It’s not a hobby for the faint of heart.
From the skyscrapers of Shanghai to condo rooftops in Toronto, images of young men and women dangling hundreds or even thousands of feet above the world’s major cities have become a social media sensation in recent years. Those paying attention may notice that a great deal of the most fearless daredevils have Slavic accents.
Defying gravity and hanging from great heights to snap an extreme selfie has grown into a major fad among young people from the former Soviet Union, where hundreds are believed to take part in the underground culture of urban climbing.
Known as roofing or skywalking, extreme climbers first began to gain popularity a few years ago, posting videos and wide-angle images from atop scaffolding, statues, and buildings in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, where the large number of abandoned sites and lax security provide an opportunity for dramatic angles and extreme photo shoots. Since then, the climbers have moved to higher-profile summits, including skyscrapers in Hong Kong, Dubai, Toronto, and New York.
Moscow’s Stalinist Seven Sisters buildings have become especially popular destinations for Russia’s extreme climbers.
In 2014, things turned political when a Ukrainian who goes by the nickname Mustang Wanted doused the Soviet Star at the top of the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building in blue and yellow—the national colors of Ukraine. Russian police diligently arrested several locals, prompting Mustang Wanted to admit responsibility and demand that the authorities release the wrongly accused. Ukraine has refused to extradite him to Russia for trial.
But urban climbing presents risks beyond legal trouble. Several daredevils have fallen to their deaths while trying to get an unforgettable photo. Last year, Russia launched a campaign called “Safe Selfies” to discourage people from risking their lives for a photo.
According to the Independent, more people died while taking selfies in 2015 than in shark attacks. The number of selfie-related deaths is rising steadily. Falling from great heights is currently the leading cause, although weapons are a major factor in Russia and the US.
Urban climbers rack up thousands of followers on social media, especially Instagram, where likes and attention drive them to take bigger risks for a photo.
East Europeans seem to make up the bulk of the daredevils online, but others have joined the fad. Three years ago, a pair of young men posted a dramatic video from atop Seattle’s Space Needle, alarming the building’s security workers.
Although the views look dazzling, the Ellison Center will be sticking to the observation deck.