On a fall night in 2009, a UVA student named Darren hopped a fence at the Carl Smith Center football stadium. Wearing a climbing harness, he made his way to the base of a light tower, one of four that illuminate the field during UVA football games. He attached a carabiner—a small, metal clip used by climbers to connect to ropes—to a cable that ran up the side of the tower. Then Darren started to climb.
He unclipped and reattached his harness to the cable every 15′ or so, to maneuver around sections where the cable joined the tower. He felt fine until he reached a ladder, with handles that jutted from the tower pole at an acute angle. Finding it difficult to rest against the bars, Darren continued his way up. After a five-minute climb, he pulled himself onto the first platform he reached, and then lay down, exhausted, his body held aloft by metal beams. He rested for a moment, then stood and looked around.
To the east, he could see the Carters Mountain range. He watched columns of steam rise above the vertical limit of the UVA Grounds. He took a few pictures and knotted a white flag around a bar where he stood, then began his climb down. Later, he posted the photos on his website, a blog called Wondrous Wanderings, but wrote that the photos offer “only a hint of the real thing.”
More than a year later, Darren considers Scott Stadium the culmination of his UVA climbs. The event also marks a local apex in urban exploration—something of an ideologically driven call for adventure, albeit a hobby that asks participants to gauge their own safety and potentially put themselves at a great deal of risk.
Now, the history of urban exploration at UVA includes Tom Gilliam, a first-year who died in March after he fell 40′ from the top of the Physics Building. Following Gilliam’s death, two UVA students closed their website, “The Bold and the Ruthless,” which provided “anecdotal demonstration” of how to access UVA rooftops and steam tunnels—prohibited locations, according to school officials. The website now features a note telling visitors that UVA “has changed its policy towards accessing of the steam tunnels and rooftops from one of benign neglect to one of active prevention and prosecution.”
While Gilliam was neither identified as an urban explorer nor a member of The Bold and the Ruthless, his death compelled the University to confront the world of wall-climbers, roof-walkers and tunnelers among its students. As UVA increases security measures and police presence around its buildings and steam tunnels, it also confronts a legacy of illicit exploration on Grounds that dates back nearly five decades. And while the University struggles to reconcile students’ safety and independence, it bears asking whether UVA is capable of preventing students from roaming where they choose, even if it is at their own peril.
Illicit exploration of UVA is largely tied to the school’s steam tunnels, which were constructed in the 1950s to accompany the expansion of the school’s heating system and have generated local lore for nearly as long. Before UVA admitted women into its College of Arts & Sciences in 1970, male students reportedly used the tunnels to sneak into McKim Hall, a dorm for female students in the nursing school. Renowned UVA Politics Professor Larry Sabato told the Daily Progress in 1996 that steam tunnels provided “one of the prime entertainment options.”
The legacy of UVA rooftop exploration is less clear. However, both “spelunk the steam tunnels” and “view UVA from the roof of a building” appear on a list titled “111 Things To Do before You Graduate,” created by the Class of 2011 Trustees. Other universities also attract the occasional rooftop or subterranean explorer. In 2004, the Yale Daily News published a feature about students who referred to (and used) building rooftops as “beaches.” At Harvard, students as well as political figures like former Alabama Governor George Wallace and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara reportedly traveled through the tunnels.
The tenets of urban exploration seem simple enough: Go where you dare, and accept all potential consequences for your decisions—including injuries and criminal charges. However, the trend was codified in the mid-1990s by an explorer named Jeff Chapman. Better known by his handle, “Ninjalicious,” Chapman founded a website and magazine called Infiltration, which described urban exploration as “the investigation of manmade structures not designed for public consumption.”
A memorial for first-year student Tom Gilliam who suffered a fatal 40’ fall from the UVA Physics Building roof (top) last month after he and other students accessed the building after hours. A website called The Bold and the Ruthless, which formerly provided “anecdotal information” on how to access UVA rooftops including that of the Physics Building, was promptly scrutinized and removed.
Those structures, according to Infiltration, range “from mechanical rooms to stormwater drains to rooftops.” Chapman, who died of cancer in 2005, literally wrote the book on urban exploration—a guide called Access All Areas. (Coincidentally, UVA does not have the book in its libraries.)
UVA Police Captain Don McGee didn’t discover urban exploration through Chapman’s text. Rather, he learned about steam tunnel exploration when he joined the University force in 1982, and occasionally had to navigate the underground corridors himself. “I only went into them if I had to go or needed to go into them,” says McGee.
“It wasn’t unusual to get a report of a manhole cover off, and what would appear to be someone down in the steam tunnels,” he recalls. “We would check the tunnels to see if we could locate anyone.” Occasionally, says McGee, UVA Police caught students resurfacing from underground, and issued citations.
Similarly, UVA Police sometimes access rooftops to pursue individuals. “We would do that just as we would send an officer into a steam tunnel, if we knew that someone was there and possibly injured or we needed to get them out,” says McGee.
McGee calls the tunnels “quite dangerous.” Ask an explorer about the tunnels or rooftops and you might receive a different, albeit entirely subjective, answer. Darren says he has never been injured during a climb, nor spoken with individuals who have been. In a 2006 edition of the UVA yearbook, Corks & Curls, a student remarked that he would occasionally study in the steam tunnels with friends.
“It’s really warm and quiet if you don’t mind the occasional rumbling from the pipes,” said the student.
Matthew Baltz and Steve Norum, the UVA students who created The Bold and the Ruthless, told C-VILLE via e-mail that urban exploration “was incredibly popular before we even became students.”
“Our goal was simply to make a resource for information that might help keep students safe,” wrote the pair, “akin to organizations that provide information on safe drinking to underage students, who choose to engage in a similarly illegal activity.”
The Bold and the Ruthless launched in 2008, and has attracted 13,000 views. Norum and Baltz also oversee the site’s mailing list, which numbers more than 150 subscribers. Asked whether urban exploration was common at UVA, Norum and Baltz responded: “Exceedingly.”
“Many sororities send pledges steam tunneling, and fraternities have been known to send pledges steam tunneling into the stadium,” the two wrote in an e-mail. “It isn’t uncommon to see the shadows of people moving around on every rooftop from physics to the Rotunda.”
Before midnight on March 27, UVA Police responded to the UVA Physics Building on McCormick Road, where they found Gilliam after his fall. Gilliam was moved to the UVA Medical Center Emergency Department, but ultimately succumbed to his injuries. Police later told media that snow and rain had left the roof slick, and Gilliam lost his balance and fell. Four students, who were with Gilliam at the time of his fall, told police that Gilliam entered through the east side of the building, and let them in the front door. Later, police found that a lock on the east door had been compromised.
While investigators do not suspect foul play or suicide and do not think alcohol was involved, the case remains open. McGee says UVA Police has increased its presence around areas of concern.
“We’re leery of giving tactics or details, because that really defeats the purpose of what you’re trying to accomplish,” said McGee. “But it is safe to say we’ve increased our presence at the Physics Building and other buildings around that area as much as we can.” UVA Spokesperson Carol Wood told media that the school planned to install additional locked gates in the school steam tunnels, and add new doors, locks and an electronic access system to the Physics Building.
Such illicit exploration would, in many instances, earn anyone apprehended a trespassing charge. However, without abundant fences and clear signage, McGee says such a charge is difficult to enforce. Instead, UVA Police issue site-specific warnings for tunnels or a particular rooftop and record any incidents. “And if that same person is found violating that warning, then they can be charged,” says McGee.
Between 2008 and 2010, UVA Police arrested 57 people for trespassing inside University buildings, and eight for accessing roofs. (They failed to nab a number of skinny dippers who accessed the school’s Aquatic Fitness Center via the steam tunnels in 2009.) During the same years, 92 individuals received warnings after police caught them inside University buildings, while 12 received warnings for trespassing in steam tunnels.
UVA Police do not track the number of people charged in these incidents. In 2004, graduate teaching assistant Justin Gifford and his 23-student detective fiction class were charged with trespassing when they were found on the grounds of the dormant Blue Ridge Hospital, owned by the UVA Foundation. (The hospital is a featured destination on other urban exploration websites.) Charges against the class were ultimately dropped. Most explorers are students, and are very compliant with law enforcement, says McGee.
So far this year, UVA Police arrested 12 individuals for trespassing in University buildings, and warned seven more. However, no one has been arrested or charged for trespassing on rooftops or in steam tunnels. McGee says there were four students with Gilliam at the UVA Physics Building, but there are no criminal charges pending in the Gilliam investigation at this point.
A metal grate at McCormick Road and Emmet Street (above) covers the entrance to a network of steam tunnels beneath UVA (below right). While students and others have explored the tunnels during the past 50 years, UVA Police Captain Don McGee calls the tunnels "a very dangerous and hazardous place."
In addition to criminal charges, students caught on UVA rooftops or navigating the tunnels could face penalties from the University, including dismissal. A statement from UVA spokesperson Carol Wood, sent days after Gilliam’s death, reminded media that UVA “is a community of trust,” a reputation reinforced in part by the school’s University Judiciary Committee (UJC).
The second UVA Standard of Conduct prohibits any action that “intentionally or recklessly threatens the health or safety of any person on University-owned or leased property…or in the City of Charlottesville or Albemarle County.” (The third addresses unauthorized entry into UVA buildings.) Violations, according to Wood, are “subject to referral to the student-managed University Judiciary Committee for appropriate sanction.”
“Any member of the University can initiate charges in that system,” wrote Wood. She added that UJC possesses the power to impose sanctions “up to and including expulsion from the University.” C-VILLE was not granted access to the tunnels or roofs for this story (nor did this reporter grant himself access).
Days after Gilliam’s death, his family and hundreds of members of the UVA community gathered at Trinity Presbyterian Church to commemorate him. His mother, Vicki Gilliam, remembered the eldest of her three sons as a young man who “would go to the heights, crazy child.” His grandfather, Tom, Jr., told C-VILLE that the family would seek no legal recourse from the University, and any changes to UVA policy is “their prerogative.”
“That said, I don’t think the University had ever considered this to be a particularly egregious sort of thing,” said Gilliam. Locking up the school, he said, “is against everything that the University stands for.”
A letter in the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student-run newspaper, echoed the sentiment. Alumnus John Feminella wrote that UVA’s response to Gilliam’s death is “a clumsy, reactionary effort that respects neither the autonomy nor the intelligence of its members.”
“If a student who illegally jaywalks is accidentally struck by a car, should we erect 10′-high iron gates around sidewalks to prevent anyone from crossing the street except at crosswalks?” asked Feminella.
Urban explorers prize autonomy and intelligence in equal measure. During his Scott Stadium climb, Darren (who declined to give his last name for concern over possible reprisal) says he felt concerned for his own safety, “but in a rational way.” He says he “cased the location out” to gauge his path and safety.
“I knew that, if I fell, that could be the end of me. But for me, it was a risk that I wanted to take—that was my decision to make.”
Darren may be atypical. An earnest photographer and avid rock climber, he says he reached his first rooftop at age five, when he climbed out his bedroom window to watch the sun set from the roof of his home. He began rock climbing near the end of high school, and says he had the opportunity to climb a number of other buildings before he came to UVA.
However, autonomy isn’t exclusive to explorers, or UVA students, or Charlottesville residents. Darren—and, in a way, Gilliam and the pair behind The Bold and The Ruthless—knowingly climbed walls and fences, entered buildings unauthorized, or sought the parts of UVA meant to be out of reach. And while UVA asked its community members to mind the Standards of Conduct and each other’s safety—reasonable requests both—it is within the realm of possibilities that an individual may choose not to, and without recklessly endangering another. By his estimation, 70 percent of Darren’s climbs, including trips to the same Physics Building roof where Gilliam last stood, were solitary.
At press time, UVA has not publicly engaged urban explorers, casual or otherwise, except to mourn Gilliam, denounce a website and encourage members of the UVA community to watch for opportunities to press charges. Asked whether the school planned to develop new education initiatives to further inform students about the dangers of accessing prohibited areas on Grounds, UVA officials did not return calls or e-mails.
“When it comes to someone’s personal decisions, I think that common sense is the only thing that can protect them from the wisdom or foolishness of their own decisions,” says Darren. “No one can enforce that for them.”
“If it’s locked, and it’s obvious that this is off-limits, then I don’t feel that the University has any responsibility for someone who chooses to circumvent those measures,” he adds. “I believe that person is totally responsible for his or her own actions and any outcomes, not the University. I also believe that it’s ultimately impossible to prevent a determined individual from engaging in this kind of activity.” Perhaps UVA and urban explorers are comparably determined. They just see things differently.