“When I was a frosh…”
(Caltech Steam Tunnel Stories)

Hwaet!  Praise the prowess of tunnel-frosh
of far-exploring Techers, in days long gone:
we have heard of what honor the froshlings won!

Once, long ago, in the misty—dusty, really—past, I was an undergrad at Caltech. In those days, Caltech was quite lenient about students exploring the steam tunnels under campus, and generally exploring locations like roofs where they weren’t really supposed to be: what we called “tunneling” and what MIT students would call “hacking”.

Now, I gather, administration treats these actions much more seriously than MIT does, but in those days, they were much less strict than MIT, and being caught somewhere you weren’t supposed to be generally just resulted in being shown back to the surface by a security guard. Housing even issued “South Master” keys to all undergrads which, among other things, opened the doors to several roofs and many entrances to the tunnels and entrances to buildings from the tunnels.

I did a bit of exploring myself, and also participated in leading tours of the tunnels for prefrosh. Those tours involved both showing the prefrosh around the tunnels and some roofs and telling them a rather canonical set of stories about the tunnels and past hacks. I think I was the expert on tunnel stories among people my year, and when I first left for MIT I started writing up a LaTeX document of a tunnel tour, complete with all the stories.

I wrote up a decent amount of what I wanted to go in the document, but I never finished it. Given the crackdown at Caltech, though, I suspect that tunnel tours there have stopped happening and that the traditional “tunnel stories” may have fallen completely out of use. So I’ve decided that it would be worthwhile to post what I remember of them here for the sake of posterity, and for the sake of my MIT friends who may be interested in Caltech’s hacking lore. My original document, “Looking for Gates 22”, was written in the form of directions for a tunnel tour. However, since this is being posted on the public internet, I don’t want to give directions for how to get into or around in the steam tunnels. Instead, I’ll just recount individual stories with any necessary information about their traditional locations for context.

For the sake of atmosphere, and to avoid misunderstandings by MIT people, I should clarify that tours at Caltech were always much smaller and decentralized than MIT’s tours. Two or three upperclassmen would lead a group of about a dozen prefrosh, with one of the upperclassmen taking the lead in telling stories and deciding on the path to be followed while the others kept track of the prefrosh and worked on learning the stories from the tour leader. Tours generally began at midnight in a dorm courtyard and consisted of about two hours of wandering around in warm and damp corridors with varying degrees of lighting and the occasional, disorienting emergence into the cold desert night.

Anyway, if you are interested, you can find my steam tunnel stories linked below: