As soon as Joseph Carnevale moved to Seattle, he began sizing up the Space Needle.
“First day, we signed a lease, and drove over to the Space Needle and started looking at it,” said Carnevale.
And so began a months-long staredown with the city’s most iconic skyscraper. The process is like trying to solve a puzzle, says 25-year-old Carnevale, who is sometimes accompanied by friends on his daring climbs.
“We see a place we really want to get to, and we just try stuff,” he said. One of the steps involves what Carnevale calls “testing the fence”—a trial run without tools to determine what security is like, what kind of motion sensors are in place.
“And we just keep hacking at it. And you have to go back, sometimes 10 or more times, before you get access,” said Carnevale. “A lot of it is timing. You go one week, it’s locked. You go another week, it’s locked. And then you go again, and it’s completely wide open.”
Nearly 10 months after his first visit, Carnevale finally reached the top of the Space Needle, thanks, in part, to Lady Luck.
“We found a way,” said Carnevale, who did not want to divulge too many details about the climb. “Luckily, it wasn’t very windy that night.”
Once he stepped out onto the top tier of the skyscraper and snapped a photo, he felt as if he had finally arrived. He had already conquered several other Seattle landmarks, but this one was different.
“It feels pretty good. I mean, you spend days—or months, even—looking at the building, and you’ve been thinking about what it looks like from the top,” he said. “It feels to good to get up top, succeed, get off Scot-free.”
‘We don’t have death wishes’
The Space Needle was just one conquest for Carnevale, a member of a small global community of enthusiasts in what they call “urban exploration” or “recreational trespassing.”
Also among his top five climbs: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Queensboro Bridge in New York.
Carnevale says he has climbed “more than 20, less than 50″ tall structures in a number of cities since 2007, but has never had a close call.
“It’s hard to have a close call and not die. If you slip and fall, you know, you’re done. I always try to stay within my limits. I know what I can do, I know what I can’t (do) yet,” he said.
Carnevale sometimes practices at a climbing gym. He has taught classes on simple rope technique. And he says he always takes time to prepare for a climb.
“We don’t have death wishes. We’re fairly cautious. We take calculated risks,” he said.
As much as he enjoys the challenges of reaching new heights, he explores off-limits tunnels as well, he says, including the light rail tunnel under construction in Capitol Hill.
The photographer has never been arrested for trespassing. He has encountered security guards and janitors during his climbs, but never a police officer.
Police have responded after witnesses have spotted Carnevale during his climbs, but he has managed to dodge them.
“If you stay hidden long enough in a building … they’ll get another call and eventually leave,” he said.
‘I know I was there’
Carnevale says he began climbing buildings out of necessity.
“When I started doing this, I didn’t have the Cascades 30 minutes away. I didn’t have anything to climb near me. So I started climbing bridges, buildings,” he said.
As for the dizzying heights, he feels no fear.
“I’ve always been comfortable in heights. I prefer being on high. It’s not just the photos for me. I love being in high places as much as the photo itself,” he said.
The first tall structure he climbed was an AT&T long lines repeater tower from the Cold War-era—“about 300 feet tall with a platform on top that’s 20 by 20 feet, with a microwave dish on top that’s no longer in use.”
“I was glad I hadn’t fallen off the ladder on the way up. It was very cold, because it was like the middle of winter. And it was windy, and I was not dressed warmly,” said Carnevale. “The thing about climbing is you sweat, so you’re sitting on top, wet.”
During his beginning days, he strived to be anonymous online. But after his name inadvertently became public years ago, he stopped trying to hide himself. “I don’t think anything I do is risky enough or bad enough. I guess I don’t feel bad enough to hide,” he said. “It’s really rare that anybody gets charged after the fact—you know, after they’ve come back over the fence and have gone home. It’s really a low-level misdemeanor.”
As for those who doubt the authenticity of his photos, he says the proof is in the resolution.
“It’s really hard to fake, at least in the resolution that I posted those photos. I never met anybody who could whip that up in Photoshop. It’s pretty easy to tell if somebody is faking it,” he said.
In the end, he adds, he isn’t too concerned about the skeptics.
“I know I was there,” he said. “We go to the places for our own reason. The process is the half of the fun for me.”
Carnevale says he’s currently eyeing several skyscrapers, and he has no plans to stop.
“I think I might slow down, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop,” he said.