Climbing the Greasepole

The hallowed greasepole I felt deserved a single post of its own. Synonymous with fear, dread, intrigue, mystery and anticipation. A truly integral part of Queen’s life. I am not exaggerating when I claim that Queen’s University is known across the whole of Canada for this annual event and tradition.

The 6 foot deep by 25m wide pit in the middle of the Canadian countryside (about 30 mins away from Kingston by big yellow school bus) is filled with:

  • mud
  • murky water about 2-3 foot deep
  • a pole over 30ft high cemented into the middle of the pit, so no way of moving, covered in yellow grease with a tam positioned at the top
  • add 150+ first-year enginneering students to the mix who are cold, hungry, overtired and desperate to reach the tam
  • surrounded by upper year students hurling abuse and other articles at them
  • chanting, screaming, fancy dress
  • general pandamonium
  • very loud music

and what do you get? . . .

Something a little like this (because pictures in this case speak so much more than words could begin to explain):

Greasepole pool

entering the pit

shimmying up the pole

creating the human pyramid

You think they have it bad now, in previous years human fluids and dead animal carcuses were allowed to stagnate in the pit.

Where does this tradition begin? And what are they doing?

Greasepole history:

The Rivalry – American football in the 1950’s, just as now, was a very very serious matter, rivalries were deep and intense. The most fierce battles were those between Queen’s Golden Gaels and Toronto’s Varsity (boo, hiss). When games were held in Toronto, devoted fans would  book whole cars of the train and regardless of who came out victorious, partying always erupted and damage was usually done to the opposing team’s stadium.

A favorite trick was knocking down the home team’s goalposts, which Queen’s students were masters at. The Engineering students were  known to love this “structural alteration” of a stadium. In 1955, fed up with this destruction, the University of Toronto erected new steel goals embedded in 3 square feet of solid concrete. Called the “indestructible goals”, U of T sat back smugly and watched the futile attacks by rival fans. Until along came October 8th 1955 and the grand theft!  The night before the big game some crafty Queen’s engineers cut partway through the two North-end posts, leaving just enough uncut metal to support them for the game. After the game the Queen’s crowd surged to the posts, using their strength and number to break thetwo poles before running off with them and shipping them to Kingston via train.

Since this time the pole has been on permanent loan and is hidden and moved regularly to avoid it being stolen back by U of T. Only a select few engineers ever know of the poles’ whereabouts at any time and yes they must swear oaths of allegiance!

What to do with a steel pole?

Being Engineers, they couldn’t just sit around and be happy with their trophy – they had to make something from it. I don’t know how, but a group of Sci. ‘59s (science students who graduated in 1959)  sat around one day and thought, hey why don’t we get the frosh to climb it! Sounds like a genius idea, a challenge to add to the excitement and fervor of their initiations. But a naked pole is not a challenge worthy enough of inclusion into a well-executed initiation program, so being good engineers, they immediately considered options ot make it much trickier. And the Grease-pole was born.

Autumn of 1956, Science ’60 became the first year to ascend a greased pole as part of their introduction to Queen’s Engineering. Using axle grease, the Frosh (the equivalent of our freshers) were given simple instructions: retrieve a tam off the top of the erected pole.

Climbing the pole – Imagine climbing the Pole, if you can. You’re up there on the 3rd level of the human pyramid. Bit by bit you stretch up, reaching for the tam and with a huge stretch and an intake of breath you are just about to grasp hold of it. Yes, you think, this will be it, the tam is coming off! Then an  unripe apple, whizzing in at 30 mph, slams you on the head and you fall, plunging 20+ feet onto your classmates below. Imagine a metal pole 30 feet tall, well greased with axle grease, and with a tam nailed securely to the top and you have a pretty daunting challenge. Add  projectiles from every direction, disgusting things floating in the mess on which you are standing, and a high potential for bruises, broken bones, cuts and scrapes that don’t heal all in the name of a test of teamwork and bonding!

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was fair game for watching Upper Years or others in the jeering mob to keep the frosh from the top at all costs. It was part of the challenge and was thought to more closely bond the Science Year together . Tomatoes, apples, melons, beer bottles and rocks, were all heaved into the Pit at hapless, but determined Frosh at some point during those two decades. Being hit with flying produce was only one of the challenges. The Pole was sunk into a Pit filled with all sorts of vile things mixed in with the mud, water and axle grease. It was so bad that it was deemed too unsafe for women to participate in. That rule was broken in 1976, when 3 female engineering Frosh (called Freshettes) joined the Greasepole unnoticed. Unnoticed that is until the tam was taken off, pictures were taken and it was seen that the second person from the top was a female. As for the Pit, it was not uncommon to find animal parts and other unhealthy extras floating around the legs of those in the pit.

Regardless of the dangers, year after year, Frosh climbed the pole. In 1977 it took the Frosh only 17 mins whereas in  1972 it took a grand total of 1204 minutes and 2 days.

Now and the build-up – After 1985 (number hurt), throwing projectiles was banned. Then in 1988, lanolin replaced the traditional axle grease used to lubricate the Pole, and in 1993, it became regulations for all 4 Engineering Years to enter the Pit at some time, marking the final move toward the modern event (otherwise it would take the Frosh far too long, they need the guidance and extra people that the upper year students provide).

Early on the morning of the Greasepole the FRECs(engineering students) arrive at the secret location of the event, very tired after partying all night.  They set up the site, removing any hazardous rocks, put up a barricade of snow fencing surrounding the Pit and use several gallon drums of lanolin, to grease the Pole and set it in place in the Pit. At some point someone notices the sun has come up and sometime later the sound system begins to blast the music out.

Upper Years arrive and chaos reaches the scene.  Rowdy, purple, hyper and mostly drunk, the Upper Years work themselves into a frenzy while waiting for the Frosh who are travelling “the long route” to the site in buses that have the heating blasting and windows covered.  The Frosh have their heads shaved and must lie on the floor of the coach with their heads covered. The FRECs take up position around the fence. Finally, the Frosh buses arrive and with a roar(and I mean a roar, enough to chill your blood) from the crowd, the Frosh are welcomed into the freezing water of the Pit, suitably shocking after their warm ride. Disorientated, tired, shivering, hungover, with their eyes adjusting to the light, the Frosh are jeered at and descend into the chaos. Music blasting the Frosh bewilderingly begin. Soon they find unlike axle grease, lanolin is very difficult to climb and being lame, they cannot get the tam by themselves.  At one hour in, the 4th years are invited into the Pit.  With a scream, they enter and after a bit of chaos and fun, begin to help the Frosh, well seasoned at the event.  Fifteen minutes later, the 3rd years go in and fifteen minutes after that, the FRECs launch in.  The air seems to crackle as new energy is found.  The Pit is almost full with bodies, giving adequate mass with which to support the upper levels. Together, all engineers working toward one goal perhaps for the only time in their time at Queen’s, the tam is ripped off. Everyone is excited for the Frosh, everyone laughs and yells and chants and moshes. The Frosh started by working together, but can only accomplish their task by joining forces with their older students.

And I was there to see it all unfold! Fantastic! If someone told me about this I wouldn’t believe them as it is such a bizarre event but forms a major part of Queen’s social calendar, with alumni, locals and students each drawn to watch the drama unfold.

Still a little confused and baffled or interested further- then you must watch this. A quick youtube video of the 2009 engineers in action.

jubilation- 3 hours 43 mins and 13 attempts later
Categories: CanadaTags: , ,

1 comment

  1. Don’t forget you can play The Legend of the Greasepole online!

    More info here:



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