Urban Underground 

The wild places are now gone. The planet has been mapped. The highest peaks were conquered. Even space has tourists. So adventurous urban explorers are tackling the next frontier.

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Although there's no formal research on the demographics of subterranean scofflaws, anecdotally the typical explorer tends to be a college-educated member of the middle class under the age of thirty. "Urban explorers are normal people," writes Panic! "They just happen to have a different and interesting hobby. They are students, IT professionals, parents, public servants, university graduates. Sure, some do it to escape from society, and others do it, and some feel like they don't fit in. But we are not revolutionaries, rebels, or crazy. It's just a hobby. ... For me personally, it is the thrill, the buzz, the adrenaline rush. I know what I am doing is risky, but it is also fun, an adventure."

Due to its secretive nature, it's also an adventurous hobby without much written history. Still, there's widespread agreement that the seeds of urban exploration were sown 25 years ago right here in the Bay Area.


In 1977, a group of four eccentric pals met at Fort Point near Golden Gate Bridge for what they cheekily called "storm watch." Each of them would take turns grabbing onto a dangling chain and waiting to be baptized by a thirty-foot waves. If you held onto the chain, you lived; if you let go, you'd be washed out to sea.

From those early Golden Gate gatherings sprang the San Francisco Suicide Club. "They decided they wanted to start a group where people would challenge their fears, have fun, learn new stuff, and push their limits," recalls Oakland signmaker John Law, an early member of the club. They called it urban adventuring. "We just looked at the urban environment as a playground to explore," says Law, who is cowriting a book about the club.

The Suicide Club engineered a variety of stunts, which included infiltrating a Calistoga weekend retreat of the Unification Church and an Alameda barbecue held by the American Nazi Party. It also held potluck dinners on the Golden Gate Bridge, scaled buildings and bridges, and gave black-tie tours of Oakland's sewers. The Suicide Club only lasted five years, but its influence stretches much farther -- as evidenced by the antics of current culture-jammers such as the latter-day urban explorers; the Billboard Liberation Front; and the Cacophony Society, which played a role in launching the Burning Man festival. Like today's urban explorers, Suicide Club members advocated not damaging or vandalizing any of the environments they infiltrated.

Nearly a decade after the demise of the Suicide Club, Berkeley's Ten Speed Press published a little-noticed 150-page book by author Alan North. The illustrated how-to manual, The Urban Adventure Handbook, gave tips on sewer-crawling, riding on the center line in rush-hour city traffic, and scaling buildings or "buildering" (as opposed to "bouldering" in rock-climber jargon). The author says he never heard of the Suicide Club, and coined the term "urban adventure" on his own. North recalls coming to urban adventures as a substitute for rock-climbing and other outdoor mountain sports. "I used to be a climbing bum, a skiing bum, sort of an outdoor adventure junkie," says the Berkeley resident, who occasionally still indulges in a little urban adventuring. "When I first came to San Francisco, I had virtually no money, I couldn't get to the mountains; I didn't even have a car. I was bummed out about being stuck in the city. Then I just started noticing when I would ride my bike to the movies in traffic, I was kind of getting a mountain buzz just by riding in traffic. ... Somehow, I thought, there's an urban equivalent to mountain sports, and I felt the need to write about it."

North, who boasts of having rock-climbed the vertical face of Half Dome, is pictured in the book climbing buildings all over San Francisco, from the Financial District to the Mission. The risks of this kind of climbing are often quite different from those found on the sheer granite walls of Yosemite. North says his urban climbing adventures have been interrupted by police officers on more than one occasion. "It's usually like, 'What are you doing up there? I'm gonna arrest you, stop doing that.' For me what I do is, 'Oh yes, sir,' acquiesce and let them do their authority trip. And, you know, I walk away."

Although the Bay Area boasted a strong role in the early days of organized urban exploration, the scene here now is small and disorganized compared to places such as Chicago, Buffalo, Toronto, Paris, and Melbourne. Santa Cruz-based explorer Modes believes the reason is because California isn't as well-suited to urban exploration as older Rust Belt states. For one thing, development here is usually newer than back East, and land is too valuable to let most abandoned factories go vacant too long without being redeveloped. "The West Coast -- it's young," Modes says. "On the East Coast, they've been doing the industrial revolution since it was the industrial revolution."

Still, one local tradition that dates back decades had managed to remain vibrant in recent years: spelunking through the labyrinthine underground steam tunnels at UC Berkeley. Until recently, that is.


It's a weeknight, and the sun went down about ninety minutes ago. Students are still walking and biking through the central campus area. Munching on a slice of Blondie's pizza, 33rd Degree Freemason doesn't look too optimistic about finding an unsecured grate leading to Cal's dark and cramped underground steam tunnels. He also doesn't look too disappointed. After all, the six-foot-by-eight-foot tunnels are intensely hot; temperatures sometimes reach 130 degrees, and water condensation covers the floors and walls. Then, of course, there's the asbestos to consider.

Portions of this ten-mile underground system were built at the turn of the twentieth century, and contain the often-scalding pipes that supply steam heating to buildings across the Cal campus. Universities across the United States boast similar tunnel systems, and in recent years they've become a major attraction for urban explorers. Not too long ago, there was an Internet discussion group devoted just to tunneling -- alt.college.tunnels -- but explorers abandoned the group after it was bombarded by commercial spam.

At some colleges, such as the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, tunneling is practically a rite of passage for undergrads, who have filled the tunnels with poems and drawings. The tunneling tradition is not so strong at Cal, but the mysterious and foreboding steam tunnels here have been part of the university lore for decades.

"Students have been getting in there periodically over the years," acknowledges UC Police captain Bill Cooper. "We have not really had problems with students damaging anything, but it's a certainly a risk to them and there's the potential that something could get accidentally damaged or, you know, that somebody could use them for some criminal purpose. We take reports of people in there seriously, and have in the past stopped people and made arrests."

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