Death-defying Thrill Seekers in Pursuit of New Highs

A new breed of adventurer is risking life and limb by 'conquering' skyscrapers and tall monuments. The rooftoppers who shot a video from the peak of a Hong Kong building reveal why they do it.

Every few months, new videos and photos of fearless young people climbing the tops of tall monuments and sculptures, as well as the roofs of skyscrapers, surface on the Internet, to the shock of those viewing them. A recent video clip showing three young people from Hong Kong perched on the needle at the top of a Hong Kong skyscraper, happily eating bananas, must have left many viewers with a bad case of vertigo.

In an interview with Haaretz, two of them explain why “rooftopping” is becoming so popular among their contemporaries in Hong Kong, and also provide tips for anyone brave enough to attempt it themselves. Daniel Lau, who shot the Hong Kong video – which has already been praised on photography websites as a new high in the genre – doesn’t see himself only as someone who climbs roofs – even though his Instagram account is full of pictures and videos of Hong Kong skyscrapers.

“I am most well known for rooftopping, but I would not [categorize] myself as a rooftopper,” he says. “Instead, I would say I’m an explorer. I love to explore places where people don’t usually go – like abandoned places, construction sites and, of course, rooftops. I want to let people see the place [where] they’re living in a new perspective.”

Rooftopping has changed his life, he says. “Another reason [for] exploration is that it’s a getaway from my structured life. Before doing this, I lived like an ordinary person, having a boring life. I wanted to do something special, something memorable that I would be proud of, that I can tell my grandchildren about. In our daily lives, we follow orders, follow others’ paths, [get] a job after graduation; while [exploring], you keep searching, keep creating your own path. That’s what I love.”

The trend seems to have started at the beginning of the 2000s in Russia, where the initial videos showed young people hanging above the roofs of Soviet-era buildings and monuments. The phenomenon then migrated to the United States. Lau may explain the attraction as exploring an unknown rooftop, but it has gained popularity of late from Russian extreme sports enthusiasts making pilgrimages to famous tall buildings. For his part, Lau is concerned that young people in Hong Kong, who get swept up in the exploits of Russian tourists, are not maintaining the purity of the pursuit.

Effort and research

“More and more people have started rooftopping in Hong Kong, because of the Russians who bring the sport over here. But people in Hong Kong generally lack creativity,” says Lau. “They always follow [onto the same] locations, and take the exact same picture with the same angle. Of course, they can’t reach some of the roofs,” he says. “I don’t appreciate people who only want to go to the roofs, snap a shot and show off in front of their friends. If you enjoy exploration, you would not ask people for locations. You would search your own ways.

“People don’t understand how much effort explorers would put into explorations,” he continues. “Take me as an example. I train to climb. I do research before climbing. I might fail many times before getting to just one destination.”

Appearing in a video with Lau is Airin S., a young woman with blue hair who maintains a blog called Timeless Dimension and first heard about rooftopping a year ago. “Rooftopping definitely gives me a different perspective of Hong Kong, or life,” she says. “It gives you a quiet time to look at the city and think. We seem to have choices but our lives are designed – what to consume, what to see, what to do, where to go. We choose among things which are already chosen, by the rich or people in power. From up above, one can see the walking dead, human robots and working bees on the street. People’s activities are limited in the rectangular boxes of these ridiculously high skyscrapers, and yet they absurdly accept it as normal. Most of them do nothing, get old and leave this world. Sitting on the roof is like watching [a] Sims game,” says Airin, referring to the simulation game that mimics daily lives.

There are very few women engaged in rooftopping, she notes. ”I rarely go rooftopping alone. Usually I go with a friend or a few friends. I know there are some female rooftoppers, but I don’t know them well. Sometimes it’s not easy for females. Rooftopping can be wearing and strenuous, so I do train myself for climbing,” she says. “I know that rooftopping in Israel is not very well known. A few months ago I brought a friend from Israel to a roof in Hong Kong and he liked it. He started rooftopping when he was back in Israel.”

For those who don’t feel capable of being photographed hanging by one hand on top of a tall building or bridge, Lau says the climb doesn’t have to be dangerous. “Many people think that rooftopping is to get to the highest building they can. Yes, height will bring you excitement, but many local rooftoppers don’t aim for that. [Being a] daredevil is just one style,” he says. “Some people take beautiful scenery shots. Some people just simply enjoy the moment and [the] feeling up there. It can be an extreme sport. It can be an art.”

Daniel Lau