Andy Taylor is coming down from his first ascent of the day, and he's poised on a ledge 14 feet above the cement sidewalk where I stand looking up.
"Walk a little closer," he says, and no sooner do I take two steps forward than he has leapt into the air, soaring over my head. I turn around to see him quickly tuck into a roll as he lands, then pop up on two feet, nonchalantly asking, "Where do we go next?"
The 22-year-old Taylor has never climbed outside Florida, a state whose highest point is only 345 feet above sea level. Twelve months ago he rarely climbed anything more technical than the ladder he uses in his job as an electrician. He's athletic, to be sure, but most of his climbing skills are self-taught, and his disdain for safety equipment is — well, spectacular.
I'm a little worried as he hangs 57 feet over my head, free-climbing a 70-foot-tall parking garage in downtown Orlando. He pauses as he approaches the next ledge, and I suspect his mantra is running through his head: "Climbing, you've got three choices. Let go and die. Hang on until exhaustion and die. Or make your next grab and have a chance at living."
Only 12 months ago Taylor was just like any other Orlando 20-something, working a day job, catching a few concerts at (the now defunct) Will's Pub, going wakeboarding behind his cousin's boat. Then a "nice young lady" — a term Taylor uses often — took him to Aiguille Rock Climbing Center in Longwood.
"I could barely climb then," he recalls. But after one session he was hooked. He began spending more and more time at the rock-climbing center, and his skills advanced rapidly.
In fact, according to Tara Ziegler, who has worked at Aiguille for four years and has been climbing for 12, Taylor's skills have developed surprisingly fast.
"He started hanging out with the better climbers, and pretty soon he was climbing as well as they do," Ziegler says. "It would take your average climber anywhere from three to four years to get to where he's gotten in one year."
Taylor's earned a bit of a reputation as a daredevil around the climbing center for his hijinks on the climbing walls — "I've had to yell at him quite a few times for doing flips off one of the ledges," says Ziegler — and his escapades on the buildings of downtown Orlando. What does the hard-core, dedicated climbing crowd think of his antics?
They don't disapprove. "The guys here all clamber around to check out the photos of Andy climbing. They can't get enough of it," says Ziegler.
Climbing on the street offers a much different experience than a gym or a naturally formed route. In some ways, it's easier. By their very nature, buildings are regular and predictable. But Taylor still needs to test every hold before making a move. And while you would think concrete and mortar would offer reliable purchase, it's not rare for him to rip an entire brick, or more, out of a wall.
Climbing an older three-story building off Colonial Drive, he tore five bricks out of the wall, 30 feet above the ground, leaving him with just four fingers and a tenuous toehold on the side of the building. Fortunately that's enough, and Taylor was able to shift to another hold, scramble to the top and catch his breath.
Urban climbing has other unique hazards. There is less chance of finding scorpions, snakes or other critters on a building than on a mountain, but on the other hand there aren't many cops policing the mountains.
"Yeah, cops don't take too kindly to me scrambling up the side of a building," observes Taylor, who says he's been spotted and approached by police more than 40 times, though he's yet to go to jail for climbing.
"Typically, they think I'm trying to break into a building and rob it, or they want to know if I'm on drugs. They've given me sobriety tests, brought police dogs to sniff my car, checked my arms to see if I've got track marks, they ask me if I'm on heroin, steroids, PCP. They've threatened me with jail, felony charges; a couple older cops even thought I was a terrorist. And I don't get a choice if they decide to search me. Apparently climbing gives one reasonable cause to search."
One recent escapade almost landed him and a friend in the clink.
"I was hanging out with a girl I had met at the rock-climbing gym, and we passed a building I knew we could get to the roof of, so up we went. After chatting on the rooftop for a bit, we decided to head down. I went down first so I could catch her if anything went wrong. I was waiting for her on the ground, and that's when she got spotted. Fortunately, the police were much less apt to take a pretty young lady to jail or write her a ticket, and she got off."
If jail does happen, Taylor's got a solution. "I just need someone willing to sponsor me bail money. Then it's no holds barred. I'll climb anything I can get my hands on — literally."
To date, his tallest conquest in downtown Orlando is a seven-story parking garage on Orange Avenue. On a recent trip to downtown St. Petersburg, however, he scaled a 13-story building, putting him nearly 200 feet off the deck. He finished that climb in under three minutes and came down via the stairs, where a security guard was waiting, threatening to call the police. Taylor left just as the guard started sputtering into his walkie-talkie about a crazy spider-guy with blue hair.
Ups and downs
Walking downtown with Taylor is like gathering food in the wild; or more accurately, like hunting for it. The climb is the prey, and he's got to be stealthy to catch it. So when he shows up to meet me at the corner of Church Street and Rosalind Avenue, his entrance is more Peter Parker than Spiderman. Except for his trademark blue hair, Taylor blends in with the crowd, wearing sweatpants, headphones and a decidedly punk-rock Black Flag T-shirt.
I don't know where we're going, but I know which direction: up. As we prowl the streets, Andy examines the buildings. The first thing he looks for isn't a way up; it's a way down.
"Coming down is about three times more tiring than climbing up," he says. "So before I climb, I make sure I've got somewhere to go once I'm on top."
Next, he checks toe- and handholds to see if he can get enough grip to support his weight. He doesn't need much; two fingers are enough to hold him up. With four he can manage a one-handed pull-up.
Does he check what he'll fall on if he loses grip? Nope.
"If I can climb it, I will climb it. I'm going up, or I die."
However, when exiting a building requires a large leap, what's on the ground becomes important. All concrete is created not equal. Cement is something Andy is more familiar with than a downtown construction worker.
"There's hard cement and soft cement," he observes. "New cement is soft. … But this stuff here," he says, stepping up the stairs of the Cathedral Church of St. Luke on North Magnolia Avenue, "is old and hard."
How much harder?
"Break a bone harder."
He's still talking by the time we're standing in front of the Magnolia Place building on Church Street, and I'm wondering why he's still talking instead of climbing, when he motions to two rent-a-cops standing across the street, chatting idly. "Those guys won't do shit, but they would have the real cops here in about a second," he says.
So we keep walking, and Taylor starts telling me about parkour, sometimes known as free-running. Parkour, a mix of gymnastics, bouldering and urban trail-running (think of the chase scene in Casino Royale) uses techniques similar to those that Taylor employs to vault over obstacles, jump from rooftop to rooftop, or safely leap to the ground from more than three times his height.
"Parkour isn't just an activity, it's a philosophy, too," he says. "The basic principle is being able to negotiate obstacles to move from point A to point B in the most efficient manner possible."
He stops in mid-sentence and ducks into an alleyway between Court Avenue and Magnolia Avenue, casing a climb and roof-to-roof jump. Kicking aside Olde English empties, Taylor walks up a rickety flight of the fire escape's steel stairs, till he's just a few feet below the roofline. He leaps up onto the stair railing, looking for handholds. There's a light mounted on the wall above the stairs, but it wiggles a little too much when he grabs it. He looks elsewhere for a route up, and spies two parallel pipes about a foot apart running 35 feet up the wall of the building. He runs down the stairs, then leaps from the ground and attaches himself to the two pipes. He's all the way up in about 12 seconds — a quarter of the time it would take the average person to scale that height on the stairs. At the top, he peers over the edge of the roof for a few seconds before claiming the roof-to-roof jump is a no-go. The approach for the jump is short, and there's an extra ledge to negotiate. So we keep walking.
The cult of lazy
How can anyone be at peace hanging by their fingernails seven stories above the pavement?
"Because of that ‘I could die' feeling," he jokes. But don't get him wrong. Taylor doesn't have a death wish. "I'm really careful about what I climb, and how I climb."
Indeed, he hardly has a brash air of invincibility. He approaches the question of why he climbs in the same analytical manner as he approaches the climbs themselves.
"It's about exploring the limits of what your body can do."
Taylor believes most people live in a world governed not by the laws of their federal or local bureaucracies, but by the limitations they set upon themselves. So, in essence, he climbs for one reason: because he can.
"People stand around and gawk at me for doing this. It freaks people out — they think I'm crazy — but I'm just doing something I know to be fully in the realm of my capability."
So why the blue hair?
"It's punk rock, man!" he states emphatically. "It's been blue for almost six years now, but before that it was red, bright green, Mohawk, tri-hawk, double-hawk."
But Taylor's more Jello Biafra than Sid Vicious, and his opinion of the stereotypical punk rocker is less than complimentary. "Most people are just into punk rock for getting drunk and breaking stuff. They don't realize punk rock had its roots in anti-establishmentarianism and political theory — like Marxism or anarchism."
One could even say his penchant for scaling things he shouldn't is a direct and highly visible protest for a higher political cause.
"No man should have a right to tell me what to do," he says, spontaneously cartwheeling off the sidewalk onto the street after vaulting over a bike rack. "When I climb, I'm not destroying any buildings, I'm not putting anyone else's life in danger, I'm not even really putting my own life in danger. Who has the right to say I can't do that? It's a victimless crime. And it's a wake-up call to people that says, ‘Hey, you can do this, you can do that,' and people today desperately need that. People today are rapidly becoming taken over by the cult of lazy. TV, the Internet, it all encourages our culture to center around other people's lives, rather than our own. People are becoming used to taking the path of least resistance. That's part of what my climbing is about — not taking the path of least resistance — being more alive. What I'm doing is against the law, but I'm not fighting the law — I'm fighting human nature."
And the lesson for the crowds that gather below? "That you're fed your worldview — and as a human being, you should test those boundaries."
While new mountains won't be forming in his lifetime — especially in Florida — new buildings go up faster than he can climb them. Right now, he's got his eye on the 357-foot Solaire building at Church Street and Magnolia Avenue, which he's confident he can tackle. Only one problem. "I need someone to let me in to their apartment so I can get down! Put my MySpace page in there (myspace.com/ blueandy); if anyone has a building they think I can climb or want me to climb, let 'em tell me about it."
His enthusiasm leaves little doubt that he's going to find a way to scale every building in Orlando that it's possible to climb.
"Seriously, I'll climb anything. Hell, I'll even strap a sign on my back and call it advertising!" says an excited Taylor, bounding down a city sidewalk and jumping up to grab the overhanging branch of a tree above. He swings forward till his feet are level with the tree branch before letting go and dropping down to the sidewalk. He looks up, his elated expression gone.
"Ow. I got a splinter," he says Taylor. "That's why I hate climbing wood."firstname.lastname@example.org