Skyscrapers and Rooftoppers

Updated on March 24, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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.

Source

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 55, 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?

He Claims to Suffer from Vertigo

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.

Mustang Wanted dangles from a steel beam.
Mustang Wanted dangles from a steel beam. | Source

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.

Hang in there.
Hang in there. | Source

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 (below).

Source

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.

The Austin Seven perched on the roof of the Senate House.
The Austin Seven perched on the roof of the Senate House. | Source

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.

Anybody else feeling queasy after watching that video?

See results

Bonus Factoids

  • 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.

Actor Harold Lloyd was early into scary stunts as here above Los Angeles in 1928.
Actor Harold Lloyd was early into scary stunts as here above Los Angeles in 1928. | Source

Sources

  • “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.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • rebelogilbert profile image

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      14 months ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      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.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      14 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      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.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, howtheyplay.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://howtheyplay.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)