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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Captain Cooper says that after September 11, the university beefed up security even more to keep not just explorers but terrorists out of the steam tunnels. "I can't really go into all the details ... because we don't want to publicize specific security measures we're taking," he says.

Three years ago, local explorer Tobin Fricke launched a Web site called "UnderCal" that was dedicated to Cal's tunnels (http://splorg.org/undercal/). The site contains a rudimentary map of entry points and destinations, as well as a detailed description of his clan's trip through the tunnels: "The first thing we did, after looking around with flashlights, was to take off our jackets," Fricke wrote. "It was time to explore. We began heading east, up campus, away from the power plant. To our left ran three large insulated steam pipes. To our right, a periodic line of industrial-looking fluorescent lamps created an X-Files-esque landscape, leading one to almost expect to see the dull green fluorescent lamps come on all at once, illuminating the way for a stream of big-eyed gray aliens to run past, through the eight-foot by four-foot tunnel to a clandestine facility deep in the salt mines. We walked along. The tunnel was clean and our progress uninhibited. We stopped under a grating adjacent to Dwinelle Hall to enjoy the fresh, cool air filtering down. All at once there was this tremendous racket, a thunderous rumbling noise. 'The light!' exclaimed Brandon. The beam revealed nothing unusual in either direction. Our hearts pounding, we saw a car drive overhead over the grating."

It's been a long time, maybe even years, since 33rd Degree Freemason toured these steam tunnels himself. About a year ago, he and his crew came to the campus hoping to cruise through the most popular stretch of tunnel that goes underneath the Valley Life Sciences Building to the west and Wheeler Hall to the east. Unfortunately, when they got there they found the primary entry point north of Sproul Plaza locked.

But tonight he's trying again. Two of his companions, Doug and Di_Ash, try and pry open a grate next to a building on campus, but with no luck. So they check out another iron grate nearby. This one is not locked down, but it must weigh at least fifty pounds. The two manage to open it up enough to descend into what looks like a small boiler room that leads nowhere. They try a handful of others around the campus, including one adjacent to the Campanile, but all the grates are either locked or don't lead anywhere. The evening turns out to be a photo op, not an adventure.

Unauthorized tunnel access is practically impossible now, grouse explorers. The campus newspaper is largely to blame. A year ago, Daily Californian columnist Dev Chatterji wrote two columns about his tunneling experience. Chatterji also used his tunneling columns to advance a preposterous conspiracy theory about a secret underground society of university administrators -- including the likes of Chancellor Robert Berdahl -- controlling Cal policy. "The secret society upon which we had stumbled was known by an elaborate name -- the Order of the Golden Bear," Chatterji wrote. "The Order was formed in 1901 and has met twice a month ever since. As they meet behind closed doors, these figures of influence prevent any outside opinion from breaching their wall of exclusion."

Nonsense though it was, shortly after the column ran, university hard hats went around campus and secured grates previously used by explorers. The university is now in the process of installing special locks that will keep trespassers out, but allow tunnel workers to escape in an emergency.


The fallout from Chatterji's Daily Cal column neatly illustrates why most urban explorers eschew media attention. One glory-seeking tattletale can ruin a good thing for everyone else by giving authorities a heads-up they otherwise wouldn't have. But there's also a sort of reverse snobbery that characterizes some explorers' disdain for the press. The thinking goes that news stories will attract the attention of "tourists" with no respect for the explorer code. "Having such a great passion for our hobby, many fellow urban adventurers prefer to keep quiet about themselves and the places they explore," Panic! writes. "It allows for continued exploration of our favorite sites."

For instance, after a story in the March 2000 issue of Details magazine featured the leaders of Jinx, an irritated practitioner wrote them, "You guys just had to go for the glory, didn't you? ... It would have stayed a nice, nifty operation we all had, just quietly going on about our business, harmlessly dropping into places, and taking a quiet look around, but now every IDIOT and his cubicle partner is going to try."

Still, some longtime practitioners such as Panic! don't mind talking to the press. "I like promoting urban exploration in a safe and responsible way," he reasons. Later this year, in fact, he will embark on a worldwide urban exploration tour armed with a video camera and an itinerary of cool places to check out. Of course, he plans to hit the Paris catacombs. His other planned destinations include an abandoned subway system in the Midwest, underground steam tunnels at various college campuses, an old missile silo, and just maybe a pit stop here in the Bay Area. "Maybe the Discovery Channel will discover me one day," he jokes.

The day the Discovery Channel and the rest of mainstream society discovers urban exploration may not be too far off. 33rd Degree Freemason and his crew were featured last year on Fox News 11 in Los Angeles. Thanks to the Internet, urban exploration has become a worldwide phenomenon in less than a decade. In turn, recent media attention has created an even broader and more mainstream audience than ever before.

But just because the secret is out, that doesn't mean yuppies in designer galoshes with waterproof flashlights will start storming turd-filled sewers. As the editors of Jinx note on their Web site, "The natural habitats of Urban Explorers are not conducive to tourism. They are always illegal, usually dangerous, and often dark, cold, filthy places."

Panic! calls urban exploration an "evolving sport," albeit in the X-treme milieu like bungee jumping. To an extent, the rising popularity of urban exploration coincides with the rising popularity of other extreme recreational pursuits by bored members of the middle class looking to add a little danger to their overregulated, safety-seal-protected existence. But there's a key distinction that separates explorers from X-tremists: the law.

As the X Games show, even X-treme sports operate in officially sanctioned venues, earning corporate sponsorships even as they promote socially acceptable risk-taking. In contrast, urban exploration could never survive the albatross of such societal legitimacy. The explorers' rallying cry is, after all, "Go where you're not supposed to go." That means trespassing. That means breaking the law.

"The illegality of it ... does make it harder for the majority of people who walk the straight and narrow to experience that kind of adventure," acknowledges Modes. "And maybe that's just as well."

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