Donald Trump is confident that the wall along the southern border—which was the central promise of his presidential campaign, and which is slowly, stupidly, expensively, illegally, taking shape—cannot be scaled. “We got climbers. We had 20 mountain climbers,” the president burbled last month. “That’s all they do, they love to climb mountains. They can have it. Me, I don’t want to climb mountains, but they’re very good, and we gave them different prototypes of walls, and this was the one that was hardest to climb. This wall can’t be climbed; it’s very, very hard.”
Other climbers, who exist and are not an instantly forgotten half-demented rhetorical prop, took Trump’s words as a challenge. A 75-year-old climbing instructor and retired engineer named Rick Weber built an replica of the real steel bollard wall in eastern Kentucky. It consists of four 18-foot-high columns spaced a foot apart, each rotated 45 degrees from the plane of the wall, with a five-foot-high panel at the top, according to Weber. Curious parties, including an 8-year-old and an actively juggling man, have conquered the replica.
These demonstrations don’t sap the wall of its symbolic power, of course. Scalable or not, the border remains a brutal, militarized place. And the wall’s status as a rallying point for xenophobes has nothing to do with whether it can be solved by novices—but it is a little funny that this turned out to be the case. Thanks to a Courier Journal piece, I learned that someone I knew from college had scaled this wall replica in about a minute despite minimal climbing experience. Sensing a sports angle, I spoke with Peter Favaloro, a 30-year-old grad student, on the phone to learn more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Deadspin: What got you interested in climbing this wall replica in the first place?
Peter Favaloro: Literally, we were walking by it. I was already planning to be in Kentucky for a rock climbing trip with my brother and sister, and then separately had seen news coverage about that wall somewhere. But I did not realize it was in Kentucky until we were walking past it in the Muir Valley preserve there.
DS: Gotcha. So how would you describe your climbing experience up to this point? It sounds like you were heading on a trip.
PF: Yeah, I adopted climbing as a way to get some sort of connection to the outdoors while in the gray confines of London. When I was living there, it was a pretty great outlet. And so I’ve done a lot of indoor climbing there and then a little bit of outdoor climbing around here. But this is my first real climbing trip in the U.S.
DS: So has it been mostly bouldering or top-roping, or what?
PF: Mostly top-roping and a good amount of lead climbing as well. Lead climbing is just, the rope’s not already at the top. You’re bringing it up and you set the anchor a little bit higher and a little bit higher as you go.
DS: I’ve seen some images, but could you describe the wall replica for me?
PF: Yeah. We were assured that it was very much to scale, as best they could sort of figure out from, I think, photos and maybe some blueprints, I’m not sure. But that was just in terms of its height. In terms of its width, I mean, it was only maybe six feet wide. It was like a full height, but just [a] six-feet-wide section of the wall. They had a bunch of ground rules set up where they were saying, Okay, you might be able to find a crack that you could get your fingers in, in the boards at the top. But we don’t think there’s any crack wide enough to put your feet in. So you can’t hook your feet around the side, you can only hook your hand around the side. You can only hook it around one side at once because we’re not sure if there’d be two finger cracks that are within reach of each other. They had all these rules like that, to try to replicate what it would be like to actually climb the wall.
DS: Okay. And it sounds like the material was wood, is that right?
PF: Yeah, I’d say it was wood with a pretty glossy paint on it. I don’t know if metal would be that much harder to climb. It was not like there was a ton of friction on this. [Editor’s note: Deadspin climbing analyst Patrick Redford says that while climbing glossy painted wood would be easier than climbing metal, the difference wouldn’t be significant.]
DS: Right. So it’s not like you were benefiting in some way.
PF: I don’t think so. I’m not sure.
DS: What was the hardest move that you had to do to make it up this replica?
PF: Starting is pretty easy, to go up the first 10-15 feet, because you’re just climbing it. If you’ve ever climbed like a palm tree or something, where you sort of grab and then you use your arms to push your foot in, and then sort of stand on that and push the next one. That was pretty easy right up until you get to the panels at the top. Those, you can’t climb that the same way. So there, what you had to do is what’s called an undercling, which is just what it sounds like. You sort of use your hands, cling underneath this side of it, and use that to sort of anchor yourself, get your feet up high, and then reach for the top. If you didn’t have the reach to do that, you could cling onto the side of the panels. That panel—[the replica builders] said, Look, we’ve looked at the photos of this, it looks like there either are sort of gaps between the panels where you could get your fingers in. But not a foot. So you could sort of grab onto the side of the panel and use that as a grip as well. But that, you know, just getting up past that panel was definitely the crux of the climb.
DS: Would you describe that as the main challenge of this climb?
PF: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I mean by crux.
DS: How exhausted were you on completion? Like, is this something you can easily see yourself doing for another 10 feet? [The replica was 18 feet high; some parts of the wall are as high as 30 feet.]
PF: Yeah. I didn’t even realize whether it was full height or not. I wouldn’t say it was a particularly tiring climb. I mean, we were there to climb all day and that was the first climb of the day. It might have felt different if we had done this after our rock climbing, but we did it before. But no, it wasn’t a particularly grueling climb.
I was strapped into a safety device. So that doesn’t literally help, like physically with getting up the wall, but it helps a lot mentally. And if I hadn’t been strapped into that, it would have been a lot scarier. Because that’s the rope that’ll catch you if you fall. Right. So that’s definitely, you know—not to pooh-pooh the idea of climbing the thing. That said, still probably a lot less scary than walking all the way across the desert.
DS: You think it’s something that a novice climber could handle pretty comfortably?
PF: I’m a novice climber, and I handled it pretty comfortably. After that we went off and we climbed a bunch of rock climbing routes, and those are all rated, right? I would say it was significantly easier than any of the climbs that we were climbing, and the easier of those was probably, I don’t know, a 5.8. So I’d say it’s easier than a 5.8.
DS: Okay. If you had to put a number on it, where might that fall?
PF: I don’t know, 5.6, 5.7. I don’t actually know the American ranking system that well. Most of my climbing has been in the UK. What I am confident saying is that it’s easier than 5.8s that we climbed.
DS: Did you feel that a non-climber could have made their way up?
PF: Yes. I wasn’t using my rock climbing training, particularly. Other than the training to trust the rope and not be too afraid of the height. But that is an advantage that you wouldn’t have without the rope.
DS: Even if you accepted the premise that the border wall is something worth spending money on, how would you assess the specific execution of it?
PF: Well, I would definitely take issue with that premise [laughing]. I’m sure that, not I really want to—does it make it less fun if I don’t express an opinion on that? I’d rather engage with the premise than just accept it.
DS: Right. Yeah. Let’s engage with the premise.
PF: No, I mean, the wall is only useful as a symbol anyway. It’s a symbol for something that I’m not in favor of, but it’s obviously just a pure symbol, right? When I claim that the wall is mostly as a symbol, the reason I’m saying that is because if you’re willing to walk all the way through a desert, this wall is probably not going to stop you. It was only ever a symbol anyway. So that just makes this whole [wall-climbing] exercise just a troll of a troll, really.
DS: It highlights some of the absurdity of the idea in the first place.
PF: Yeah, it highlights the absurdity of it. It remains a very ugly symbol.
DS: How did you feel when you when you finished this climb? Anything beyond the normal satisfaction of having finished a climb?
PF: I felt a little silly for engaging in what was pretty clearly trolling of a troll. I got sucked in by the, Wow. It’s right here. How can we not do it? But I’m not sure it’s always productive to feed the trolls.