We Got High With Vitaliy and Vadim

Equipped only with cameras and black masks, they scale walls and dodge security as their plan begins to unfold. Once they’re through all the checkpoints, the climb begins. With no ropes or safety equipment, just good judgment and focus, they move upward, fighting the wind and closing their mind to the 2,000 feet that separates them from the pavement. Finally, at their objective, they pull their cameras from their backpacks and let their shutters loose. Once their work hits the web, they’ll probably make the news, because the building they just scaled is likely among the tallest in the world, and the photos taken from the top are nothing short of amazing. For Vadim and Vitaliy of On The Roofs, the images they create are as much a part of their identity as the grooves on their finger tips.

By climbing and documenting the world’s most iconic buildings, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Shanghai Tower and the takeover of a Hong Kong sign to read “What’s up Hong Kong,” the photo duo has scaled their way to international fame and notoriety.

Between evading security, and taking in views, we talked with On The Roofs about how they approach their target buildings, their run-ins with law enforcement and of course, why the hell they’re free-climbing skyscrapers.

What’s the first building you climbed to take photos from?
Our first roofs weren’t anything special, just residential buildings, unfinished low-rise buildings under construction and derelict buildings. We started small, but as our ambition grew, we reached the height of the Shanghai Tower, the Cologne Cathedral and the Pyramid of Cheops.

What is it about getting to the top of places that keeps you climbing?
We climb up buildings and structures to their tops, mostly to see the city from a different perspective. Familiar streets and parkways look totally new when seen from above. What we do is try to show this novelty to the people with our photographs. Also, we can’t deny that trespassing on the way to roofs is always an exciting quest to solve. The main parts of it are to find a suitable building, to sneak through the guards, to climb up to the top, to take awesome shots and to leave unnoticed. Reality does not always go along with the plan, but when it doesn’t, it only makes it more exciting.

“The scariest thing in climbing is when you realize you’ve just been spotted by the guards.”

It seems like you usually shoot for the tallest buildings, but when you get to a city, what’s the process of picking your vantage point, or the ideal structure?
When we arrive in a new city, we usually know already what we want to climb—either from the Internet or our friends. But if we don’t have any specific goal on the very first day, we start by climbing a random tall building and then we study the skyline from its top. That’s where we define the next viewpoints for ourselves.

What kind of things do you look at when scoping out and assessing a structure before the actual climb? How long does it take to plan the climb?
The basic criteria for a building to become our goal is the following: it must be the keynote of the city, either in terms of its height or history, it must have the best city views or at least an interesting shape and its own story. Notre Dame in Paris is a good example. Then we go and study the possibilities of climbing it.

How often are you off the rope, and free climbing?
We hardly even use ropes. Speaking about belay, it’s hardly ever really essential.

“Living at full volume means breaking the limits and inspiring people.”

What’s the closest call or scariest moment you’ve had while climbing a structure?
It’s funny, but the scariest thing in climbing is when you realize you’ve just been spotted by the guards.

How often do you get caught? What are some of the closest calls?
We are mostly not welcome at construction sites. Once they even broke one of our cameras when they caught us. Apart from that, we don’t really have any problems with the owners. We don’t see them, they don’t see us.

If someone were to ask you, how do I do what you do, what would you tell them?
We’d recommend to forget that idea. The more people climb roofs, the more difficult it becomes. An alternative answer would be to take a girl to a rather low and safe roof to admire the sunset for a date. Nothing more.

We have a saying at Skullcandy of “Live at Full Volume.” Applying this to your own life, what does that mean to you?
For us, living at full volume means breaking the limits and inspiring people.