The Lunatic Fringe

Skyscraperman by Dan Goodwin: ★

With Bare Hands by Alain Robert: ★★★★

Somehow, soloing skyscrapers has never really caught on. It’s dangerous, illegal, and to most climbers, not very interesting. Such vertical sprawls are monotonous, lacking the beauty or intrigue of the world’s towering natural crags. But in the last year, two men have released books describing how—each for his own reasons—they attempted to conquer these behemoths of glass and steel.

“The best-kept secret in America’s fire service,” Dan Goodwin asserts, “is that firefighters cannot extinguish a fire in a high-rise.” Goodwin uncovered that secret in 1980 when a fire at the MGM Grand killed 84 people. He decided to start climbing skyscrapers to call attention to the fire service’s incompetence and quickly discovered the size of the hornet’s nest he’d poked. I wish I could say that Goodwin’s efforts called lawmakers’ attention to skyscraper safety, but unfortunately, he doesn’t come off as a concerned citizen trying to help. He comes off as a guy who’d slap you in the face to demonstrate the importance of not getting slapped. Goodwin proposes techniques that are both patently absurd and physically impossible and his stories, though impressive, are saturated by his dripping ego. If you’re looking for a quasi-entertaining one-day read, try it. If you’re looking for inspiration, look elsewhere.

Alain Robert’s book, for example, is a good place to start. He writes eloquently for a person to whom English does not come naturally, relating stories of his own climbing, motivated not by delusions of social rebellion but by a love of climbing. Not only is Robert honest about his reasons, but all of his climbing is done with his own hands and feet, not the elaborate rig of suction cups and hooks that held Goodwin up. This is a book for climbers, not the doe-eyed public. Robert writes modestly and lightly about his massive free ascents, punctuating his accounts with jokes and anecdotes. He’s not an entirely heroic character — he solos in front of his kids and he’s hurt himself in some incredibly stupid ways — but he’s refused to give up despite some horrific falls and for that, he must be admired. The book is candid, interesting, and a good read for anyone looking to branch out in the world of climbing literature.

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