When the Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC Championship on Jan. 30, revelers flooded the streets to celebrate another Super Bowl appearance. In the days leading up to the game, a drubbing of the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia cops broke out paint rollers and spent hours greasing up the city’s light poles. They knew exactly where this party was heading.
Indeed, as is custom, the city’s residents overcame the obstacle, drunkenly clambering up the poles as far as the grease would allow. Most people slid right back down—but some did make it to the top.
“You could feel the energy, the largeness of the moment. The vantage point, the breeze—it was picturesque,” says Zach Heisey, a 25-year-old information technology administrator who successfully summited a “15-foot–ish” light pole.
Greased-pole climbing has a decades-old legacy rooted in the city’s Italian immigrants, best witnessed at the annual grease pole climb in South Philly. But the practice first made national headlines when the city slapped Crisco on light poles in the runup to the Eagles’ Super Bowl win in 2017—only to see several of the Birds’ faithful triumphantly scale one after another.
Conquering gravity and slipperiness at once is an impressive feat. How do you thwart a sea of grease? And what’s the best way to do it? Here’s a rough guide on friction, fervor, and how to be a good neighbor.
First, a bit of science. To grip anything, you need friction. Friction occurs whenever two objects touch. Press and rub your finger up your palm. That resistance—voilà, friction!
However you plan to climb a pole, you’ll have to start with your hands. Human skin possesses a quality called viscoelasticity, a fancy way of saying it acts like both a liquid and a solid. It stays thick like maple syrup and snaps back like a rubber band. Having this property means our skin generates more friction than a regular solid.
Humans also possess a thin layer of water on their skin that helps them grip objects, says Laurie Winkless, a physicist who wrote a book about the science of friction.
“Every molecule of water desperately wants to cling on to every other molecule of water. So it has a kind of stickiness to it,” Winkless says.
Water molecules stick because they’re greedy. One side of them hoards electrons, creating an asymmetry the molecules remedy by clinging to other water molecules. By contrast, grease molecules are electronically balanced. Instead of sticking, then, they just glide past each other, reducing friction. Lubricants are important for facilitating motion—whether it’s in engines or during sex—and they are not exactly ideal when you’re trying to grip something. Further compromising your grip is the fact that oils abhor water. Lubricants are inherently slippery, but clambering up a pole becomes much trickier for a person because grease disrupts our skin’s natural ability to grip and create tension.
If it weren’t self-evident beforehand, that should make it clear why it’s necessary to say this: Don’t try to climb with the grease on Sunday night. You won’t get up, and you’re more likely to fall and hurt yourself.
But if you must, at least remove the grease first, says Kat Petronaci, a 38-year-old pole dancing instructor in the city.
“The first people to try are usually the people that don’t end up getting up there because they’re the grease wipers,” she says.
Grease or no grease, upper body strength and tension are crucial for getting up a pole, too. Ditch the hands and wrap your whole body around it. Opt for what Petronaci calls the inchworm approach: hugging the pole and slowly shimmying up.
Heisey has some advice for other climbers, too.
“Know your limits,” he says. “Try to leave your beer with your friend; it’ll be there when you come back down. And don’t overstay your welcome, because that’ll just make the police grab you.”
Philadelphia police officers have already started slicking poles and erecting barricades in anticipation of Sunday’s Super Bowl. It’s unclear how effective these tactics will be. After the NFC Championship game, lifelong Philly resident Arielle Pierson was determined to climb a pole, police be damned. Out with her friend, they jumped on one but struggled. Until her “angel” arrived.
“This guy, he runs up to my friend, squats down, grabs him around his shins and, like, launches upwards, and with that momentum—and it had to have been like 300 pounds that this guy was shoving upwards—shoved me and him all the way up so that I was able to grab the top rung and the sign and pull myself up onto it. And then he just disappears into the crowd,” says Pierson, a 30-year-old legal assistant.
Summiting this pole was a huge accomplishment in Pierson’s life. She feels like a proper Philadelphian now. But she regrets one thing: She chose an untreated pole.
“The only thing that I didn’t get to do was actually climb a greased pole, because it was surrounded by four cops. I know for the Super Bowl, I’m going for a greased one.”