Some among us are acrobatic enough that natural obstacles like boulders, glaciers and mountains are almost too boring to tackle. Climbing a mountain isn’t the same as say, climbing a skyscraper. We like to imagine these people think to themselves, “Mount Everest? K2? Lets call them warm ups.” This is definitely an embellishment on our part, but who could possibly want to wedge their hands in steel over rock? The natural splendors of the world offer up plenty to test one’s climbing ability, so why delve into, and up, the man-made monstrosity’s in various metropolises across the world? It could be as simple as the thrill of a new challenge, and it’s these people who practice what’s known as “buildering.”
The portmanteau “buildering” is used to describe bouldering, except, instead of rock climbing, it’s done on buildings. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of adrenaline, you’re not daring enough for these daredevils. How, exactly, does someone climb a building? It’s not simple, that’s for sure. If you’ve ever wondered about free solo climbing, as seen in our free soloing in Zion National Park article, the urban climbing community that makes up the buildering population can often only climb without ropes or safety harnesses. It’s hard to stick spring-loaded camming devices, nuts or hexes into a steel wall, after all.
Like the free solo superstar of Yosemite, Alex Honnold, buildering has their own version of a superstar, and his name is Alain Robert, the French Spiderman.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of Alain’s terrifying ascents. He’s famously climbed some of the largest buildings in the world, including the New York Times building in New York, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpuar, Malaysia, the National Telecommunications building in Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates, and Chicago’s Sears Tower. He is a superstar in the world of buildering, but he’s not the only one who builders; he’s not even the only one that’s climbed such audacious structures. There were others even before Robert made his way into the world’s consciousness as a real life Spiderman.
Dan Goodwin, or SpiderDan, was buildering before it became popular. He scaled numerous skyscrapers back in the 80s to raise awareness for firefighter safety and rescue. Some of his more incredible climbs were the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center in Chicago and The Renaissance Tower, a 56-story skyscraper, in Dallas.
Throughout the 20th century, there were multiple people buildering before it was known by that name. Most of them did have one thing in common, though: a nickname. At least six different people climbed under the alias of “The Human Fly.” One was George Willig of Queens, New York, who scaled the World Trade Center Tower 2, in 1977 (then, one of the highest buildings in the world). This feat occured a handful of years after Phillippe Petit walked between the two Towers and was the subject of the academy award nominated film, Man on Wire. Willig was fined $1.10 by the mayor after his climb, 10 cents for each story he climbed (110 in total).
Even today, there are other, less famous building climbs occurring all over the world. Here’s one swashbuckler in Russia scaling the Seven Sisters, or “Stalin Skyscrapers,” in Moscow.
If you noticed the police sirens in that last video, it’s because buildering at the level of Robert, is highly illegal. After Alain got to the top of the New York Times building, the police were there to congratulate him, then take him into custody. But Alain trudged on, and he has completed climbing 80 of the world’s tallest buildings. We’re guessing he’s not done yet, either. The interesting thing to note here is the etymology of buildering. It’s aligned with bouldering, which focuses on smaller boulders rather than mountain cliffs.
Part of what makes buildering so interesting is how to attack a building. A building’s structure is generally segmented and uniform. They don’t feature the crumbling rock and seeping water that can be the downfall of rock climbers, particularly ones like Honnold that rely on just their wits and a bag of chalk. That’s how Alain climbs, too, and as you’ll see, amateur buildering is almost always done with very little in the way precaution. For some that might sound even more inviting, but it’s best if you train and practice before attempting some of the buildings you may have seen Robert climb.
If you’re curious about buildering, don’t just go to the tallest building in your town and then start climbing (this is especially true if you’re in a large city like New York). You need to start practicing with the indoor boulders that serve as practice before getting to the real thing. These man made boulders come equipped with hand holds, which attempt to mimic the crevices in a rock boulder, or—in the case of building—the parallel wedge between two horizontal planes on the side of a building. They indoor bouldering centers, which you can find all over the United States, and elsewhere, will give you the experience you’ll need before attacking real boulders, or in this case, real buildings.
After a lot of practice, which both Alain and Honnold had to go through before they became world renowned free solo climbers, now you can start on a smaller building. It’s really important, however, if you’re seriously thinking about buildering as a hobby, that you realize it comes with a pretty substantial caveat: no safety ropes or wedges, which even experienced rock climbers use. When you’re buildering, you’re climbing a man-made structure and there’s nothing but the design of the building to wedge your fingers in as a stabilizing force to scale upwards on the building.
A lot of buildering is done with friends, and it’s done with structures no larger than 10-15 feet in the air. You can still do a lot of damage if you fall from that height, but if you place down pads at the base of your climb, and your friends are prepared to try and help cushion you if you fall, it’s a pretty gnarly way to spend an afternoon.
Leave the skyscrapers and larger monuments to professionals like Alain Robert, George Willig, and others. If you’ve been climbing for the majority of your life and you’re well versed in the dangers of free soloing, then and only then should you attempt the impossible: climbing a skyscraper. Regardless of how high you’re climbing, buildering is not your typical sport and it’s not for the feint of heart. That’s what Adrenalists are all about, after all.
Cover Photo Credit: PatrickSeabird / Flickr.com