Dan Goodwin, introduced himself to the world by climbing the Sears Tower (May 1981) and the John Hancock Center (November 1981), both in Chicago. I interviewed Dan in 1988 after he had e-mailed to compliment me for my “WTB/World’s Tallest Buildings” web site, which many regard as the first authoritative web site on the subject.
In our conversation, Dan tells how he climbed the Sears Tower on a dare and the John Hancock Center in defiance, all after a terrible tragedy Dan witnessed in Las Vegas.
Count the number of people you have met in your life who put their money where their mouth is like Dan “Spiderman” Goodwin.
* * * * *
"If you’re gonna rob a bank, go for the Brink’s"
DG: It had to do with the MGM Hotel fire in Las Vegas in November of 1980, where 87 people were killed. I was in town that week to do some climbing at Red Rocks, a series of towering sandstone canyons a short distance away.
This was a terrible fire and people were leaping to their deaths, I tried to talk the fire department into using some cliffside rescue techniques -- I could see they needed some assistance in rescuing people trapped in the building. People were literally leaping to their deaths. But the Fire Marshal wasn't interested in anything I had to say, and he finally had me taken away. The following day, I went back to the fire station and talked to the Fire Marshal. He asked me "did you ever climb a building?", and I said "no, what has that got to do with it?" He told me "until you do, don’t you try to tell me how to perform a rescue in a highrise building". That was the seed for the whole thing.
Jeff: I read one article about you where you were quoted as saying your climbs were not publicity stunts, that you were trying to call attention to new methods of rescuing people from high-rises. So that’s really the truth, and this has been your motive all along?
DG: That was it from the very beginning. The ironic part is I’ve always loved going into big cities and I have marveled at all of the wonderful architecture. Tall buildings have always fascinated me, but I never really thought about climbing one until that day.
Jeff: What was the first building you climbed? Was there one before Sears?
Jeff: Sears Tower was your first?
DG: Yes, I hate to use the analogy, but if you’re gonna rob a bank, go for the Brink’s. The way I felt, if I was going to fail on a building, well, it doesn’t matter. Once you’re above ten floors, the end result is the same, you’re gonna die. In my way of thinking, I thought OK, if I’m going to have the same risk, I might as well go for the tallest.
(Author’s Note: Uh, WOW. We were having this conversation as Dan was publicizing a book, “Canyons of Glass”, about a renegade building climber who goes on a spree and a crazed fire commissioner who will do anything to stop him, a story based on real events.)
DG: A lot of people couldn’t understand why I started climbing. We get a real view of what I was thinking and the reason behind it. Writing the book has been a real self-discovery, and here’s the strange part about: I really didn’t think about everything that happened until maybe the last year or so, I didn’t think my story was a story worth telling until I got a little bit older. Then I realized there aren’t too many other people who have experienced this.
Jeff: Very few!
DG: Yes, very few. And when I sat down and started writing the story, I started to understand why some things happened the way they did. For example, why did they try squirting me with a fire hose when I was climbing the John Hancock building. People will be surprised when they read about it.
All of this started with a newspaper article. I was sitting there with a friend of mine after the MGM Grand Hotel fire, and we were reading an article that talked about two previous attempts to climb the Sears Tower. Neither one was successful. At the bottom of the article was a quote from the Chicago Fire Commissioner who said the building was impossible to climb unless he was Spiderman. My friend says "if you’re going to climb that building, you have got to wear a Spiderman suit". I thought he was crazy. He said, "Think about it. When they want to throw you in prison, there’ll be all of these Spiderman fans who will support you." He told me they couldn’t keep me in prison forever because too many people love Spiderman.
"I am coming back, and when I do, I’ll give you a call!"
DG: When I climbed the Sears Tower, this Fire Commissioner was the one who was trying to capture me. Later, when I was in jail, after I had been questioned by the District Attorney, he came to my jail cell and stuck his finger through the bars and said "Look, you little shit, if you ever come into my city and try something like that again, I’ll kill you!" And I said, "Oh, really? Guess what, I am coming back, and when I do, I’ll give you a call." Ten minutes before I climbed the John Hancock Center, I called him. When I got to the 37th floor, there he was waiting for me. He’s the one who ordered them to use the fire hoses on me.
Jeff: I don’t suppose you got to tell him about your high rise rescue ideas... did you manage to get your real message across to anyone?
DG: Actually, people in several countries listened. One was Venezuela. The TV company in Caracas called Venevision flew me in to climb two buildings. One was the El Centro Tower, the tallest building in South America. They not only wanted me to climb, they wanted me to train their highrise rescue teams. The other was Japan. Nippon TV flew me in to lecture and to train fire rescue teams.
Jeff: But you’re a rock climber. Could firefighters do the kind of things you do?
DG: Since then, I had a lot of time to think about this, and one of the last chapters in my book talks about creating a rescue team that would go around the world and demonstrate how all of this could be done, high-tech stuff. I’ll have drawings on how a rescue would take place. But you know what’s going to happen, Jeff? Tall buildings have sprinkler systems and they’re fairly safe. But we have entered an era of terrorism…and if terrorists really wanted to, there are ways of blasting out a sprinkler system by taking out the water lines, then setting a building on fire.
Jeff: It’s not like they didn’t try with the World Trade Center (in 1993).
DG: And if you had some pros who really wanted to do it right, they could really do it, big time. How would you get people out?
Jeff: Do you really think it would be possible to do a large-scale rescue from a tall building, 80 or 90 floors up?
DG: Absolutely. You would have helicopters that would lower people like myself, people who are trained, in fully fireproof suits and independent air supplies. We would get to a spot using various climbing equipment and attach ourselves to the building using suction cups or whatever, its all high-tech stuff. We could create an opening using glass cutters and enter the building.. The helicopter would pull away with a trailing cable, and we could fire a bolt into a concrete floor or wall. The helicopter could then attach a separate gondola system that had an independent air supply. A team of fire and rescue people and paramedics could then enter the building and once they got inside, they could start searching for people who are trapped. Another gondola system could lower people out of the building to other places of safety, to neighboring buildings or whatever, this could be going on simultaneously all around the building. With something like this, obviously, you may not get to everybody. But if you could rescue a high percentage of people, that’s what I was talking about with the MGM hotel fire. If they had been set up at all with something like this, they could have rescued a great number of people.
I have not talked to Dan since before 9/11. I wonder what he was thinking on that day, particularly since he had climbed the south tower in 1983. On the day we talked, Dan was thinking about climbing some of the new supertall skyscrapers in China.
"I really don’t feel like being shot at..."
DG: I feel like I have a lot of unsettled business. I would love to go on a world tour and hit all of the foreign countries, climb all of the tallest buildings. The problem is, how do you get hold of the right people and how do you make arrangements? That’s what attracted me to the World’s Tallest Buildings Page. I’m trying to find that out!
Jeff: You realize, I’m sure, people in Asia would have, uh, zero sense of humor about unauthorized climbing of tall buildings...
DG: Oh, yeah, I’ve had people say, "Hey, Dan, we’d be willing to sponsor you, we’ll be there when you climb" and I’d say "y’know, I really don’t feel like being shot at."
Jeff: Are you tired of doing unsanctioned climbs or is there still some possibility you might pop up and surprise someone?
DG: Internationally, there’s a possibility of that. In the United States, I’d say I’m pretty much over that. The laws here have changed so much that for an American who wants to do something with his life, like establish a business or if you’ve got assets, you can be sued and possibly lose everything. And honestly, I really don’t like the idea of doing it in some foreign country, either…that would mean going to Hong Kong in a Communist Country, or into Shanghai or Malaysia. I’ve got a few sponsors who are willing to fly me to every one of these places, or I could do it myself. But is it worth the risk of having the police react negatively and getting shot at? Or there’s that "Midnight Express" scenario where you disappear and are never heard from again. In South Korea, they have SWAT teams that are very good a repelling down the sides of buildings. Let’s say you’re climbing and you’re doing everything you can to get away, and someone coming after you and slips and falls, and they die. You would find yourself in serious, serious trouble.
(Note: In 2007, Frenchman Alain Robert made an unauthorized climb of the Jin Mao Building in Shanghai. He was arrested and expelled from China.)
Jeff: So, truly, the chances of your doing an unauthorized climb are pretty low.
DG: I would much rather have permission and be tied in with a sponsor, and do something cool. The climbs I had the most fun with are the ones I had permission to do. They were totally different events.
Jeff: Your last climb was the CN Tower, and that was an officially sanctioned event.
DG: Right. That was in 1986. The climb was sponsored by Coca-Cola and some of the radio and TV stations. I got a phone call from a lady who worked at CN Tower. Two Canadian climbers had attempted to climb it, they were members of an Alpine club. They got about halfway up and it took them hours, and they freaked out. They repelled back down and said the building was too dangerous to climb. Then there were rumors they were going to make another attempt. So they called me and asked me if I’d climb it.
Jeff: And you made the climb barehanded.
DG: They thought if anyone could do the climb, it would be me and they know how climbing is – once someone has done it., no one else will want to do it again. The glory for a lot of climbers is to make the first ascent. So, they flew me up there and I looked at it and I thought "this is cool", so they made all the arrangements. I really surprised them when I showed up with nothing, no equipment whatsoever!
Jeff: How did you determine that?
DG: I’ve done a lot of rock climbing. I just looked at it and I thought it would be challenging, but really not that difficult. I ended up doing the climb for speed…we had two people with stopwatches and when they said "go", I sprinted as fast as I could. When I got to the top, there was a rope and I repelled down, ran to the other side and climbed the other side
Jeff: That’s when you officially got the world’s record for most stories climbed in a day. There’s been nothing since then?
DG: What else was there to do? I had climbed all of the tallest buildings, so there was literally nowhere else to go. How do you top climbing CN Tower twice in a day with no equipment? There was nothing anywhere else that was taller, until two years ago when I heard of the Petronas Towers. And that’s when I started thinking, "hmmm…"
Jeff: You’ve heard the news that someone has already tried to climb Petronas, a Frenchman named Alain Robert (who climbed 60 of 88 floors in 1997 before being arrested).
DG: Yes, I’m very aware of the climbing attempt. I actually followed it a bit and I realized this wasn’t competition, this is another person I have to have respect for and admire.
(Author's note: the last time I talked to Dan on the telephone was 2007, when I woke him with the news that Robert had successfully climbed Petronas)
Jeff: Then you also know he only got to the 60th floor before they pulled him off the building...
DG: Well, he uses no equipment whatsoever, and that leaves you vulnerable. When I climbed, I would go up with suction cups and ropes so I could swing to another part of the building.
Jeff: So you could make evasive maneuvers?
DG: Yes. I could do whatever it took to get away from people. Alain Robert had no equipment, so he was trapped.
Jeff: Let’s talk about the Petronas Towers. I imagine you’ve looked at pictures of the building and done some analysis. Impressions?
DG: Well, first of all, the Petronas Towers should never have been designated the World’s Tallest Buildings. When you can look out from the top of the Sears Tower or the World Trade Center and look down on the highest floor of a building, the only part of Petronas that sticks up higher is the steeple peak.
Jeff: As a climber then, you subscribe to the "highest occupiable floor" philosophy of determining building height.
DG: Absolutely. The question to ask should be "where is the last piece of glass?".
Jeff: I don’t know if there are buildings that are "easy" to climb, but in my imagination, I think Petronas would be easier because there’s all of that intricate metalwork on the facade. Is that your assessment?
DG: I would say the lower part of the building would be fairly easy, non-challenging. It would be nothing more, in my opinion, than a speed test, how fast could you climb it. The spires on top, though, are a real question mark. That’s a real unknown. I’ve never been able to talk to anyone who could tell me what they’re made of, and I’ve never seen any close-up features or detailed drawings that give dimensions. Really, I can’t make a good judgement just by looking at pictures. I would have to see the buildings in person. A number of the newer buildings certainly look possible, Jin Mao, the Shanghai World Financial Center, I would love to do that one. The Bank of China in Hong Kong looks way cool! Its one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.
The John Hancock Building is one of the few buildings other than the Petronas Towers that is possible to climb without equipment. I wanted to try free-climbing it, but I knew I would have this conflict with the Fire Commissioner and I wanted to have this competition between us. He wanted to catch me and I knew it was not in my best interests to try freehanding it. I do believe if someone was really determined, they could climb the Hancock barehanded, but they would have to do it with no one trying to catch them. The window-washing machine is really big and you could lower the washing machine and stop somebody, just like what happened to Alain Robert at Petronas. I suppose if you could get to one of those X-brace crossbeams, you might be able to get by and traverse your way up.
"I really thought I was going to die."
Jeff: On the flipside, is there any such thing as a building that is impossible to climb?
DG: There are a few buildings that I’ve looked at recently that I would say are impossible to climb, just because there are so few surface features. Alain Robert claims to have climbed the Empire State Building. I hate to call him on it, but I think he’s stretching the imagination a bit…maybe its just his promoters. Personally, I don’t believe that he actually climbed it. And when I asked my sources in New York, just to make sure I wasn't mistaken, they claim he scaled the scaffolding that was being used to repair the granite face on outside of the building, and that he never made it to the top. Now if Alain has proof otherwise, I would love to see it. If he really did climb the Empire State Building, it would be one of the greatest accomplishments in climbing history. You would think this would have made headlines all over the world, but I never saw any -- which makes me a bit skeptical. Like the time he claimed to have scaled a building in Kuala Lumpur by starting on the 30th floor and climbing the top 15 floors twice. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still a heckuva feat. But to me, unless you start at the bottom and finish at the top, you haven't really climbed it!
Jeff: Just like an expedition to Mount Everest -- you’re not a success unless you’ve reached the top.
DG: That’s the way it is on mountains, and that’s the way it is on every rock climb I’ve ever done. Actually, I have a lot of respect for Alain Robert, because he likes to do things with just his hands and feet. I really take my hat off to him, because that’s the ultimate, to use no equipment whatsoever.
Jeff: Anyway, you think the Empire State Building is impossible to climb?
DG: The Empire State Building is one building I look at, and I go ‘Jeez’, I don’t think its possible the way the building is right now. If they changed the glass on the building, maybe it would be different. The glass on there now is real old and I don’t think you could get suction cups on it without shattering it. The space between windows is another problem. Look at it close up and there are wide sections of sheer stone between them. If someone just walked up to the building and climbed it bare-handed, without any suction cups, and they didn’t damage the building, I would say that was the most impressive climb I’ve ever seen in my life.
Jeff: Of the buildings you’ve actually climbed, which ones were the toughest?
DG: The Sears Tower was probably the toughest, and the World Trade Center was almost as difficult.
I was one of two people to climb the World Trade Center. George Willig was the other, and he was fortunate because when he climbed it, the building was brand new. Plus, he managed to get part of a section of window washing track, and he was able to custom-build a piece of equipment that fit it to perfection. That made his climb a lot easier and a lot less dangerous and I take my hat off to him. When I got to it a few years later, I discovered that, because he climbed it, some of the window washer tracks were removed and they didn’t start until four floors up. I couldn’t even see what they looked like until I suction-cupped up to them. Because I didn’t know the exact dimensions, I had to make three or four different pieces of equipment, and once I got up there I had to try them until I found one that worked. Around the 86th floor or so, the track started to rip away from the building. When I started downclimbing, one of my pieces of equipment broke. So, things got a little tough for me.
The way it is now, with the increased security, the World Trade Center is more difficult to climb than the Hancock, and almost as difficult to climb as the Sears Tower. And the World Trade Center will never be freeclimbed.
Jeff: In the stories I’ve read about you, you’ve talked several times about scary moments during climbs and there were several times when you were literally just seconds away from disaster. I suppose every climb is dangerous, just because there are so many unknowns, so many variables, but absolutely no margin for error. Is there a climb you consider to be your most dangerous?
DG: When I climbed the El Centro Tower in Venezuela, it had already been condemned because of poor construction. The glass wobbled in places and half the bolts were missing on the window washing track. I was going to try to freeclimb it, but when I inspected the building I realized there was no place to rest. If you ran into a section of the building that gave you a problem, you would die. I decided to use suction cups, and even then it was almost a nightmare, the glass was wobbly and I had to scrape concrete off it, I had to use skyhooks, and then I got caught in a rainstorm about two-thirds of the way up. I really thought I was going to die.
"...you can feel the energy of this building go through you."
Jeff: When I thought about the kinds of questions I wanted to ask you, I thought about how you must see tall buildings differently than most anyone on the planet. I remember the words of one of the Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon; he says whenever he looks at the moon now, he can relate to it as a place he’s been. You’ve got that same view of certain tall buildings. When I was a kid, I used to build model airplanes, and when the real jetliners flew overhead, I had the sensation that I knew what it was like hold them in my hands. You have actually held my favorite building, the John Hancock Center, in your hands! Have you ever had that feeling?
DG: Maybe this sounds weird. I remember when you wrote me about that, because I have experienced it, and there are other people who have, too. It wasn’t until I sat down and started writing my book that I actually realized what it was and could start to put it into words.
A building is not just a building, and I think every architect in the world would agree with this…they are a source of power. When you think about what a building is, how it was built, there’s a part of me that wants to go back to school and become an architect because I really feel I can grasp what’s going on here. They dig, sometimes eight or ten floors into the ground, way down, and extract all of this earth. Then they turn around and build a building out of steel, concrete, glass, and all of this is taken from the earth as well. That power and energy doesn’t leave, that’s what makes it so strong.
When you’re a rock climber, you become part of the rock, but when you become "part of the building", you do it in a different way. When all of a sudden you accept the challenge that hey, I’m going to climb this building with suction cups, the minute you get off the ground, you can feel the energy of this building go through you. Its like holding onto an electrical wire. I mean, I couldn’t get tired! I just felt all of this energy roaring through me like something magical was happening.. It’s the most exhilarating thing and I don’t know that I can achieve it any other way. It definitely changed my life.