On the Roofs climbers scale new heights

Story highlights

  • 'On the Roofs' started climbing buildings in Russia five years ago
  • Since beginning in 2009, the collective have climbed "thousands" of buildings and structures
  • Latest stunt involved hijacking a giant LED billboard in Hong Kong
Cityscapes are usually breathtaking, but finding a good vantage point in a new town can be tough.
Not for On the Roofs (OTR), a loose collective of photographers from Moscow who have made it their mission to shoot thrilling, often beautiful stills and video from the rooftops of the world's tallest buildings. They've been reaching the rooftops of the world's skyscrapers for the past five years, and have shot videos from Egypt to Belgium, Shanghai to South America.
Once they're up there, they lean out perilously over edges and free-climb up towers, antenna and cranes, making anyone watching their immensely popular videos, uploaded to video sharing sites Vimeo and YouTube, as well as their own blog, squirm in their shoes as they marvel at the OTR members' daredevilry.
Their latest stunt, published on YouTube on October 8 but already boasting well over a million views, shows four of them, identified at the end of the short video as Vadim Makhorov, Vitaliy Raskalov, Arseni Khachaturan and Nikolay Zheludovich (not their real names), climb a steel ladder onto the roof of a Hong Kong skyscraper and hijack a huge LED billboard.
Once they're done with it, the sign flashes "What's up Hong Kong?" and shows clips of an earlier exploit, Makharov and Raskalov climbing the then-uncompleted 2,073-feet (632-meter) Shanghai Tower.
No philosophy
After successfully taking over the signage, they pose for each other, and for a drone which is circling overhead, shooting the mission. They then rush down the stairs and out of the building, triumphant.
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"There's no philosophy to OTR, we are just a small group of photographers, who like exploration, interesting places and some different countries," Raskalov tells CNN.
"Actually it's very simple, I bought a camera and after that I thought, 'maybe I'll try to climb on rooftops.' I took some pictures from the rooftops and thought, 'I like it' and after that we climbed all around Russia, we did a lot of cities and after that we traveled because Russia for us was finished and we thought it wasn't a bad idea to try something really kind of amazing."
He says they've climbed thousands of buildings in something like 50 countries. As well as going up, they also go down, trespassing onto subways and exploring the subterranean sides of the places they visit.
The first time he went up, Raskalov says he was a "little" scared.
"Yeah a little bit, but now for us it's like a routine, you know? It's very simple. We started five years ago and since then we've climbed so much. I'm usually scared not about heights but about police. Sometimes we have to break into buildings. Sometimes if we go to a dangerous country, like an Arabian country, maybe this is a big problem if police caught us. That's the most scary part."
For the most part, the authorities are playing catchup to the rooftop raiders, although security as some landmark buildings, including the 1,227-feet (373.9-meter) Central Plaza in Hong Kong know their faces and to bar them entry.
He says he doesn't worry about being barred from entering countries -- following Chinese media reports on their Shanghai Tower stunt he thought they might get a 20-year ban from entering the country, but nothing transpired and they have since revisited China.
Computer hack
For the "What's Up Hong Kong" mission, he says the hardest part was figuring out the computer program that ran the LED billboard. The climb up the 659-feet (201-meter) China Online Center in Hong Kong's downtown Wan Chai district was a fairly routine one, and as for the computer terminal: "We found it there! It was all a big surprise. We didn't know that we could change the sign when (we) went up.
"Finding the building, getting to the top was easy, because all the doors were open, we just go inside, find the stairs to the top, after that we found the computer (terminal), opened it up and played with it for two or three hours so this is how we made it play our video."
The climbers made headlines last year when they scaled the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt -- and later apologized when they were accused of disrespecting the ancient monuments.
He says there's also some skepticism surrounding the veracity of what they're doing. It's not hard to see why; some of the footage is mind-blowing.
"Some people say, it's a nice video, nice action, but some people say it's a fake. Maybe 30% of people think it's a fake. Or a lot of people think the Hong Kong government gave us permission or money, or we do this stuff legally, but its not true."
He says there's a lot of interest in their work, and despite being apolitical, groups like the organizers of Hong Kong's pro-democracy protest movement have contacted them.
"People in Hong Kong messaged us about Occupy Central, asking how we could do the same stuff (as the LED billboard) with them. They wanted a yellow umbrella up there!"
But so far, it's just the thrill of the climb that keeps him, and his On the Roofs co-conspirators going.
"We don't have a message as such, it's just (for) fun. I guess our message is just 'what's up.'"