My friend Ash, a professional freerunner, occasionally calls me up and asks me if I’d be interested in photographing one of his latest ideas. Typically, his ideas are unique, perhaps verging on what the average person might regard as a little unhinged. This one only seemed slightly outlandish, however: go to the top of a building in the middle of the night and, with the city below, photograph him climbing around on some scaffold. Sounded fairly straightforward.
I met Ash and Pip (another professional athlete) at around 4am on a Sunday morning in November 2013. It was cold and damp and I’d not eaten any breakfast. Guy’s Hospital, once the tallest hospital in the world, stands 142 metres high and was undergoing exterior refurbishment, possibly to make it look less shabby alongside its glamorous neighbour, The Shard. I assumed that we would be sneaking into the building, its security compromised by the construction work, and climbing the stairs; or perhaps scrambling up a series of ladders linking various scaffold platforms up the side of the building. Arriving early, I did a lap of the surrounding streets and became a little concerned. Upon meeting my friends, my fears were confirmed: our route to the roof was a temporary elevator frame braced a few metres from the side of the building – 142 metres of vertical scaffolding.
I’ve been climbing for almost ten years. In terms of the individual movements, this would be a very easy climb, much like a ladder whose rungs are a slightly awkward distance apart with two out of every three being diagonal rather than horizontal. Although I didn’t express any reservations to my friends, I knew that their adventure depended on my participation, and this little bit of social pressure and personal pride was enough for me to ignore my apprehension. I pushed it away, instead focusing on the slight nausea of having only had a few hours of sleep and too much coffee. Further help came through the immediacy of the physicality; I was able to distract the rational part of my brain with the need to negotiate the fence that separated us from the building site followed by some dense scaffolding.
Before I could give it any further thought, we were 30 metres off the ground. Ash led the way, I followed, and Pip brought up the rear. I entered a rhythm, aided by the fact that, every 5 metres or so, horizontal bars braced the frame to the building itself allowing a me to stand relatively comfortably, holding on only for balance. These braces were a godsend. It allowed nearly complete rest from the ascent, albeit with nothing but the cold night air below.
We do not fear tripping when we run; Ash does not fear falling when he climbs.
Ash steamed ahead. He’s strong and apparently has no fear. He spends a lot of time at height, often climbing, hanging, balancing or jumping — thus completing a process of desensitization and normalization that makes him indifferent to certain dangers, just as we might be when driving a car along a busy street – arguably a much more dangerous activity. Some people would call him brave but bravery implies performance in spite of fear, whereas Ash simply is not afraid; not out of stupidity or arrogance, but out of repetition and habituation. We do not fear tripping when we run; Ash does not fear falling when he climbs.
Pip overtook me. I might be a relatively experienced climber but I’m not a professional athlete and, whilst I enjoy scaring myself at height on a semi-regular basis, this was something far more sustained. The implications of free-solo climbing are fairly simple: you begin climbing and the potential consequences become progressively worse. A sprained ankle quickly becomes, from farther up, a broken leg. Farther still, a shattered pelvis, perhaps also a broken back – and then death. And when you’re climbing a rather cold, slightly damp, somewhat awkward ladder, this progression happens very quickly. Whether I fell from 20 metres or from 120 metres, the consequences would be the same: fatal. I have climbed many times with the risk of serious injury, and on a few occasions with a the certainty of death in the event of a slip or broken handhold. What I had never done, however, was sustain this exposure for more than a matter of minutes. The ascent of Guy’s Hospital took me almost 45 minutes.
Climbing offers you a physical engagement that enables a mental meditation. The brain may chatter, but that chatter is far away and the body operates almost on auto-pilot
The advantage of climbing at height over, say, jumping across a significant gap is that climbing offers you a physical engagement that enables a mental meditation. The continual movements – the very same ones that bring you into risk – gain you access to a peaceful state of mind that creates a bubble free of anxiety and consumed by pure, empty focus. The brain may chatter, but that chatter is far away and the body operates almost on auto-pilot, deploying a degree of confidence gained from countless hours of physical training. Committing to a jump across a gap, by contrast, means standing, staring, waiting, building up and then making a conscious effort to simply go. With climbing, the entry into a zone of serious consequence is gradual and sustained, with its resolution played out over the length of the ascent rather than instantly being resolved upon landing on the other side of a jump. Climbing into danger can almost be involuntary; often on a precarious climb I find that while my mind is still trying to make a decision as to whether my commitment is sensible, my body has already decided and suddenly I find myself pushing ahead.
The bubble – what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call my flow state – is a sanctuary from the fear, despite existing because of the fear. If that bubble bursts, there are consequences.
At around 100 metres I was climbing between my precious horizontal braces when my foot slipped. Parts of the scaffold frame were greasy from the rack and pinion system that allowed the mechanism of the elevator to move up and down. The slip was tiny – barely a few millimetres. At no point did I think I was going to fall. However, it was enough to rip away my bubble; suddenly the reality of my situation became overwhelmingly real. As my confidence evaporated, instinct took over and I made it to the next horizontal brace where my body stalled. Significantly.
The physical emergence of my fear has fascinated me ever since. As I stood, I became almost paralysed, feeling this bizarre, warm lethargy swim through my limbs. It lasted only a few seconds but left me bereft of all energy. I forced myself to sit down onto the horizontal brace as I knew I was becoming unsteady. My mind confronted the reality of my position, facing its seriousness and struggling to fight the strong sense of panic that now seemed to emanate from beneath my ribcage. Strange conversations played out in my head: what would it be like to simply let myself drop from here? If I stay here, how long until someone finds me? Should I wait to be found in the hope of a new solution emerging, or should I simply call the emergency services now before anything else can go wrong? I would be in the newspapers. The BBC might send a helicopter. What would my parents say? What would my parkour and climbing friends say? Resigned to my fate, I started working out the logistics of how I might be rescued.
It shames me a little to say this but, knowing I was safe if I simply sat where I was, it was not fear of dying that shoved me out of my spiral of resignation: it was fear of humiliation, not simply in the eyes of my peers, but of my own self. My own sense of who I am compelled me to find a way to continue.
To be able to force myself to carry on with the climb, I had to change my thought patterns and rediscover the bubble.
I knew that one potential means of tricking my brain and switching off unwanted thoughts was to find a new way of recreating the meditative state that allowed me to get this far. One such method was, in effect, chanting. From my seat 100 metres above the pavements of London, I sat simply repeating aloud the words: “It’s not that far; it’s gonna be ok.” After a few moments, almost involuntarily, I stood, still speaking the words, and continued my way up. Without me realising, the panic was gone.
Our adventure on the vast, scaffold-covered rooftop is a story in itself, best saved for another time. After exploring, getting our photos, and desperately searching for an alternative route down (40 flights of stairs and an encounter with the police was a far more appealing prospect), we heard voices. Workmen were waking up and a swift exit became essential. We rushed to our scaffold tower and found, much to our relief and surprise, that climbing down was far easier than climbing up.
We scrambled out of the lower-level scaffolding and dropped down from the fence just as men in high visibility jackets were arriving through the nearby gate. We sat a short distance for a good half an hour, staring up at the building and trying to process what we had just done. Eventually we moved to the nearby MacDonald’s and ate a slow breakfast in a state of near delirium. The world suddenly felt more real and we each felt much more alive.