Will M. and Cal M. All photos via Will M. Urban exploration, better known as "urbex" is a fairly self-explanatory activity. In every major city around the globe, there are communities of people who have formed a culture centered around—you guessed it—exploring the urban landscape. This includes everything from abandoned factories and buildings all the way to bridges, tunnels, drains, and much to my mother's horror: cranes.
About a month ago, I was introduced to the concept by a friend's younger brother. I was initially skeptical of this ostensibly rogue activity, but soon I was convinced that like most things worth writing about, it was something I had to try once.
My fearless guides in this adventure were Will M. and Cal M., both students who have been involved in Montreal's urban exploring scene for about five years. The first time the boys offered to take me urbexing with them, my mind immediately flashed to the viral YouTube videos of those ballsy Russian teenagers scaling various buildings and cranes without any safety equipment. I was quickly assured that the sites we would visit however, would be fairly safe and I didn't have to do anything I wasn't comfortable with. The guys promised to take me on two excursions: an abandoned site (typically a historic, old building) and a live site (something under construction, like a bridge or crane).
Trip number one was to an abandoned site in Old Montreal called Silo 5. It's massive building with a history spanning over 100 years. A quick Google search revealed that the silo (which is almost half a kilometer long) houses 206 individual silos and measures 66.4 metres tall. It was daunting and humbling even just approaching the massive structure, which had once served as a cornerstone of the city's industrial roots.
My excitement was quickly stifled by the -20 celsius weather and the realization that I had to enter the building through a jagged ground-level window. After surveying the site for security, the three of us skirted across a sea of ice before making it to the window. The boys scooted me in quickly and before I knew it, I had popped through into the main floor of the building. I watched them set up their equipment while there was still light pouring in through the dirty windows. They adjusted their headlamps, camera settings and smartly added extra layers of black clothing. I looked down at my own attire and realized how woefully unprepared I was: I had goofily donned red pants and a red toque for a mission which solely relied on our ability to blend into our surroundings. I worried I had already secured my status as urbexing's greatest flight risk.
All of my fears subsided once we began moving. I stayed in between the boys when we entered areas that were less well-lit. I was told to be hyper-vigilant of my surroundings and to only step on parts of the floor that were visible. A wrong step on a snow-covered area could mean tumbling down a hidden hole that could be stories deep and leads to god knows where. A staleness hung in the air and there was an eerie silence that was only broken by intermittent quiet instructions from the boys. We stopped a few times to take photographs before reaching the staircase that would eventually lead us to the roof of the silo. The stairs were massive and industrial so I felt fairly safe traveling up them. We took the time to explore almost every floor we reached because each one was completely different from the last. Some contained chambers full of old electrical equipment while others housed massive conveyor belts and tanks. The strangest part was that many of the machines were still filled with decades-old grain. It was as if the workers simply failed to show up to work one day and everything suddenly froze in time.
The author's subtle attire.
The rooftop of Silo 5, after sunset. I noticed that the guys were very careful to neither disturb nor change anything in our temporary environment. Cal described the most important code of urbex as "Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints. Unless you're trying not to get caught, then don't leave footprints." It became obvious though, that others before us had been slightly less principled. Some left messages on the walls, personal tags or less inspirationally, piles of garbage.
After about 13 stories of climbing, I began to lose sensation in my toes. And after eighteen stories, we finally reached the roof. We flew by the building's only security sensor and with some effort, cracked open the door which lead us onto the expansive rooftop. My senses were overwhelmed with the heavy wind, frigid air temperature and the sight of the sun setting peacefully over the city's downtown. We were the only three people in a city of millions with this kind of view. The boys snapped away with their cameras while I watched in dismay as my iPhone shut down due to the insane cold.
Our descent was far less strenuous minus the sharp burning sensation making its way throughout both feet. On our way out of the building, we spotted a security truck patrolling the perimeter but we moved quickly and were able to make it out the jagged window without any trouble. Still, the risk of getting caught had been quite real and I was relieved to make it safely back to the car in my red pants.
Exploring Silo 5.
A week later, we set out on our second expedition. When I first found out about the guys' plan to bring me up a crane, I was resistant. They explained that although the height would be greater than Silo 5, cranes are secure and well maintained because they're accessed by dozens of workers every day. I agreed to go along and judge the risks for myself.
Like the last time, we surveyed the site before entering it. The crane Will and Cal selected was in the center of downtown near a popular concert venue. Just to keep things conveniently edgy, it was also half a block from a police station. I felt much more nervous but sure of myself, seduced by the idea of being a pioneer for every non-outdoorsy girl with a fear of heights and breaking the law. After narrowly missing a potential sighting by a police car, we slipped easily through a fence and onto the construction site.
The crane was remarkably easy to access and scale. It was set up as a series of platforms, each connected by a secure ladder attached to the core of the structure. It seemed like a surprisingly simple feat, but I immediately anticipated the biggest challenge not being physical. After a few dramatic texts to ensure close friends knew my whereabouts, we began.
The first few levels were easy to ascend. I was told to be quick because the greatest chance of detection is near the base of the machine. As we progressed up each story, the sheer height of the structure began to sink in. I purposefully refused to look down through the thick metal mesh separating me from certain death. Logically, I knew the potential for injury was low. Even if a person were to slip off of one of the ladders, they would only fall about ten, maybe 15 feet onto the corresponding platform beneath it. The real danger, I was told, existed only at the top once the central structure meets the arm of the crane.
The feeling while we climbed higher and higher was completely unique and different from the time before. Each step away from the earth brings your body a heightened sense of awareness. It's amazing to watch your body work in complete sync. I've never witnessed my hands and feet coordinate with such ease and aptitude. I was faster, more limber, and each move felt more purposeful and designated. It was as though my body was functioning on some sort of survival autopilot. I was processing everything quicker than normal but my movements were still very cautious.
The top of the crane brought on a whole new feeling. I remained comfortably on the T-junction platform while the boys ventured onto the different parts of the arm. I definitely held my breath a few times as they expertly navigated around dozens of metal barriers and pillars.
"Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints." View from the crane. Cal M. exploring the most dangerous part of the crane: the elusive arm at the top. We stayed at the top for a while, each experiencing our surroundings in mostly silence. It was a warmish night at just above freezing and there was virtually no wind. As Will and Cal took turns climbing up to a more precarious platform known fondly as the "widow's peak," I sat cross-legged on the only part I felt truly safe: the heavily bolted platform which was part of the crane's main structure. It sounds much scarier than it is but I would be lying if I said I ever truly felt at ease up there. The sheer altitude of the experience produced a feeling of detachment from my surroundings. It was borderline meditative and oddly calming to be randomly atop a 20-storey crane. I was able to find a sense of calm amongst my discomfort. My guess is that this is the body's best method of coping without disintegrating into a state of absolute panic.
Our descent was painless but the high from the top stayed with me for several hours. Since that night, the earth seems so much more benign from the height of five feet two inches.
Cal told me that urbexing is a completely different experience when done alone. And while both guys are experienced and cautious, it still seems much safer to urbex in pairs. I liked watching the way the guys operated together, in a sort of rough kind of harmony.
Despite my positive experience with urbex, it's necessary to acknowledge that it's still a fairly risky thing to do. Many sites are poorly maintained (if at all) and conditions can also be extremely fluid. A shortcut that may have been safe on Monday could be deadly by Friday if the correct fluctuation in temperature occurs. It also doesn't help that much urbexing occurs at night. And just like any other activity, there's also the tendency for people to get overconfident in their pursuit of the next mind-blowing photo. Perhaps the greatest risk though, is the potential consequence of illicitly entering or tampering with a restricted site.
Despite the inherent dangers for Will and Cal, urbexing is simply a way of life that has defined much of their transition into adulthood. Their urbex pursuits are photographed and shared through Instagram and Flickr and the guys are even working on filming a short documentary about their passion. The community in Montreal is small but well-known. People travel from all over the world for the chance to explore the city's unique urban fixtures.
During my brief stint as Canada's Least Qualified (But Most Enthused!) Urban Explorer, I never got the sense that urbex was driven by a clichéd sports-like competitiveness. Actually, it was refreshing to see athletic guys doing something that wasn't another elaborate excuse for a dick-measuring contest.
And while urban exploration is likely not something I'll be trying again anytime soon (I'd like to be on good terms with my parents until at least 30), I walked away from my experience engaged with Montreal in a new way and even slightly better connected to myself.
What I discovered is that urbex is a celebration of the present. It's an acceptance and exploration of spaces and structures without wanting to change them. Or make them cooler, more "purposeful,"more marketable. I sense that in many ways, it's actually a reaction against the pattern of insidious gentrification affecting most of Montreal's neighbourhoods. Urban exploration is hardly some fringe resistance movement, but its culture certainly points to the growing social engagement within the city.
It goes without saying that we don't all need to take big risks if we're looking for a slightly anarchist hobby or some sort of spiritual awakening. But if someone like me can experience ultimate tranquility at the top of a 270 foot free-standing structure, maybe there's something there.