I was almost 1,200 feet up, looking down at a sheer drop onto Manhattan’s West Side, when my body and mind went to war with each other. Inching forward onto the outdoor ledge of a Hudson Yards skyscraper—appropriately named the Cliff—I stared down at the tops of buildings I’ve always had to crane my neck to look up at. There was no guardrail, no glass barrier. Just a dizzying brand of fresh air uncommon for Manhattan. People on the street were so imperceptibly small, the city seemed vacant. Haven’t we all had a dream (or nightmare) like this at some point?
“What you’re feeling is perfectly normal,” said my guide, who had months of practice runs under his belt. “Your whole life, your instincts do everything they can to keep you from falling to your death. And here, you’re pushing that boundary to an insane level.”
I was one of the first members of the public to try City Climb, the world’s highest open-air building ascent—up a steep, narrow staircase built into a skyscraper’s exterior. The adrenaline-fueled reward? The 270-degree views at the city’s highest public point, 106 stories up. If you’ve ever pressed your face up against a skyscraper window and wondered what it would feel like to lean out and look way down, this is your chance.
For years, theme park designers and thrill-seeking experts worked on the logistics of allowing people to safely scale a skyscraper. It’s not for the faint of heart—but it’s also not reserved for the most extreme among us. Almost anyone age 13 and up and between 4’9” and 6’7” tall can pay $185 and don the sort of jumpsuit worn by skydivers.
It all began very casually, at the same entrance as the Edge (the viewing platform inside the mall at 30 Hudson Yards). Our “mountain”: the tallest glass tower in the 28-acre Hudson Yards development complex, which was designed in 2015 to transform the formerly sparse West Side of the city between 10th and 12th Avenues. I wondered if any of the unsuspecting people in the high-end shops, restaurants, TV studios, and offices inside the building knew what was happening above them. From its inception, this building was ambitious. Originally, it was supposed to be 1,337 feet tall (now it’s 1,295 feet tall) and an outdoor experience was always part of the plan. City Climb’s railing is attached to the foundation. That provides . . . some comfort.
After going through security, I was ushered into a hallway waiting room emblazoned with a Sir Edmund Hillary quote—“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”—where everyone in my group of four had their height and weight recorded (it’s pass/fail, don’t worry). After we were briefed on the experience, we signed waivers and then took breathalyzer tests. (No alcohol allowed the day of the City Climb; they’re very serious about this. Although there is a bar at the Edge for a well-deserved drink afterwards.)
From there, we took an elevator to Base Camp on the 100th floor, same level as the Edge. I admired the view—of the Freedom Tower to the south and the Empire State Building to the east—and watched pairs of fashionable aspiring influencers arrange themselves into pensive, “candid” poses, gazing out at the city through the impeccably clear glass. I suited up in a custom blue jumpsuit that made me feel a little like a racecar driver, and the expert security checks throughout harnessing were my pit crew. At every turn, staff members explained what they were doing and why it would keep us safe. They double-, triple-, and quadruple-checked each other’s work, even using a scanner to log each piece of equipment. On the final fitting, our harness locks and latches were sealed with zip ties. Once we were ready, we moved onto the next step: clipping ourselves to a shiny chrome rail that would guide us outwards and upwards for the next hour.
First stop right outside the door: confronting the Cliff, that unbelievable ledge with the 1,190-foot drop. I peeked over the edge briefly, then quickly refocused on the Hudson River, Ellis Island, the Freedom Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and other iconic landmarks I’d never seen from this angle before. Way off in the distance, I could even make out some of the mountains near the Delaware Water Gap.
From there, we slowly climbed a steep 81 feet, up 161 metal steps, toward the summit platform. The East Side of Manhattan opened up, revealing the Empire State Building and a sprawl of anonymous buildings. The wind picked up, bringing along a baffled seagull that had to fly up to meet us all at eye-level.
Then it was time for the ultimate test of courage. The guides took turns teaching us how to walk out to the building’s rim and lean forward at a 45-degree angle, toes on the edge, body suspended only by the lanyard cord attaching our harnesses to the rail.
This is the Apex, the thrilling moment that City Climb’s designers conceptualized for years. In theory, it’s easy: Just lean out until you feel resistance and straighten your legs. But once again, the internal battle raged as my instincts told me to stay back. Easing yourself slowly off a tall building is probably the most unnatural feeling on Earth. I gave up supporting my own weight degree-by-degree as I went over the edge, waiting a few painstakingly long moments for the cord connecting my harness to the rail to tighten. Once I was able to suspend all weight (and disbelief) and triumphantly throw my hands in the air, it was thrilling.
After leaning out individually, the group leaned out together, swan diving slowly into the abyss as our guides cheered us on. Then, it was time to go backwards. Leaning off a building backwards was much easier, I thought, though the rest of the group didn’t agree.
After we reached the Apex, we took the inside stairs back and returned to the Edge. I tried to watch the next group of climbers lock in and lean out, to examine my experience from a distance. Close up, tethered to a building, every detail is important; every move I made mattered. I followed the architecture and considered its design in more personal way, with senses heightened. It’s a rare chance to be part of the jagged skyline—to touch it, to rely on it, maybe even understand the city around me a bit better.