Welcome To The Top: How ‘Skywalkers’ Balance Insane Views With Insane Risks
No ropes, no safety gear, and sometimes hundreds -- if not thousands -- of feet above ground; welcome to the life of a “skywalker.” Now flooding Instagram and YouTube with videos that would make iron-clad stomachs queasy, these urban explorers are obsessed with invading, and sometimes free-climbing, rooftops where they don’t belong. It’s about “seeing spaces that you aren’t supposed to, or spaces that are closed off to the public,” says SVVK, a Manhattan-based rooftopper and photographer. “That was what drew my attention… I was seeing what was behind the closed door.”
But when you balance risks like felony charges and the chance of taking one wrong, fateful step off the side of a building, the obvious question here is: Why? “Rooftopping is something I need to do,” says Tom Ryaboi, better known as Roof Topper on Instagram. “It’s beyond a hobby or even a passion. I feel like I need to go on roofs to stay sane.”
Because I probably need to say this for legal reasons and for my own conscience, please don’t try any of this at home.
It’s an extension of exploring abandoned places
The origin of skywalking, rooftopping, or whatever you want to call it, is murky. People have been exploring cities from the top way before the internet. Photographer Charles Clyde Ebbets scaled Rockefeller Center -- 700 feet above the city -- in 1925. Philippe Petit infamously tightroped between the Twin Towers in 1974. Jeff Chapman, who became a modern pioneer of urban exploration in the ‘90s, documented abandoned buildings and rooftops for his zine Infiltration. It was the starting point of a movement, and exploring forgotten buildings and train yards in Philly was what led SVVK to eventually scale more than 20 buildings in NYC. “I already had experience going to these abandoned places, and then I was seeing these guys up on the rooftops, and I was like man, that would be the next step. How the hell do I do that?”
Enter the YouTube era
Even though a YouTube video of a Russian teenager scaling a roof made the rounds around the web in 2012, and legends like Mustang Wanted began posting his signature point-of-view videos the same year, SVVK says 2016 was when the trend really took off. With rooftoppers like NightScape getting 1.64 million views climbing the tallest chimney in Europe, the era of recording POV urban climbing was unstoppable. On The Roofs, one of SVVK’s role models (who he climbed with this year) has 1 million subscribers who watch the duo climb everything from antennas to cranes. This includes a Shanghai Tower climb that has 77 million views to date. "You could say they started this global thing of people all around the world doing it,” SVVK says. “They had a couple videos that just went viral showing how to do a construction site and showing that it’s pretty possible and pretty easy.”
It’s not just for likes and views
Search “Rooftopping” on YouTube, and the view counts alone would make any viral-hungry social media adventurer consider the dangerous lifestyle. But it’s also about what you’re not seeing. “There are guys who are satisfied with not posting [a photo] anywhere because it’s just sometimes about pulling it off and that’s all they need,” SVVK says.
Roof Topper thinks it’s about escaping the chaos of being at sea level. "Funny thing about rooftopping, sitting on a tall building is one of the quietest places you can find in a big city,” Roof Topper says. “You get a certain type of kinship with the city up there. It’s hard to put into words. There are a large part of youths that are trying to do something different. Living in a big city makes you pent up, rooftopping is just a temporary release from that.”
Secrecy is everything
Their anonymity kept mostly under wraps, the New York roof-topping crew SVVK hangs with ranges from high schoolers still getting grounded, to adrenaline junkies well into their 30s. Even though most of them have social media, some of them won’t post about a spot because they don’t want anyone to duplicate their climb. “I have friends who don’t even want to put up stuff publicly because they know other people will try and copy it,” SVVK says. “Sometimes when that happens, a lot of people go and then security finds out, and they’ll just lock it. Or you can’t ever go back.”
Figuring out security for coveted routes in buildings can take forever, so rooftoppers get protective over their hard work, too. “We keep it between us,” SVVK says. “Say I found a way into one of these offices. I’ll tell a homie but I won’t tell anyone else. That way only our group of friends will be able to make it up the spot.”
Security > falling
Speaking of security, both SVVK and Roof Topper agree the risk of avoiding guards is their biggest threat -- despite the heights they bet their good balance on.
“Everyone always asks, ‘How do you get on a rooftop?’ It’s actually the wrong question. A better question would be, ‘When?’” says Roof Topper, who says he has “an excellent lawyer” if he ever runs into trouble. For SVVK, avoiding security can sometimes take months of research and a few failed attempts. “Security is probably the one thing I worry about versus falling or anything,” he says. “We choose the buildings we do because we know the security is cool. Like, if we know security is tough for some of these office buildings, but the building is so cool so you know you still want to do it, you’ll do what it takes to get past them or talk to them.”
To cranes and beyond
Even though it seems like every major rooftop has been conquered, there are still new heights to cover for rooftoppers -- like stunts incorporated into complicated climbs, not least of which was pulled off by On The Roofs, who received international attention after they climbed 659 feet up a building in Hong Kong and hacked into its LED billboard to have it say “What’s Up Hong Kong?” That’s all to say, with climbs getting crazier (like the Great Pyramids) and stunts getting more daring, hopefully the next generation of skywalkers takes cues from those who’ve come before them.
“I look forward to seeing where the next generation of rooftoppers take it and how this thing evolves,” Roof Topper says. “I think you’ll start seeing some next-level things. Climbing cranes is just the beginning.”