Spot the climbers. | Photo courtesy of The Edge
Spot the climbers. | Photo courtesy of The Edge

Climb a Skyscraper and Live Out Your 'Mission: Impossible' Dreams

You do your own stunts, thanks.

It feels like a dream or, depending on your predisposition, possibly a nightmare. You’re almost 1,300 feet above Manhattan in a jumpsuit as blue as the sky you’re touching, strapped to the outside of a skyscraper. Your head is literally in the clouds; sailboats on the Hudson below look like bobbing bath toys. Far, far away on the ground, taxis do the Broadway Boogie Woogie, like a Mondrian painting come to life. The wind whips past your ears as you grasp onto the cables, a few metal strands stopping gravity from taking over. And in your head, you can’t help but hear David Byrne’s voice: "Well, how did I get here?"

There’s not many activities for outdoor adrenaline junkies to get their fix in Manhattan, unless you count extreme sports on the Hudson (the “extreme” part is when the notoriously suspicious water splashes on you).

But last month came a new option, when City Climb debuted in—or should we say on—30 Hudson Yards. The third-largest commercial tower in New York, inside it’s all business with offices for HBO, CNN and Time Warner. Outside, it’s a freewheeling, gusty home to Edge, the highest outdoor observation deck in the Western Hemisphere, suspended in midair 100 stories up.

Now, above Edge, there’s City Climb—as the name implies, a climbing experience— which straps thrill-seekers to the outside of 30 Hudson Yards to ascend via grated steel staircase to The Apex, 1,271 feet up (for reference, the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet sans spire). It’s only the third type of attraction like this in the world: The CN Tower EdgeWalk funnels you in a circle 1,168 feet above Toronto, while Australia’s BridgeClimb allows visitors to scale the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge (and, apparently, take a pic with Santa at the summit).

At City Climb, no previous experience is needed—and that goes for the guides as well. In fact, it’s better they have none. “I’m actually not really looking for people who are circus performers like myself or rock climbers or adventure course aficionados,” says Anissa Barbato, Director of Operations and former aerialist (among other jobs) with Barnum & Bailey and the Big Apple Circus. “I’m looking for people who have a wonderful sense of adventure but who are also detail-oriented. Who are positive beyond positive.” It’s a strategy: Coming in fresh means there’s nothing to unlearn, as City Climb’s safety protocols are extremely specific to the attraction. And that positive attitude means the guides can instantly pivot into cheerleaders should paralyzing fear set in for a climber.

Wheeee! | Photo courtesy of The Edge

First, they weigh you, which could be the first cause for hesitation. But this is some sort of futuristic scale with no numbers, only a “pass” or “fail” to make sure you’re within the deemed range (up to 310lbs). Then it’s on to signing a waiver and familiarizing yourself with a list of who shouldn’t participate. No pregnant ladies, nobody with heart conditions and vertigo, and nobody below 4’9” or above 6’7”. There’s a breathalyzer, which folks have definitely failed. “We allow them to rebook for another day,” says Barbato. “ We need to make sure that if anybody is compromised in that sense that they’re not putting either my team or any of the other guests at risk.”

You're given your blue jumpsuit and strapped in with harnesses, carabiners, and cables. Then it’s off to “Base Camp” where you’re threaded onto a metal railing that leads you to the top of the building. And it’s right here, before being locked in, that people waver. “If anyone has any concerns, that’s usually where the pieces fall where they may,” says Barbato. “If we have some guests who are a bit tentative about their choice or about a choice that maybe someone else made for them, that’s usually where they back out.”

But today my group of five are all in, and after getting fixed onto the railing, we’re out the door, flanked by two guides, dragging our cables along with us single-file until we get to our first stop: a gate announcing a “restricted area.” Behind it is The Cliff, an exposed platform 1,189 feet up with views all the way to the mountains of Pennsylvania, our first taste of how breezy it can get up there.

We’re given the opportunity to peer over the edge, but there’s hesitation amongst our ranks. And here’s where we see the motivational skills of the guides on display. After some pepped-up encouragement, we all pass through The Cliff, and it's upwards and onwards.

New Jersey looks pretty good from The Cliff. | Photo courtesy of The Edge

There’s no “normal” up here. A daredevil family recently booked the maximum of eight in their group—plus two guides, always two guides—but for the most part, people buy tickets in pairs. Recently, someone proposed at the top, the audience former strangers now bonded by the shared experience.

Or people book alone. “Shockingly, I’m finding a lot of people are doing it solo,” says Barbato. “We’ve had a lot of solo artists up there just saying, 'I really wanted to do this, and wanted to make sure that I could get my ticket.'” It makes sense: at $185 a pop for this bucket-list adventure, you can’t really wait for—or rely on—your indecisive friends to commit.

Climbing The Stair. | Photo courtesy of The Edge

After The Cliff, it’s time to make our way to The Apex: the pinnacle of the experience, 1,271 feet up in the Manhattan sky. Slowly we trudge, pulling our cables with us up 161 steel steps—the portion of the course they call The Stair—toward the building’s triangular peak, pausing every so often to take in the scenery. Below, the streets are frantically bustling, but up here, it’s calm.

The Apex platform is no more than 10 feet by 10 feet, offering 360 degrees of open-air, panoramic, stratospheric views: no railings, no glass, no barriers to speak of. The city is breathtaking, views of One World Trade, The Empire State and Chrysler buildings worthy as a backdrop of a Hollywood photo shoot, which our guides facilitate (nothing is allowed up with us lest they drop, including phones). If we wanted, this could be our grand finale. And for some of the heights-averse in the group, it is. But the staff remind us that making it to this point, with those views, is the goal. Everything else is the cherry on the sundae.

But should you want that cherry, all it takes is a little leaning—and trust in the cables attached to you. You first lean backwards, feet on the edge, legs straightened, arms spread-eagled. Hold the pose for 30 seconds while a guide takes your picture.

Then flip around and lean out like Superman, one arm extended, suspended from your tethers—the closest you may actually get to being Superman. A few floors down, spectators and family members at Edge's observation deck are…observing. And perhaps from down there, it looks a little silly. But up top, it’s better than being Tom Cruise (probably). And after a few of those second dangling stints, you climb back down—the back way—to a celebratory glass of Champagne. Next up: auditioning for the next Mission: Impossible.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. After this she's pretty sure she's ready for her first art heist.