I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
What Do You Call People Who Climb the Outsides of Buildings?
Today, the activity of climbing up the outside of buildings is known as “buildering” (horrible word) or “structuring” (almost as horrible). The technical word is "stegophily" (not easy to unravel its meaning), while the terms “urban climbing” and “rooftopping” are more descriptive and understandable.
The French Spiderman
One man, Alain Robert of France, has become famous for climbing the outside of the world’s tallest buildings. At the age of 59, you would think M. Robert had developed a sense of self-preservation. You would be wrong to think that; he still displays a reckless disregard for personal safety.
In June 2018, Alain Robert set out to scale the 123-storey Lotte World Tower in Seoul, South Korea. It’s the world’s fifth highest building.
The folks who own the building and local police were not amused. M. Robert had conquered 75 floors before security lowered a maintenance platform and persuaded him to end his ascent. He was duly arrested, something he’s become quite accustomed too.
He said his climb was to celebrate the closer ties between North and South Korea. Could the fact that he didn’t complete the attempt be seen as an omen?
Here He Climbs the Skyper Building in Frankfurt, Germany. He Repeated the Stunt in November 2021.
Rooftopping Goes Political
Many of the daredevils who scale tall structures have realized the potential for making political statements.
In August 2014, a Ukrainian man who calls himself Mustang Wanted made it to the roof of a Moscow skyscraper. He then painted the Soviet star on top in the blue and yellow colours of his country and completed the decoration by attaching a Ukrainian flag. He was protesting the Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine.
A few months later, a group of rooftoppers scaled the 52-storey China Online Centre in Hong Kong. Using a laptop, they hacked into the massive LED screen on the building and showed a heart-stopping video of their earlier climb up the Shanghai Tower in Beijing that was under construction at the time.
This stunt was seemingly in support of the “umbrella revolution” in Hong Kong in which protesters called for more freedom and democracy. China has since clamped down on such movements.
Elites Conquering Pinnacles
There’s nothing new about this activity.
Young Cambridge University students tested their courage and head for heights by clambering up the outside of old churches and colleges.
It had been going on for many years at Cambridge University when the celebrated mountaineer Geoffrey Winthrop Young published a night climbing guide in 1895. Young wrote that night climbing “is of enormous antiquity, possessing extensive history and a literature which includes the greatest prose and verse writers of all ages.”
In 1937, a slim book was published under the title The Night Climbers of Cambridge. It was written by Whipplesnaith, who later turned out to be a gentleman called Noel Symington.
The book describes, in elegant prose, the various routes to the tops of some of Cambridge’s most famous buildings.
For those with a mind to attempt it, there is a detailed description of the ascent of the south wall of Gonville and Caius (pronounced “keys”) colleges. The serious climber is then encouraged to leap a seven-foot wide void onto the roof of The Senate.
Whipplesnaith gives his readers a taste of the exhilaration of conquering a stone monument:
“As you pass round each pillar, the whole of your body except your hands and feet are over black emptiness. Your feet are on slabs of stone sloping downwards and outwards at an angle of about thirty-five degrees to the horizontal, your fingers and elbows making the most of a friction-hold against a vertical pillar, and the ground is precisely one hundred feet directly below you.”
Then, there’s the cautionary warning of what might happen:
“If you slip, you will still have three seconds to live.” That might be some form of comfort.
Under Cover of Darkness
There are all kinds of people to be dodged by the enterprising climber who wants to get onto the roof of the King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.
Bulldogs are members of the Cambridge University police force who can be relied upon to stop undergraduates from shinning up drainpipes. Regular police officers, quaintly referred to by Whipplesnaith as “Roberts,” also take a dim view of building climbing.
To avoid detection, therefore, getting onto roofs was, and is, best done at night.
However, these midnight scalers liked to leave evidence of their exploits. So, as dawn rose in the east a chamber pot might appear on the steeple of a church.
In May 1932, The Times reported that a wire had been strung between two spires atop King’s College Chapel “from which is now suspended a bottle of wine. The umbrella fastened on the pinnacle on either side is still there, though in a very bedraggled condition.”
The most famous stunt was when engineering students put an Austin Seven van on top of the Senate House roof. That was in May 1958, and it took the university a week to get the vehicle down.
They’re still at it. In late 2009, four Santa hats appeared high up on a chapel and steeplejacks were called in to remove them.
Reasons for Rooftopping
To most people, the practice of climbing huge structures seems to occur at the intersection of testosterone and stupidity. As we’ve seen there’s an element of political protest involved, but there are other reasons why people take such risks with their lives.
For some, there’s clearly an adrenaline rush. There’s said to be nothing like the experience of facing imminent death and emerging unscathed. We’ll take their word for that.
There’s the motivation of internet stardom. The rooftoppers, sometimes called urban explorers, like to video their exploits and post the results on social media platforms. The more outrageous the risks, the more likely to poster is to gather hundreds of thousands of followers.
Theo Kindynis is a criminologist at Roehampton University, in the United Kingdom. He told The Guardian “For the people doing it, it’s all about the image, getting the cool, exclusive YouTubable footage. It’s about building their personal brand, all about the image, all about the spectacle.” And, the brand can turn into cash as some of the more famous climbers sell merchandise such as hoodies and T-shirts.
Then, there are the purists who sneer at the exploits of the self promoters. They do their climbing out of the limelight. For them meeting and defeating the challenge is enough.
- Toronto photographer Tom Ryaboi is credited with being one of the major influences in the current rooftopping craze. In 2007, he climbed up a building that was under construction and starting taking photographs. He loaded his images onto the internet and became an instant sensation.
- In his career, Alain Robert has climbed bare-handed and without ropes more than 150 structures. Among his conquests have been the Eiffel Tower, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Sydney Opera House, and the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. Needless to say, he owns a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “most buildings climbed unassisted.”
- In November 2017, Wu Yongjing was performing a stunt on a 62-storey building in Changsha, China. He was hoping to collect a $19,000 dare prize. He lost his grip. Wu Yongjing was 26.
- “Some References to Cambridge Night Climbing.” “Stegophilous,” Cambridge Underground, 1983.
- “Urban Climbing, 1930s Style.” Sam Jordison, The Guardian, May 22, 2009.
- “A Stegophile View of Cambridge Spires.” Sukhdev Sandhu, The Telegraph, December 29, 2007.
- Schott’s Sporting Gaming & Idling Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury, 2004.
- “A History of Student Pranksters in Cambridge.” Andrew Connell, Varsity, March 13, 2013.
- “Cambridge University Students who Are Mad Hatters.” Metro, November 30, 2009.
- “ ‘French Spiderman’ Arrested After Trying to Scale a Skyscraper in South Korea.” Casey Quackenbush, Time, June 7, 2018.
- “Meet the Rooftoppers: the Urban Outlaws Who Risk Everything to Summit our Cities.” Bradley L. Garrett, The Guardian, February 17, 2015.
- “The Lure of Tall Buildings: A Guide to the Risky but Lucrative World of ‘Rooftoppers.’ ” Jamie Doward, The Guardian, February 26, 2017.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on June 21, 2018:
Interesting article Rupert, I'm not queasy about stunt-men climbing buildings, but I wouldn't do it myself. It's amazing daredevil individuals love to push the limits about scaling heights.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 20, 2018:
Hello Rupert. can these feats be compared to climbing a mountain? I think not. If stardom, cash and like is the motive, then these risk their lives. A person's courage is to help himself or others.
I once watch a James Bond film. The actor is trying to rescue his woman from the top of a building that is on fire. That is my point.