Liam McNamara is one of the foremost proponents and organizers of cratestacking, the crazy DIY sport that is exactly what it sounds like. He has organized events in warehouses and at the East Bay Maker Faire, rigging up ropes and climbing equipment so that competitors, who balance on towers of milk crates dozens of feet high before the whole thing crashes down like a giant game of Jenga. Make: caught up with McNamara to ask about how to participate and the clarity that comes atop a tower.
Make: This looks fun, and a little scary. What’s it like when you’re up there?
McNamara: It’s a really fun feeling, ‘cause it’s a simple activity, but you kind of reach this heightened state of focus where you can’t hear your friends yelling at you, and you can’t think about the ground, and you’re just not thinking about anything else. You’re so focused on the subtle movement of the tower, and trying to keep it from swaying, and trying to stay relaxed, despite the fact you know this whole tower could topple at any moment.
It’s really an exhilarating sensation when you’re up there. I’ve had some of the bravest rock climbers that I know, that have climbed giant walls in Yosemite, build a tower and tell me that’s the scariest thing they’ve climbed in years, just ‘cause it’s so unnerving. It’s not really a matter of if you’re going to fall, it’s a matter of when. Everybody falls, and it always comes so unexpectedly, just a little shift in the wind, or the tower bows in a funny way, and then all of the sudden it just explodes, crates are going everywhere, and you find yourself suddenly dangling from the end of a rope 20 feet in the air. It’s really thrilling.
Is there any set of rules, either formal or informal, about how you do it?
There aren’t really that many ways to do it. The one rule that we made — that I thought made it a lot more fun — was that in order for your stack to count, you need to stand on the top of it. It’s kind of a house rule, when we were stacking over at my warehouse. It kind of created this situation where you have to commit to your stack. Rarely have I seen anyone stand on a stack, and then be able to move down to a position where you can stack another crate, so at some point you just kind of decide, this is enough, I’m going to go for a stand.
It’s really a victorious moment to kind of let go with your hands and step up on top of your tower, and stand up. We get a lot of great pictures from stands. We had one guy do a handstand which was really amazing. Having that moment of victory, where you’re on top of your tower — and usually the tower topples shortly after that — it’s always an exciting moment. It’s hard to do, it adds a little bit extra challenge.
You mentioned that people have been doing this in Europe. Do you notice it spreading anywhere else? Are people following your lead?
I created cratestacking.com in hopes to find other people that were doing this, ‘cause it seems like a fun thing and I really wanted to find a community of people that were doing it. I really hoped that people would start competing on a global level for tallest stack, and they could send in a video or some pictures of them standing on a really tall stack. When my friends and I first did it, I think our top stack was 14 crates and we thought that was amazing. And then the next time we did it, several people stacked crate stacks in the 20s, and we were like, Wow, this is even taller than we thought we could do it. And now the tallest stacks are approaching 30. We had one stack of 29.
I’d really love to work up a bit of a following, so we could have people practice, and do a couple of practice stacks and get better at it. I think it is something that could have a lot more potential with a bit of practice and training. It’s really inspiring to see what people do on their first try, but we’ll never know what the limits are without a little bit of training and practice.
What goes into doing it?
It takes a ton of work. I come from a rock climbing background, so we use the same sort of standard safety equipment that you’d use as if you were climbing rocks. We set up a top rope, basically. I’ve done it in warehouses, off of rafters, and we’ve done it off of cranes, which work really well ‘cause you can put them anywhere.
The falling crates are the most dangerous thing, as long as you have a good belayer. But being the belayer is kind of a scary place to be, ‘cause you need to stand kind of under the tower. And there’s one other guy under there who’s the crate wrangler, who’s handing up milk crates to the climber. Both of those people can get hit with falling crates as the tower topples, so we’ve made that a hard-hat area, and keep all spectators clear. If you’re stacking 20 or 30 foot towers, then you need to keep all the spectators clear within a 20 or 30 foot radius.
Are there any techniques or strategy?
As you’re building a tower, the tricky part is you’ve got to kind of tuck your toes in to the handles of the milk crate. It’s especially hard for bigger people. Kids have small feet and they can usually fit their shoes in there. We’ve been wearing climbing shoes, which help, ‘cause they have very small toes and you can actually fit them in the small handles. Also, all crates are not created equal: Some have bigger handles than others; some are more rigid than others. We’ve been real connoisseurs of milk crates now, and I’ve been starting to collect the heavier duty ones, the ones that are more rigid and have bigger handles, to allow big feet into them.
Other than that, the way you can brace yourself on the top of the tower varies. Taller people will stand two crates down from the top, shorter people will stand in the top crate. Then you have to brace yourself by reaching around with one of your arms and holding the top of the tower together, then freeing your other hand to grab the next crate that you’re going to stack. That’s really the trickiest part, ‘cause you’re kind of holding on with one hand, and the whole tower is rocking back and forth. You can really see it from the top, as you sight the line straight down the tower. It’s kind of unnerving how much the tower will flex. If you watch which way it’s going, you can kind of correct for it, and just balance it and hold it together. Grab your next crate, clear the top, carefully place it, and then I usually push down on the whole tower to make sure it’s all seated and together while I very carefully move my feet up to the next crate. And repeat.
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