How Buildering Works


On March 28, 2011, Alain Robert -- known as the French "Spider-Man" -- climbed Burj Khalifa, the highest building in the world in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. See more Dubai pictures.
Emmanuel Aguirre/Getty Images

Like the rocky cliffs define the Alps or the Sierra Nevada, buildings are what define the topography of urban areas. And as long there have been tall buildings, people have wanted to climb them. "Buildering" (a portmanteau of "building" and "bouldering") is the increasingly popular sport of climbing up the exterior of buildings, using many of the techniques that are used in rock climbing.

As rock climbing has grown in popularity all over the world in recent years, so has its urban equivalent. If you want to get a sense for just how big the sport has become, you need only direct your Web browser to one of several online forums used by urban climbers. There, climbers share stories and photographs of the walls that they have conquered all over the world. On forums like the one hosted at Buildering.net, climbers share wisdom about everything from climbing routes to how to survive a long fall. ("Useful stuff should you find yourself plummeting to the Earth from great height," writes one poster) [source: Buildering.net].

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Just like rock climbing, plummeting to Earth from a great height is of course the biggest danger associated with urban climbing -- especially if you're doing it without safety gear like ropes, a harness and a helmet. But falling isn't the only risk faced by people who make a hobby of scaling buildings. It's illegal in most places, and if you get caught doing it, it can earn you jail time.

So why do people do it? Just like rock climbing, most climbers, well, climb just to climb. Every climber probably does it for a different reason, but buildering enables a climber to experience the city in a different way than most of us normally do. The climb itself must provide an enormous adrenaline rush, and it of course provides great views once you get to the top. Scaling a structure that's supposed to be off limits probably also gives them the satisfaction of eating the forbidden fruit and conquering something, but those barriers to entry also help to prevent buildering from entering the mainstream.

The History of Buildering

Although buildering has been growing in popularity in recent years, it isn't a new phenomenon. People have been climbing walls for as long as we've been building them, but the sport of urban climbing appears to have its roots in the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900, Geoffrey Winthrop Young (the father of modern urban climbing) published "The Roof Climbers Guide to Trinity," one of the first printed guides to climbing Trinity College buildings in Cambridge, England. The small book served as a guide to scaling some of the school's tallest buildings, providing instructions on which routes to take. In 1937, under the pen name "Whipplesnaith," Noel Symington published "The Night Climbers of Cambridge," a follow-up to Young's guide, which is still widely referenced today.

In American cities, buildering rose to prominence along with the rise of the skyscraper in the first three decades of the 20th century, when a couple of key daredevils scaled some of the world's then-tallest towers. The most famous of these early climbers was probably Harry H. Gardiner, aka the Human Fly (a nickname that was reportedly given to him by President Grover Cleveland). Wearing all white and grinning, Gardiner famously climbed the Detroit News' 12-story Detroit ad building in 1916 before a large lunchtime crowd. "They dared not cheer," reported the Detroit News. "Men stood and stared with bulging eyes. Women hugged their babies to their breasts and held their breath" [source: Baulch].

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Because it was so popular, an encore climb was scheduled a few days later, but it was canceled because the large crowds created such a disruption. Gardiner later went on to climb the 16-story Empire Building in Birmingham, Ala., and the 17-story World Building in Vancouver, British Columbia.

In another famous buildering attempt, in 1924 Henry Roland broke his hip falling 35 feet (10.67 meters) while attempting to scale the Davis County Courthouse in Bloomfield, Iowa. The fall left Roland, who had been traveling the country performing stunts, penniless and injured. But eight years later, he returned to Bloomfield and successfully climbed the courthouse in just 12 minutes, placing his hat on the head of the Blind Justice statue at the top of the building's clock tower [source: Evans].

Not all early buildering stories had such happy endings, though. In 1923, H.F. Young, another urban climber, famously died from a nine-story fall off of the Hotel Martinique in New York. After two more deaths the following year, many cities passed ordinances that banned buildering. From the mid-1920s to the early 1960s, urban climbing's popularity tailed off in the U.S., but it would again rise to prominence in popular culture in the second half of the 20th century.

Modern Buildering

Just like in rock climbing, most climbers, well, climb buildings just to climb.
Just like in rock climbing, most climbers, well, climb buildings just to climb.
Thorney Lieberman/Getty Images

By the 1970s and '80s, climbers again started tackling the world's tallest buildings, making the feats of early climbers look like child's play. In 1977, George Willig, a toy maker for the Ideal Toy Company, took the day off work for "personal business" and famously scaled the 110-story south tower of the World Trade Center in about three-and-a-half hours using a self-made climbing device that fit over the window washer's scaffolds. Willig's homemade ascenders fit snugly into the channel between windows, enabling him to climb with relative ease and didn't leave a scratch on the building [source: Moses]. When Willig made it to the top, he was greeted by police officers. The city originally planned to fine him $250,000, but Mayor Beame then decided to fine him just $1.10 -- one penny per floor.

Then, in 1981, a climber from California named Dan Goodwin dressed up as Spider-Man and climbed the only skyscraper that was taller than the World Trade Center -- the Sears Tower in Chicago. Later that year, Goodwin again donned the Spider-Man suit and scaled Chicago's second-tallest building, the 100-story John Hancock Tower. Five years later, Goodwin completed perhaps his greatest accomplishment, climbing the 1,815-foot CN Tower in Toronto, which was the tallest structure in the world at the time [source: Paynter].

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As remarkable as his climbs were, it wasn't long before Goodwin's feats were overshadowed by those of another daredevil climber. In the mid-1990s, a Frenchman named Alain Robert challenged himself to climb all of the world's tallest towers. Robert is famous for "free soloing" buildings, which is a climbing term for climbing without the aid of ropes or any other climbing equipment. "To Robert, safety contrivances are a form of bondage," wrote Lauren Collins in the New Yorker in 2009 [source: Collins]. Robert has also sported a Spider-Man costume, and he is the only other person to scale Chicago's Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). Since then, Robert has gone on to climb many more tall buildings around the world.

Buildering in Popular Culture

From the early days of urban climbing in beginning of the 20th century, climbing feats have drawn crowds of onlookers and brought personal fame to the climbers. And it wasn't long before climbers figured out ways to commercialize their stunts. Some early builderers wore promotional signs on their backs and unfolded banners once reaching the top.

In the early days of buildering, newspapers reported breathlessly on the climbs, just as they did with tightrope walking and other public stunts. But in television era, urban climbers enjoyed a different kind of fame. After climbing the World Trade Center in 1977, George Willig became an instant celebrity and was shuttled from Johnny Carson to Merv Griffin and several other talk shows to meet the public [source: New York Press].

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Urban climbers have also been recruited as stunt men in action movies. In contemporary culture, climbing stunts have become a fixture of big-budget movies. The 2006 James Bond reboot, "Casino Royale," featured a combination of buildering and parkour (or "freerunning") by stunt double S├ębastien Foucan.

But perhaps the most famous example of buildering in recent years was when Tom Cruise climbed out a window of the Burj Kahlifa in Dubai -- the world's tallest tower -- and climbed around at a vertigo-inducing elevation of about 2,717 feet (828.1 meters) above ground. Cruise wasn't free soloing; he had the aid of a rope, but at age 48 he deserved some serious kudos for doing his own stunts [source: Littlejohn].

Even Alain Robert, the world's most accomplished free soloist who has used his platform to promote social and environmental causes, hasn't been immune to commercial interests. Although he has been jailed and fined for climbing buildings in many parts of the world (Robert is banned from even entering China), his stunts are welcomed in some places, as building owners pay him thousands of dollars to draw attention to their structures. In 1994, a documentary filmmaker invited Robert to come to Chicago to climb skyscrapers for a documentary about extreme sports, bringing him worldwide fame. Today, Robert even has a sponsor -- Norgil, a hair augmentation company [source: Collins].

But even the world's most accomplished urban climber hasn't been immune to the dangers of buildering. In the next section we'll discuss some of the safety and legal issues associated with urban climbing.

Buildering Safety and Legality

Like any other type of trespassing, buildering is generally illegal and the penalties tend to vary depending on local laws. Along with BASE jumping, parkour and other types of extreme urban exploration, buildering presents a major liability for property owners, and unsurprisingly, most owners don't want their buildings used as jungle gyms.

Climber Dan Goodwin began climbing out of a desire to help firefighters and emergency services rescue people from high-rise fires skyscrapers after witnessing a fire that killed 85 people in Las Vegas. Despite his good intentions, Goodwin has still broken the law to climb skyscrapers around the world without getting permission from their owners. The man known as "Spider Dan" has been arrested at least five times, and he claims that police in Chicago blasted him with a fire hose while he was climbing the 37th floor of the John Hancock Tower. Goodwin's rap sheet is miniscule compared to that of fellow climber Alain Robert, who has been arrested more than 100 times for criminal trespassing [source: Hudson].

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Robert completes most of his climbs with nothing more than the chalk on his hands, but other less fearless climbers do use safety devices when climbing buildings. Climbers use everything from a rope and grappling hook to suction cups to keep from falling off the sides of buildings.

Even with ropes and other climbing gear, buildering is just as dangerous -- if not more so -- than rock climbing. The surface and composition of buildings can vary widely, making some very easy to climb and others very difficult. For example, after Alain Robert scaled the New York Times Building in 2008, a police officer told the New York Times, "looking at this building, you don't have to be a professional. This building is like a ladder." That's because the Times building features a distinctive sun screen, making it easy to climb. The police officer was soon proved correct: Later that day, an inexperienced climber from Brooklyn climbed the building.

Other buildings are not so easy, though. Sheer glass buildings can be particularly tough because they lack toe and hand holds. And weather can make building particularly difficult to climb. When Alain Robert was climbing Chicago's then-Sears Tower in 1999, the building was enshrouded in a thick fog, making the surface dangerously slick. Robert frequently cites the Sears Tower among his most difficult climbs.

Although buildering provides a thrill for those who practice it, safety and legal issues are to blame for buildering's relative obscurity. It will probably never be as popular as other recreational activities, like hiking or even its cousin, bouldering, because of the risks involved. And with heightened security around buildings in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, trespassing and climbing the exterior of a forbidden building looks even less alluring. The prospect of getting a fire hose pointed at you or getting arrested and possibly even facing jail time is a pretty big barrier to entry for most folks.

Author's Note

In the introduction to one of his guides, Ard Arvin offers the following disclaimer: "Buildering always results in serious injury and horrible death. Buildering is illegal. You will be caught, charged with trespassing and spend years in jail." The first point is enough to scare me away from buildering -- the second is icing on the cake. So it's impossible for me to understand what drives a guy like Alain Robert, especially after suffering such terrible injuries from that fall when he was 19.

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Sources

  • Baulch, Vivian M. "The adventures of the Human Fly." The Detroit News. Feb. 4, 1996. (Aug. 20, 2012) http://apps.detnews.com/apps/history/index.php?id=124
  • Collins, Lauren. "The Vertical Tourist: Alain Robert's Obsession with Skyscrapers." The New Yorker. April 20, 2009. (Aug. 22, 2012) http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2009-04-20#folio=069
  • Evans, Rudy. "Henry 'Dare-Devil' Roland, the Amazing Human Fly." Davis County Courthouse Preservation Fund. 2009. (Aug. 21, 2012) http://www.daviscountycourthouse.com/humanfly.html
  • Hudson, Laura. "Two Amazing Real-Life Spider-Men Defy Common Sense." Wired. May 3, 2012. (August 24, 2012) http://www.wired.com/playbook/2012/05/pl_twospidermen/
  • Littlejohn, Goergina. "Tom Cruise dangles from the world's tallest building as he performs a death-defying stunt for new Mission: Impossible movie." Daily Mail. Nov. 2, 2010. (August 20, 2012) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1325517/Tom-Cruise-dangles-worlds-tallest-building-new-Mission-Impossible-movie.html#ixzz24gXeHmsd
  • Moses, Sam. "The Only Way To Go Is Up." Sports Illustrated. June 6, 1977. (Aug. 22, 2012) http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1092492/index.htm
  • New York Press. "WTC Climber George Willig Would Do It All Again." Oct 16, 2001. (Aug. 22, 2012) http://nypress.com/wtc-climber-george-willig-would-do-it-all-again/