Burning Man: Climbing with Camp UP

posted by dpm on 01/29/2013

Fine grains of dust filter through your bandana, and you taste the alkali as you grit your teeth against the wind. Visibility is near nil, but you keep moving, desperate for respite in this desolate land. Suddenly the wind stops and the dust drops, and you look up to see a troupe of monkeys swinging from the tentacles of jellyfish. The heat is getting to me, you think. Where the hell am I?

At ease, soldier. You have arrived at Camp UP. What size shoe do you wear?

The Camp UP crew and their Burning Man climbing wall. 

I first heard of Burning Man in college. Though the annual festival was described to me as a paradise, for some reason I found it intimidating, like I wouldn’t fit in. Several years went by as the festival grew in popularity, and before long I found myself unable to ignore the annual week-long rumble emanating from a remote lake bed in the Nevada desert. In 2010, my friend Zack, my girlfriend Vikki, and I bought our tickets and took the ride. Our feeble expectations were shattered, and the experience culminated a full year later, when we brought a climbing wall to the playa.

If you’ve never heard of Burning Man, I’d be surprised, but just in case: it’s a week-long festival that takes place in a temporary city of 50,000 people, which is completely dismantled and gone without a trace afterward. Unlike a traditional festival, the participants bring the music, art, and entertainment; if you’re at Burning Man, you are the attraction. It’s an experiment in communal living and radical self-expression, and everything from sushi to dubstep DJs, dusty orgies and barbershops can be found on the playa, but not money. Everyone brings something to contribute, be it a talent, a small gift, or a compliment.

The Burning Man Festival. Black Rock City, Nevada.

Like backcountry climbing, the environment is harsh and unforgiving. Attendees have to be self-reliant, bringing their own shelter, food, and water. One cannot show up and expect to buy what they need (except coffee and ice). Dust storms erupt out of nowhere, turning the reveling masses into helpless huddlers. Against this arid backdrop, things like movie theaters, bars, and giant slides seem miraculous. But they aren’t mirages. They are there, brought for your enjoyment by someone just like you.

If you have heard of Burning Man but haven’t gone, then let me tell you that anything you may have heard is probably true. Your best and worst dreams can be realized. Miracles, beauty, and depravity are commonplace. It’s not uncommon to be speaking to a naked fairy and a goat on 2-foot stilts while the three of you ride across the playa on a 30-foot yacht on wheels. Or something like that. And it has to be experienced to be truly understood.

Our first year, Zack, Vikki, and I tagged along with a couple of veteran friends. Not having any idea of what to expect (except for the unexpected), we didn’t bring much to contribute except for open and positive minds. Needless to say, we were blown away. The art was unforgettable (our favorite piece, Bliss Dance, found a home on Treasure Island, across from San Francisco). The lights, fire, and music at night made for a technicolor galaxy of playful wonderment. Everyone smiles at you, and the sense of community and generosity is so pervasive that you can’t help but feel inspired to display the Burning Man spirit in the “default world,” even after Black Rock City has returned to the dust and the ceaseless thump of electronic music has stopped reverberating between your ears.

The only thing that we missed on the playa was climbing. There were geodesic domes all over the place, which we swung from liberally, but no bonafide climbing wall. A travesty: Boulder, CO has only twice the population and four full gyms; there should at least be something, the three of us thought. One day, as ninjas ran through the playa to hand us warm, fresh-baked peach pie, we decided that we would be the ones to provide Burners with the sickest climbing wall Black Rock City had ever seen. And yes, the ninja thing really did happen.

A few months later, we joined forces with another Burner named Nour, and with our powers combined, formed Camp UP. None of us had ever done a project of this magnitude, and only Zack had any knowledge of carpentry. We didn’t even know how big the project would become, because none of us knew design. We reached out to everyone we knew, but only got offers for people to build one for us. We wanted this to be all ours.

Zack and I both learned how to use CAD programs. Using Google SketchUp, I designed a totally sick 360° free-standing boulder with topouts, a cargo net lounge inside, and a fireman’s pole to get down. Zack then designed a wall that was 14 feet tall by 26 feet wide. I thought it was totally lame compared to the majesty of the dream boulder I’d designed. He countered that his design was actually buildable. We chose Boulder Jr., and began to make a budget.

The fundraising site Kickstarter facilitates a large percentage of playa projects, and the proportion of successful campaigns shows the spirit of generosity in action throughout the year. It also demonstrates that people want badass burning art pieces badly enough to pay for them. Hoping that A) our friends would support us and B) climbing would appeal to Burners at large, we shot an over-the-top dorky promotion video and started a Kickstarter campaign asking for $6,900. It was an estimate of the total cost of building the wall, decorating it, and transporting it, rounded to a cheeky number. We raised $7,405. 

Rookies with power tools.

In a rented space, we began framing. We worked evenings after work and on weekends, cutting beams and sawing plywood, drilling and screwing, lifting and moving, and consuming a non-negligible amount of beer. Our climbing suffered, as gym time became build time. We recruited friends when we could. As the piece came together, more and more Burners wanted to join our camp, which ultimately included over 25 residents. Apparently the organizers of Burning Man thought we were hot shit; they reserved for us a spot on one of the main plazas, alongside other large, interactive installations.

We got tons of support from the Bay Area climbers. We posted posters in all the gyms, asking for donations of money, used shoes, and crash pads. We ended up with over one hundred pairs of stinky used shoes (and some new ones!), several large boxes of used holds donated by the Touchstone routesetters, and enough crash pads to cover all the ground at the base of the wall. We had beaten our Kickstarter goal, and had wind in our sails. 

The summer marched on, preparations were made, costumes were sewn, and the four of us tried our best to chew what we had bitten off. Building the wall was no small feat, as it not only had to withstand hundreds of pounds of hippie swinging from it during ferocious dust storms, but it also had to fit into a box truck for transport. Instead of just screwing wood together, we had to essentially construct giant legos, and connect them with bolts. We had also fallen into the task of bringing a score of campers with us, which meant all kinds of logistics.

Burning Man officially begins on Monday, the week before Labor Day, but they give some early arrival passes for the set up of large installations. The night before Vikki and I left was a mad scramble of loading up the wall panels, two dozen bikes, four yurts, 300 gallons of water, and boxes upon boxes of assorted crap.

Vikki and I finally left on Wednesday before the event started, and arrived on a mostly empty playa. The rest of the camp was a day or two behind us, so we built our shelter and unloaded the truck as best we could. Though we had come a long, long way, there was still the unanswered question of how we would actually put the upper sections of the wall together. In the city, we had a forklift to use. In Black Rock City, we did not.

The murals go up.

Finally, Zack, AKA Foreman McDrinky, arrived with my little brother Eliot, and construction began in earnest. In 100 degree heat, myself, Zack, Eliot, and our friend Kyle worked tirelessly to put the wall together. As for the upper sections, we backed the truck into position, lifted the panels onto the roof, and two people bolted them in place while two people held them aloft. It’s hard to describe the improvisational skills that went in to assembling the wall. I imagine that those who developed pitons and aiders felt the same way, albeit exponentially more scared.

During the evenings, we would ride our bikes around and observe the rest of the city being built. It was incredible. A 40-foot wooden Trojan horse was going up. The builders had been our neighbors in the building yard in Oakland that we rented. Monitoring each other’s progress was a highlight of the experience for us. At the end of the week, said horse was dragged by hundreds of people through the “gates of Troy” and set alight with flaming arrows, and it burned to the ground under a show of fireworks.

The finished product.

Boulder Jr. was finished on Monday morning, just in time for the first trickle of climbers. We stood back, and for the first time ever, watched people climbing the wall that we’d worked on for 8 months. It was beautiful. Nour and some of the other campers had painted three different murals that overlapped each other, including a wavy aquatic themed piece with friendly jellyfish. People in varying stages of undress clambered all over, while a dozen eager people watched. Next door, a camp called Rapper’s Delight played old-school hip-hop and handed out free drinks, and people danced while watching the climbing action.

It was, quite literally, a non-stop party with a climbing wall. It was a dream that came true. In a single year, we went from virgin Burners to the people we admired: the bringers of fun, the providers of a spectacular installation. Moreover, we had a chance to climb during Burning Man, which was the whole reason for the project in the first place.

Welcome to Camp UP.

Even my parents approved. I somehow convinced them that, at the minimum, Burning Man was something that had to be seen. Their friends Mike and John are a gay couple who’ve been to Burning Man many times, and they joined our camp as well. Perhaps the highest compliment came from them, that ours was the best-organized camp they’d ever been a part of. My parents were beyond impressed with our efforts, and I was absolutely thrilled to show them the wonder of the playa.

As the week went on and more and more people filtered in to Black Rock City, our wall saw more and more traffic. Several folks volunteered to help however they could. First time climbers thanked us for the opportunity. Veteran climbers told us they didn’t think they could go a week without climbing, and that thanks to us, they didn’t have to. One climber returned every day to set new routes on the wall. We illuminated the structure at night, and as the temps cooled, even more people joined in.

Like anything in this life, there are ups and downs. Behind the smiles and miracles and blinky lights, there was an undercurrent of resentment in our camp. You might call it a rift, between those of us who did and those who didn’t. Those of us who did got stuck with tearing down the wall and packing everyone’s shit into the truck as the week drew to a close. Those of us who didn’t, well, didn’t. Imagine a partner who agrees to carry his weight, but when you get on the trail, says he has a spiritual aversion to carrying anything metal or nylon, and could you take the rope and rack?

No matter. We made it back in one piece (barely). We were ready to write off Burning Man as a gathering of useless freeloaders that we’d somehow conned ourselves into sacrificing a year preparing for. A year later, in the most unexpected way, the whole experience was summed up to our satisfaction.

As is tradition, Burning Man closes with the ceremonial burning of multiple large structures. 

The wall did not return to Burning Man this year. Vikki and I are now on an open-ended climbing road trip. Zack came out to visit us in Fort Collins during the weekend of the Burn, and we drank the breweries dry while reliving some of the good times.

Earlier in the trip, my little brother had given us a spare SD card. We had no idea, but that card contained all of the lost footage from our year on the playa! For the first time in a year, we sat down and fully relived the process of unloading the panels, building the wall, and having dozens of people enjoying it. We forgot all about the hardships, the frustrations with other campers, the resentment. We instead took pride in the fact that we best friends had taken our idea, made it real, and did a damn good job of it. Ask anyone who was there. They’ll tell you the same.

Update: The wall has been given to a family in the Bay Area with two children on the youth national team. It was recently featured on Buzzfeed’s 25 Random Things You Can Get On Craigslist Right Now.

Check out Burningman.com for more info on the event. 

Click the image to watch the RV Project's video from the event.

Story, photos and video by Spenser Tang-Smith and his crew at the RV Project. Check out their website to follow them on their climbing road trip around the country.