Inside the world of an urban explorer
Richard Mellor meets the people for whom exploration means discovering the nooks and crannies of a city rather than roaming a natural wilderness.
'There's something magical about spending much of your time on rooftops. You gain a great perspective on life,' says Chase Armitage, a UK pioneer in parkour and founder of the world-famous 3RUN team. Developed from military training exercises, parkour sees practitioners – traceurs – moving freely over and through any terrain using only the body. Running, speed vaulting, scrambling and rolling his way around the world, 31-year-old Chase is a master of dangerous stunts. He even boasts the world record for the farthest backflip off a wall over a moving car. 'Developing the skills to master all environments is like having a superpower,' he explains. 'You feel you can go anywhere. I was always inspired by the Matrix movies and their philosophy: to free our minds and redefine our possibilities.'
Urban adventurers tend to be good at bending minds. Think of adventure and you typically imagines deserts, rivers, polar tundra or hostile mountains, epic car or bike odysseys, perhaps, or encounters with far-flung tribes. What you don't envision are flatblocks, skyscrapers and sewers. You don’t conjure-up disused power factories and cloggy conduits. You don’t – but you should, for this is exactly the terrain that entices Earth’s most daring urban adventurers.
'When you've been freerunning for a while, you see the world differently,' reveals Chase, smiling. 'A high street transforms into a potential playground, and so on. It becomes a way of life.' And like all ways of life, this one demands a certain wardrobe. Where plains-crossers prioritise khaki and motorcyclists rely on leathers, urban adventurers need outfits that can withstand specific pressures – and which can preserve their anonymity.
'When I go exploring, I'm doing two things at once,' describes Steve Duncan, an urban explorer and historian based in New York City. 'I'm trying to look as respectable as possible while also being ready to do some crazy stuff.' Aged 37, Steve’s urbex triumphs range from Paris's catacombs to the tunnels below St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and every forbidden crevice in between. Somehow, he has only been arrested four times. Clothing helps with that.
'First and foremost,' he continues, 'I prepare for the environment. When I climb a bridge in winter, I dress warm. When I’m crawling around underground – which I do more and more – I wear fewer and more flexible clothes… But the other trick is ensuring I'm normally clad. If I gear up like I'm about to storm Mount Everest, you’ll be more inclined to see me as a potential menace. But if I look respectable, that influences someone to judge me less suspiciously'. Steve says it's 'much easier to pull off this trick these days. There are pants made to very high standards. Plus, lots of companies have a better understanding of the many demands placed on clothes.' His own demands, such as leaping into manholes and balancing on high rafters, remain fairly esoteric and mean that having durable clothing is non-negotiable.
Attire is equally crucial for Chase. 'Having the right clothing is very important,' he admits. 'It must feel right. Some traceurs like to train in tight jeans and shirts, while others prefer baggy joggers and a tank top. Ultimately, it's about expressing your own personal style.' Kit aside, Chase doesn't depend on anything for his daredevil antics – and that’s the appeal. 'I love parkour because, unlike most other sports that rely on boards, bikes or balls, it only requires one thing: the human body
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