This story was originally published in the April 20 print issue.
Tall and lanky with a full head of hair, Robbie blends in with the thousands of students who walk across Mason’s campus everyday. On the roofs of Mason’s buildings, however, Robbie stands alone.
Since he started at Mason in 2013, Robbie has climbed to the roofs of Fenwick Library, Robinson Halls, the Hub, East building, Merten Hall, Shenandoah Bus Building and the Patriot Center.
“The JC is the only one I haven’t been able to crack,” Robbie said. “I think the only door to get up there is locked.”
Robbie’s proclivity for climbing buildings is matched by his affinity for video games, which may be the very reason Robbie climbs in the first place.
“You know how people say that video games encourage people to do violent stuff? I don’t buy into that, but I think they might have a point with this climbing stuff,” he said. “One of my favorite game series is Assassin’s Creed, and one of the main things you do in that is just climb up stuff and think to get a better idea of where you are, so maybe that is bleeding into my life.”
For Robbie, figuring out the paths to the roofs and spending time above campus is a mainly solitary activity. He said he typically looks around to find the route, checking doors and looking for openings. Once there, he said, he “just hangs out.”
“I usually come by myself. It’s a nice place to get my thoughts out,” Robbie said.
Although he enjoys his isolation, Robbie offered me a chance to tag along on one of his climbs. With his two friends, Lonnie and Mathias, we climbed up to the top of Fenwick Library.
A panoramic snapshot of Mason life is visible from that height, a view exclusive only to the students who know how to get to it. Adult students participate in live action role play in front of SUB I, sorority sisters in coordinating outfits march to their next social event and a muddled, balding professor in a flapping overcoat chats on a cell phone outside of Robinson A.
For Lonnie, the high altitude and accompanying view is something he was accustomed to even before coming to Mason. When he was younger, he frequently climbed the 7-11 convenience stores near his home.
Now, Lonnie enjoys living life high above ground. As a regular practitioner of parkour, he aims to travel in the most efficient way possible in the face of what he calls “obstacles.”
Originating in France, parkour is gaining popularity and followers from America’s youth, the trend spurred mainly by videos posted to the Internet. Defined by the New Yorker’s Alec Wilkinson as a “quasi commando system of leaps, vaults, rolls and landings designed to help a person avoid or surmount whatever lies in his path,” parkour demands a high level of athleticism from its practitioners, many of whom can be seen flipping around the residence buildings or the Hub.
Lonnie, dedicated to his sport, is lean, strong and up for the challenge. He is also cognizant of the risks that climbing roofs can pose, and chose to err on the side of caution when trying to do a backflip on Fenwick.
“Sometimes, I do prefer roofs over ground, but there is a lot of danger to it. You have to be safe,” Lonnie said.
The possibility for injury always exists when attempting to reach the roofs of Mason’s buildings, especially in construction zones like Fenwick Library. According to Robbie, one of the scariest climbs he has completed is the Patriot Center because of the extreme height and little room for failure. He recounted a story of a friend who sprained her ankle while climbing down the Hub.
While aware of the physical trouble climbing puts them in, both Robbie and Lonnie do not exercise the same caution when it comes to disciplinary action. Although the university does not have clear language in its policies regarding students reaching the roofs of campus buildings, access to certain areas is restricted to authorized personnel only.
Though he has never been stopped by the university’s administration or police force, Robbie said that the lack of clear rules or signs is what keeps him going.
“That’s my excuse if someone ever comes up here. I’m going to be like, ‘Well, I didn’t know that was a rule.’ I don’t see any real reason why I can’t come up here,” Robbie said.
Mathias, a more novice climber, is not daunted by the risk of physical injury or disciplinary action. He, like many people around the world, suffers from acrophobia.
“I am very scared of heights,” Mathias said, laughing nervously. “As long as I am towards the center of the building and away from the edges, I’ll be fine. The edges are where I feel like I’m about to die.”
Up on the roof, as an impending rainstorm created a stillness in the warm spring air, Mathias concluded that the experience was definitely greater than his apprehension. He was glad he agreed to climb Fenwick, choosing adventure over fear and seeing how beautiful a different point of view can be.
Photo Credit: Johannah Tubalado