University’s favourite boulder to draw a crowd

Beer gardens, DJs to move to front lawn as U of W gears up for its 41st Great Rock Climb

Three students compete in the annual Great Rock Climb in 1997. This year’s competition takes place Friday, Sept. 7. UW Library

One of the University of Winnipeg’s more peculiar traditions celebrates its 41st anniversary this year.

The Rock of Remembrance, the 25-ton granite boulder nestled on the university’s front lawn and originally part of the institution’s 100th anniversary celebrations in 1971, will once again be the site of the traditional Great Rock Climb.

In the Rock Climb, teams of three compete in a 91-metre sprint from the steps of Wesley Hall to the top of the granite boulder. Fastest time wins bragging rights, team names added to the winners’ trophy and cash prizes donated by the Duckworth family.

Daniel Matthes, an archives technician in the university’s library, says the original reason behind the Rock Climb is now a mystery, but speculates it was simply a unique competition that quickly became a tradition due to its quirky reputation.

“There’s just a kind of carnival atmosphere around the whole celebration,” says Matthes.

University archives show that for the first few decades, this tradition garnered a great deal of attention, with hoards of onlookers and contestants in eccentric costumes. One year, novelist Perry Nodelman penned a poem, Ode to the Rock, and performed a dramatic reading of it on the front lawn, garbed in a bedsheet toga and plastic laurel wreath.

Past competitors can attest to the zany nature of the Rock Climb.

Professor Brian Baigrie now teaches at the University of Toronto, but in the mid 1970s, he was part of a rock climbing team known as The Shorts.

While Baigrie can no longer recall whether he won the fabled competition in 1976 or 1977, he remembers the climb itself in vivid detail.

“For me, it was a really spontaneous, unusual way to commence the school year,” says Baigrie.

The night before the event was to take place, he joined his teammates for a six-pack of beer and a 20-minute practice time at Memorial Rock. The next day The Shorts scaled the boulder in just under 10 seconds.

Back then, the event drew a crowd of at least 500 onlookers, was covered by a TV news crew, and the grand prize was a $25 cheque split between the three team members, he said.

In recent years, interest in the Rock Climb has dwindled, according Doran Reid, the university’s athletic director.

These days there are usually between five and eight teams of participants coming out to scale the rock, says Reid, and often the participants are from athletic teams, which are involved in organizing the event.

“There needs to be a revitalization of getting the whole student population involved,” says Reid.

The UWSA hopes to stir up a greater crowd for the Rock Climb, held during lunch on Sept. 7 this year, as the UWSA celebrates its 40th anniversary.

In order to do this, UWSA president Lauren Bosc plans to move the beer gardens to the front lawn and hire a DJ playing music near the site, to draw as many students out as possible.

The standing record of 9.4 seconds, set in 1979, has yet to be broken.

Published in Volume 67, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 5, 2012)

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