Over a long winter in Kansas City, what else is there to do but climb a building?

High Times 

Over a long winter in Kansas City, what else is there to do but climb a building?

At 5 feet 9 inches and compact, Jeremy Collins is built like a featherweight boxer. He has electric blue eyes and Popeye forearms scribbled with veins. Collins doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't cuss. He goes to church on Sundays in Lee's Summit.

But right now, commuting through the River Market in his silver Honda Civic, Collins has one serious problem with the world: the fact that everything seems compartmentalized, divided into streets and sidewalks and rules that no one will consider breaking.

He grips the steering wheel and turns hard-right, putting the car up over a curb and across the sidewalk. Ahead, a space between parked cars marks the pedestrian pathway's end, and he aims for it. He points his front bumper toward the makeshift exit and squints. He's slowing the car a bit, apparently calculating the distance, the speed or the inevitability of impact.

In a matter of seconds, Collins threads the 10-foot opening between hood and bumper, and his Civic lurches back to the street.

"I used to work down here," Collins says. "I know the area."

The area, according to Collins, has little to do with street signs or city planning.

It's about textures, he says. He likes to walk down here and feel the grit on buildings. Bricks are rough, concrete is dull, limestone crumbles in his hand and natural rock just plain rules.

Collins has been climbing it for the past ten years. As a freshman at Central Missouri State University, Collins took a weeklong road trip west and wound up settling in Tucson, Arizona, for four years. Since he came back in May 2000, he's grown serious about his sport. He went to California and ascended the highest point on Mt. Whitney's east face twice in one day. He climbed the 3,200-foot west face of Yosemite's El Capitan in one 27-hour push. He's logged 127 first ascents on previously unclimbed routes -- 116 of them in the Midwest.

When Collins worked in the River Market, he programmed Doonesbury and FoxTrot and Oliphant animations for Internet advertising companies. His images appeared daily on msnbc.com. When guests visited, he held conferences in a second-story SoHo office loft.

Downtown, people move at predictable right angles on busy schedules. They don't make much eye contact. Beyond Commerce Bank, the Transamerica building and City Hall, expansion measures outward, toward the suburbs, not in vertical feet. Rarely do people stop on the street to crane their necks and gape toward rooftops. But Collins doesn't just look at buildings; he reads them. Like directions in braille, the incongruities tell him where to go. And Collins wants to go up.

Spurred by the honking of leery drivers, Collins' car rockets from the River Market across the freeway and then follows a tangle of rusted railroad tracks along Seventh Street. He parks and exits quickly, walking toward his old office. It's not even 20 degrees outside, but Collins is excited, exhaling great cumulous puffs of breath.

There is a 1-1/2-inch gap between the SoHo Lofts and the parking garage next door. The ruler-straight indentation between buildings separates the sidewalk from the sky.So far, he's planned this reconnaissance mission perfectly. May Street is abandoned.

"This is something I've wanted to do for a long time," Collins says. "It's ridiculous how climbable people make buildings."

Planning is important. He will wear brightly colored insulation. His accomplice, Sean Burns, will stand in the street and feed him more than 100 feet of neon-orange rope. People will notice them, Collins says.

"And once they get their cell phones out, it's all over." Collins and Burns will have to move fast.

It's at least a 50-foot climb.

In Kansas City, the recorded history of building climbers is limited -- to one man. Twenty-six-year-old Gregory T. Sullivan of Overland Park scaled the forty-story Hyatt Regency Hotel on St. Patrick's Day 1982. Climbing without ropes, Sullivan stopped at the seventeenth floor to unfurl a large white sheet painted with a green shamrock, but he then grew tired. At the 33rd floor, he accepted a harness from police, who dragged him to safety.

Authorities charged Sullivan with disorderly conduct and trespassing, both misdemeanors, and released him on a $60 bond.

Sullivan wasn't the first to see buildings as makeshift mountains of glass and steel. George "The Human Fly" Willig climbed the 110-story north tower of the World Trade Center in 1977. Captured on videotape and broadcast to a worldwide audience, the stunt landed Willig on The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, and ABC's Wide World of Sports. Unwittingly, Willig had become both a celebrity and an anti-establishment champion. In 1997 he said the stunt had been provoked by a serious lack of self-confidence, but by then he'd inspired height-hungry copycats around the world.

In 1981, "Spider Dan" Goodwin (dressed in Spider-Man garb) scaled Chicago's Sears Tower, the world's second-tallest building; two years later, he went up the north tower of the World Trade Center. (In 1997, Goodwin tried a comeback, mounting the WTC's south tower, but authorities, fearing a terrorist threat, immediately stopped him.) And Frenchman Alain Robert usurped Goodwin's moniker in the mid-'90s when he started his campaign to climb all of the world's tallest buildings. At forty years old, he is still active and has scaled more than fifty skyscrapers. Robert never thought to climb in Kansas City, he tells the Pitch by e-mail. He wonders, "Is there any building?"

There is. And that's a good thing for Collins. As far as he's concerned, the city has only two decent natural climbing areas. One, a 40-foot mass of loose limestone along Cliff Drive, towers precariously close to the street. The other is a quarter-mile area for bouldering (climbing low to the ground without ropes) in Swope Park, where peaks measure, at most, 15 feet.

In the winter, when the roads get icy, cross-country trips in search of mountains are out of the question, and climbers, many of whom got their extreme starts riding skateboards or BMX bikes, get especially itchy. Winter is no time for riding on slick pavement, but buildings still stand tall, providing opportunities for some die-hard climbers. The most committed people climb for one reason only, Collins says. "They have to find something else to fill the adrenaline void."

Indoor climbing gyms appeared on the scene in the early '90s. At Ibex in Blue Springs, whole families of aspiring climbers could learn in a controlled environment on plastic rocks. The sport quickly went mainstream. It became safer, more domestic. A suburban entertainment staple and a retailer's dream.

Around that time, the ESPN X-Games added speed climbing and bouldering to its skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX racing and wake-boarding competitions. Now it's one of the world's most televised action sports, counting AT&T, Motorola, Taco Bell and Mountain Dew as sponsors.

It's hard work, living up to the image of an extreme athlete.

Tom Cruise climbed in a tight T-shirt on sun-baked cliffs in Mission Impossible II. Vin Diesel climbed in a fluorescent jumpsuit on ocean-swept rocks in XXX.

Sean Burns works at an architectural design firm in Overland Park and climbs in a dingy green T-shirt.

He wears corduroys and a down jacket, almost always. On his right shoulder is a tattooed tree, its roots drawn in Celtic knotwork. Though he would deny it, with his bristled hair, five o'clock shadow and always-rumpled clothing, Burns has achieved The Look.

On a recent Thursday night, Burns leaves the Overland Park apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Katy, and their dog, a pit bull-Doberman mix named Roxy, and heads to the other end of town.

"Hi, Sean," says the girl at the front counter when he walks into Ibex.

The ceiling is 33 feet high. Throughout the cavernous room, walls inverted at different angles are speckled with plastic lumps -- mock-rock handholds. All around Burns, inexperienced people fall off rocks and fumble with ropes, swinging like pendulums from the ceiling.

There's a church group here tonight. The gym is too crowded.

"Goddamn," Burns says quietly. "Maybe if I told them I was Satan."

Most area climbers have heard the name Sean Burns, but few of them know how well he can really climb. In 2001, Burns wrote a guidebook for KC climbers, and Collins illustrated it.

"Write a book about something, and suddenly everyone considers you an expert," he says. Now he never lets people see him climb beyond his ability. "I like for them to wonder."

Strapping on a harness, Burns heads toward the gym's only crack-climbing route. Most rock routes let a climber pull his way upward using handholds, but crack climbing is different. A crack has no exterior holds. It's just a fissure in a vertical face, and the climber must jam his hands and feet inside as he climbs.

Burns crack-climbs the way hurried people try to stop elevator doors from closing: He presses his hand deep into the fissure, cramming his palm between the narrow slabs of rock. When his knuckles wedge, he shuffles his feet against the wall in front of him, jams his other hand into a space above him, then repeats the entire process. The technique is quick and efficient -- Burns climbs about 15 feet in less than a minute. He's panting now, moving farther up.

Local experts say the first generation of climbers to use custom equipment was all the way back in the early 1900s, when mountaineers strapped nails and pieces of metal to their boots to help them edge on rocks. By the early '60s, climbers wrapped inner tubes around slippers -- an innovation that evolved into the modern lightweight shoe with a rubber sole.

At Ibex, other climbers move from hold to hold wearing grippy rubber shoes reminiscent of ballet slippers. Burns finishes the climb in a matter of minutes wearing his street shoes, a boxy pair of hiking boots.

Collins is driving again. The silver Civic traces Highway 71 South, takes the Blue River Road exit by a firefighters' memorial and crisscrosses the cracked pavement of side streets. Entering Swope Park, Collins makes quick turns and impromptu stops, then accelerates flat out until he recognizes the sliver of guardrail fencing between barren trees in the distance and slows. He parks near a pile of trash bags covered in curled leaves. Pushing back brush and ducking under limbs, he treads away from the abandoned street.

In general, the locations of illegal climbing areas remain secret.

"Watch out for bodies," Collins says. Clomping through the frozen woodland, he heads toward the river bottom and emerges beneath the concrete shelter of a 40-foot overpass; the clamor of engines and tires above him drowns out rushing water from a nearby creek.

He is directly below Bruce Watkins Drive.

Someone has epoxied brown, white and red rocks to the wall above him, with a few bolts the size of quarters running up its face. It's Collins' first time here. He got directions from Burns, who is rumored to be responsible for creating these "glue-up" routes.

"As far as we all know, they were just born that way," Burns says about the glue- ups. "I'd go to prison if the city thought I did that. We just stumbled upon these areas while hiking around, looking for something to climb. And poof -- there it was."

The beginning of the route is set amid head-high swaths of orange-and-green graffiti.

"Looks interesting," Collins says, lowering a pair of orange aerodynamic sunglasses to his face. For protection, he will use "quick draws" -- two aluminum snaps bound with seatbeltlike material -- to clip rope into bolts above him as he ascends.

The quick draws clang a chorus along his harness as Collins places his right foot on the lowest rock and hops up, grabbing a pebble-sized hold. Slowly, he switches his feet on the hold, whistles and leans his right foot out to touch a vertical concrete lip running upward along the face.

Unlike other extreme sports, which measure accomplishment in big air, allies and kick flips, climbers celebrate incremental victories.

As Collins moves up the wall, the miniature holds in front of him change. Every movement presents a new potential outcome. Going up, Collins encounters a myriad of if-then choices. He passes small rocks and moves on to tinier holds, pinching them between his forefinger and thumb. Like in a high-flying game of chess, once he touches a piece, he's committed. No do-overs. He's above the tree line now, a spot of red against a washed-out sky. Dusting cobwebs from his holds, he's calculating, moving so slowly that the effort seems tedious.

In climbing, the risk boils down to an equation. Generally, a fall equals the slack in your rope from the last anchor point times two -- you'll fall the distance to your last anchor and then the same distance below it. Collins' last safety bolt is about 5 feet below him now. Moving farther upward, the fall equation expands exponentially.

There's a foothold at far left, and a handhold at far right, just beyond his reach. Collins stretches out his leg, reaching for the foothold.

"I gotta commit."

His shoe touches it. Collins pushes himself left, hands free now, entering that limbo between solid footing and falling, stretching upward to snatch another hold. His other foot slips out behind him and slides across the wall below as his fingers clamp a Lego-sized brown rock. He's got it. Everything stops. He begins the calculating process again. Skid marks left by his shoes look like accent marks above the graffiti-lettered concrete.

The route ends a few feet beneath the overpass. Collins clips into a pair of chains mounted below a whizzing plane of traffic and descends.

"There are two kinds of fear in climbing," Collins says later. "Fear of failure and fear of injury or death. One is healthy, one is not. ... My main fear is obviously hitting the ground. All other fears are beside the point."

Collins has a chip in his front tooth from where a copper nut popped out on him while he was climbing in Colorado. He says the difficulty of glue-ups changes constantly as old holds break or fall away.

"You always hear something each season about people getting hurt out there using gear incorrectly," Collins says.

"People get excited," he adds. "They buy a catalog, a bunch of crap with credit cards, read a magazine and think they know everything. Then they go out and screw around out there. And they're playing with death."

He has three derogatory designations for poor climbers: newbies, bumblies and yahoos. Newbies are just ignorant. Bumblies should know better but climb ignorantly anyway. Yahoos (or backwoods yokels) simply make up climbing moves and rig slipshod safety precautions as they go along.

Jake Wolfe is a senior at the University of Kansas and, therefore, a presiding authority within the Lawrence climbing scene. He acknowledges the contributions of Collins and Burns.

"Most kids in the Lawrence scene, they're new and don't get out much," Wolfe says. "Those that have been around a little longer know what [routes] they've been up and have climbed on some of their routes. I'm aware of what they've done."

Wolfe lives with Ward Byrum, a recent graduate, in a rented duplex cloistered between rows of beige off-campus houses. This summer, Wolfe spent more than $400 to create a climbing wall in their garage. They sport designer fleece and nylon shirts and $100 climbing shoes.

Despite the expensive gear, though, members of the Lawrence climbing club have seen two serious injuries in the past six years. One woman fell from 350 feet while rappelling in Arkansas, her free fall ending after 30 feet when she hit a ledge. Someone helped her to the bottom, and she was airlifted from the canyon with a split skull and a severed ACL. Another guy fell from 35 feet, and when his last safety piece finally caught, the force stretched the rope out like a rubber band. The guy's body stopped before impact, but his hand hit the ground and shattered to pieces. Wolfe says the accident cost "like $60,000 of reconstructive surgery."

Those kids, he says, knew the risks and messed up.

"What you've got to realize is that being a climber in Kansas is just a big part of a big social scene and not so much about accomplishments," Byrum says.

For these guys, it seems to be mostly about the lingo. A good handhold is "bomber." Climbing directions are given in "beta." A good thing is "primo," a bad thing is "chauncy," and to run a route from start to finish is a "flash" if you don't fall. Wolfe notes enthusiastically that some guidebooks have glossaries that push the newest slang.

They climb tough out here, Wolfe says, and he's been in trouble only once. It was that night. The night he tried to climb the parking garage of the Kansas Memorial Union, he says. The night the cops came and "were, like, really interested." The night that law enforcement officers seemed cool, were "just chit-chatting, no problem, shooting the shit." And then when he untied from the rope at the fourth story, they took his ID, wrote down his name, weren't nice anymore and asked him to sit on the ground. The night they issued him a warning.

It was not cool. Not cool at all.

Although there is no law specifically against climbing buildings in Lawrence, the KU Police Department says that climbing is both trespassing and possible vandalism. Such offenses fall under Article 23 of the Non-Academic Misconduct Code. If the offense is egregious, a student may face suspension, expulsion or dismissal. Climbing a building once will probably not get anybody kicked out of school, says Associate Dean of Students Ann Eversole. But multiple offenses are always questionable.

At noon on a Thursday, the campus looks sleepy -- 20,000 undergraduates go to school here, but no one is outside. Snow fell this morning, tucking everything from grass to granite under a blanket of white powder. The temperature is below freezing. Wolfe and Byrum carry their climbing shoes the way Boy Scouts wear merit badges. Today, they are the only yahoos on the scene.

"The best time to climb buildings at KU is in broad daylight," Byrum says. "People either assume you're supposed to be there or don't know whose job it is to tell you not to be there."

KU climbing routes include the retaining wall by the gymnasium, the overhang traverse at the library, the crack on the third floor of the parking garage, and some building corners overhead.

But by 3 p.m., with nearly every possibility deteriorating into a we-could-do-it-if-the-weather-were-better situation, Wolfe and Byrum abandon their campus wandering and arrive at the bar The Crossing. Amid stale smoke, Wolfe orders a $3 pitcher of Bud Light.

"I'd like to get them out here," Wolfe says of Collins and Burns. To see what they can really do. Wolfe has one beer; Byrum has two. Wolfe's watching what he drinks, he says. He doesn't want to reek at his afternoon job interview.

That night, the roommates stop at a liquor store on their way home. At the duplex, Byrum pumps '80s music on the ground floor, hip-hop in the basement. People start showing up around ten.

A Pete's Wicked Brew sign and a bottlecap-covered coffee table decorate the living room. An Animal House poster hangs in the dining room, and a 2-foot-tall plaster statue of a naked woman wearing someone's cowboy hat rests nearby.

In the garage, a bouldering surface made of plywood covers the walls and ceiling. Someone presses Play on a VCR in the corner and, as if on cue, the place becomes a jungle gym. College kids sit on the floor -- it's padded by carpet-covered mattresses and old wrestling mats -- and pull against the plastic holds. Three kids make it onto the wall, then four, all pulling and swinging and sometimes falling off the ceiling on top of each other before swigging more beer and trying it all again.

One guy sips beer and fiddles to light a 4-foot space heater in the corner while the VCR blasts techno beats and climbing footage from exotic places out of state.

The party goes past 3 a.m. It's now Friday, and no one has made any plans to climb this weekend. Scattered throughout the living room are the KU contingent's only contributions to the Lawrence climbing scene: five empty cases of Natural Light.

"That's about all there is to Lawrence," Collins says later. "They are pretty much just like the rest of the campus, except they wear Patagonia and 5.10 rubber."

Though Wolfe and Byrum both claim to have met Collins and Burns over the years, Burns says he doesn't remember meeting Wolfe. But he did meet Byrum at a local climbing competition.

"He got on my nerves while I was there," Burns says.

If Collins had never met Burns, maybe things wouldn't have gone this far. It takes a certain type of person to break the law, and a Jesus-lovin' kid usually doesn't make the suspect list. Until 1996, Collins' climbing experience was limited to tromping the rust-colored hills of Lee's Summit. Then he met Burns, a self-described skate punk and high school burnout. Both had a competitive spirit.

Both packed up their separate VW buses in the late '90s and left the state, looking to climb. Jeremy went to Arizona, supporting himself by drawing caricatures from a sidewalk stand for $5 apiece. He was good, and he made enough money in a day to last for the rest of the month. Burns went to Colorado and wound up working at a liquor store. "It was the closest climbing-related job I could find," he says.

It's 3 p.m. downtown, and Burns is late. He's often late, but Collins doesn't care.

Collins has just driven nine hours straight from Colorado, where his animation took the form of big-screen advertisements for his first climbing publication (a comic-book-style instructional manual titled Betty and the Silver Spider) before the premiere of a climbing video. Collins has gained national recognition among climbers -- not for climbing but for drawing. Now he earns his living as a senior illustrator for Rock and Ice and Trail Runner magazines and as a contributing illustrator for other outdoor publications.

He has arrived from I-70 in a car other than his Civic -- a black Honda Passport with a bumper sticker that reads "God is my Rock ... Climb on."

It rained last night. The sidewalk is still damp, and puddles rest in the street. Wet conditions once forced the French climber Robert off the upper stories of a building. Collins will park his Passport on top of the garage and use its trailer hitch to anchor his rope if he makes it all the way to the top.

When Burns arrives, Collins runs over the game plan. He will wire his rope through cams ("spring-loaded Batman toys that open when slammed into a crack") as he climbs.

Burns is distracted by a redheaded waitress leaving a diner up the street.

"What? I know her," he says.

"The whole thing should be over in a few minutes," Collins says.

Neither man comments on the two unmarked police cars at the end of the lot.

At 3:25 Collins pulls the Passport into the garage. Near the roof, there's a steel security gate. It requires a passkey, but Collins manages to time his arrival with another car's exit.

The Folgers coffee plant is right across the street. It is seven stories, with thirteen windows on each floor; from on top of the garage, each of those windows offers a different glimpse of long wooden desks, blue-screened computers and tiny flashes of office lamps.

"Lots of windows around here," Burns says uneasily.

From the top, the route looked simple: a 1-1/2-inch crack between two four-story concrete blocks; beside the crack, a rectangular red awning 10 feet above the street. But the fissure is deceptive, narrowing to half-inch "fingertip" holds in the center, Collins says.

On their first attempt, they realize something of primo importance.

Collins is a bumblie. He has brought the wrong size gear for the crack. Burns looks mildly annoyed. It takes more than an hour to get to his house and back with more gear.

At 4:30, the sun is low on the horizon, and the wind has picked up. It's rush hour now, and headlights shine from cars along the Broadway Bridge. A black BMW exits the garage, and seconds later, a red Jeep Cherokee enters.

Collins parks on the north end of the garage. Then he parks again on the south end, proposing to climb a different crack.

"He's usually better prepared. He's just a little anxious," Burns says.

Collins jumps back into the Passport and parks at the original spot.

"This thing sucks," Burns says. He threads the rope through his harness, and Collins ties himself to the other end. They descend the stairwell together. It has been fifteen minutes of indecision. A motorcade of potential witnesses, just off work, fills the lanes of traffic along Seventh Street.

Collins climbs the first 10 feet in less than 10 seconds. He attaches a quick draw to the metal frame below the awning, running the rope though for protection. Putting a foot on the awning, he exhales and shakes his hands to keep blood flowing. Then he moves farther up.

There are certain roller-coaster moments when you choose to leave the rock, to reach for another hold, when suddenly the difference between climbing and falling floats on those long split seconds of waiting in midair.

Too much caution is counterproductive, Collins says. These are gut checks. The times that beginners fear and experts pretend not to fear. The times you don't think about the consequences but just act.

At the second floor of the garage, Collins hangs from the wall by his fingertips. He is 4 feet above his last piece of protection, clinging to practically nothing. His fingers are raw. His calves burn. It is a moment. Muscles tensed, he reaches upward for a hold.

Then he peels away from the building, falling 4 feet toward his last piece, then 4 feet more below it. The rope catches, and he slaps the garage wall hard.

A janitor emerges from the SoHo lofts and lights a cigarette. A nearby street sweeper sweeps up nothing. They have been here too long. They have an audience. A policeman walks across the intersection at May and Ninth Street. He's looking forward, not up, so he doesn't see Collins scramble back up the wall, tugging madly at the crack. Collins doesn't see him either, because he's struggling on the route. His fingers slip out again, and he tumbles backward from the wall.

Parking Garage: 2. Climbers: 0.

Collins says he thought about that day. He wanted to try again, but he waited. One night, when darkness fell, he drove his Civic back to the River Market and parked across from the garage, just to look at it. He was unsure. Collins disagrees with climbers who base their identity on their performance. It's unhealthy, he says, and unproductive. So he studied the crack like an athlete studies playbooks, mentally reviewing his options, deciding if it was worth a rematch.

He waited almost a week, then he called Burns. Trying to do the north crack had been a mistake, he said. The south crack, between the corner of the garage and another brick building, is wider -- though brick is usually fragile and known to break apart.

They would do the south crack at night, he said. There's less chance of getting caught.

Driving the wrong direction up a one-way street, Collins and Burns arrive at the garage in separate vehicles around 10:30 p.m. They park inside. The security gate to the top is locked, but Collins says he'll climb it from the bottom and use a steel bar he saw on the last failed attempt as an anchor at the top.

Before exiting the garage, Burns pees in a corner. Then he and Collins step into the night.

From the empty street, the garage looks one-dimensional, like a storefront façade, illuminated in arcs from two streetlights. An off-river wind rips between the buildings. According to a bank sign, the temperature is just about freezing. Collins' and Burns' voices are obscured by the white-noise whirl of refinery machines, and the night air is saturated with the smell of roasting coffee.

After so long waiting, Collins' moves seem scripted, rehearsed. He places his hands in the crack and works toward the corner of the brick building where, 20 feet off the ground, there is an accessible ledge.

On the other side of the street, behind a second-floor window at the Folgers plant, a man in a hairnet works at his computer. He looks out the window, sees Collins scrambling up the crack and pulls his chair around to watch.

From the ledge, Collins moves about 10 feet up before placing another piece. Brick is weak, he thinks. Pull too hard on this, and a chunk of wall might just explode. He inserts his finger until he feels a pinch. The threat of falling is real now. This is his best handhold, just his own skin cinched between cement and brick. Suddenly, his fingers start to slip.

"Take!" Collins says. He leans back on his piece to test the weight.

On the ground, Burns is holding the rope. He takes in as much slack as he can and leans back gingerly against Collins' weight. He's quiet. Not joking. Collins hangs there silent, too. Within the crack, the piece pulls forward. Collins jerks in his harness as he drops another inch. Suddenly the entire operation seems entirely too yahoo. The safety piece is not entirely secured, and to fall from here would bounce him off the ledge like a pinball.

Collins inserts another cam beneath his first one. He has two options: Rappel now, or risk falling because of unsteady gear. He makes eye contact with Burns. Chalk dust falls in white flakes around him as he powders his hands to try again.

Moving upward, he passes above the streetlights. Up here, shadows run into each other, distorting edges and objects as in an M.C. Escher painting. Jamming his knuckles deep into the crack, Collins climbs by touch.

When he reaches the top, there is no celebration. He yells that it's Burns' turn. Burns hesitates, mumbling to himself. Then, in hiking boots and corduroys, he slips his fingers inside the crack and reaches out across the brick, bear hugging the side of the building.

By now, two more employees have gathered at the Folgers window, and the guy in the hairnet kills the lights. A black Ford F550 comes rumbling up the street and slams to a stop. The driver turns off the engine but leaves his headlights beaming.

"I won't call," the driver says. "I just want to watch."

Burns climbs differently from Collins. He steps on bolts jutting from the mortar between bricks and reaches out to hook his heel onto window sills to steady himself. Compared with Collins' climb, Burns is thrashing. Each vault upward is a sort of desperate tackle, versus his friend's methodically quarterbacked ascent.

Now his fingers stiffen. His hands are freezing, he says. Finally, they go numb. Burns slaps one hand up and then the other, wedging and climbing and slipping and falling and wedging and climbing and slipping and falling until he reaches the top.

The man in the F550 revs his engine and pulls away. Folgers employees retreat from the window. A police car just drove past, someone says, but there's no rope, no climbers. The cop never slowed down.

Chalky handprints line the building where they've been, but Collins and Burns are still above the city, watching cars turn at perfect right angles.


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