append ourselves to the
Pyramid, to interweave our lives, for the duration of the climb, with the life of
the building. Dangling from a rope beside the call radio, I thought that idea
sounded very hollow.
And so the city won out. We were citizens, and despite our native instincts,
we accepted the responsibilities. We were out of the woods, in a place
where the objective hazards of climbing included a felony charge in addition
to glass that was fragile and cement that chewed ropes. It startled us both, I
think, and still does, that we surrendered so easily. By noon the architecture
literally absorbed us. I went first, stepping in through the open window of the
seventh floor where a dozen men, looking huge in their uniforms, were
obviously pleased to have captured at least one of us. As I passed inside, Ed
pursed his lips and histrionically confided that he'd be "soloing on then." For a
few minutes I actually thought he might, too, infected with the conceit of
Harry F. Young—the arrogance of the hermit.
His face was bright with the sun. As I watched him from inside the
building, two happy policemen detailed the plan they'd readied for us if we
hadn't surrendered. Ignorant of the fact that we'd been anchored to the
exterior, they blithely described how, with a quick shove on the window
behind Ed, they would have neatly tumbled us both into the room. In horror I
imagined the likelihood of officers tumbling to the sidewalk instead.
Their ignorance of climbing, and even of the workings of a window, gave
me an odd, retrospective feeling that I'd betrayed something. Their calculations were off, their knowledge was faulty. The "reasonable control" of
citizens was not reasonable, and logically not even control. It was a trap of
some sort, a sacrifice. For an instant I considered escaping outside on some
pretext, or at least yelling to Ed to go ahead and solo. But with a metallic
jangle of hardware, he had already unclipped his knots and freed the anchor.
One step and he was inside with the rest of us.