George King: The rise, fall and rise again of the Shard climber

George King climbed the Shard in July 2019

With one last heave of his shoulders, as the blisters on his fingers turned purple in the cold and blood streamed down his knee, George King hoisted himself onto the roof of Agbar Tower. A 144m skyscraper in Barcelona, he spent 15 minutes in aerial solitude, a stranger setting foot in another world, gazing down at the normality below. “It’s mystical, like I’d gone to a different dimension,” he says. “It’s an almost unintelligible sensation, when you’re solely free.”

For King, freedom has been a gift and a curse, the pursuit of risk and scaling new heights, toying with life and all its limitations, weighed against the threat of reality and having it all taken away. After the Oxfordshire-born 21-year-old climbed the Shard in July 2019, bringing the surrounding area to a standstill and inciting a media circus, he was eventually sentenced to six months in prison after a civil lawsuit and “stripped of humanity”. But rather than curb his desire to climb, those long months intensified it. “I made a list of all the buildings in prison,” he says. “Agbar was one of them.”

Dangling from a vent 38-stories high is not a common incarnation of peace, but King insists completing another climb has been a “weight off his shoulders”, bringing a sense of closure to a life-altering and at times harrowing tangent in his life. He flew to Portugal the day before Britain entered its second lockdown, “to avoid the feeling of being incarcerated again”, and traced the steps of his route up the tower at night after crossing into Spain. The climb itself, he says, was the “perfect challenge”, not as logistically exhausting as the Shard, but still “a war between myself and the building, my body and my mind”.

In all, it took him around just 20 minutes to scale it, moving constantly for the first 100m sky-bound to avoid losing momentum, using the corners of window panes to keep stable. The fear was intoxicating, an unsurpassable adrenaline rush, which gave fuel to every strained sinew. And after safely making his descent, and briefly being taken to a police station for questioning, the euphoria took hold. “I’ve never felt so content,” he says. “Which is very unusual for me.”

It was that pursuit of contentment, an exhilaration that normality couldn’t provide, that spawned King’s obsession with climbing. He was born into a middle-class family – his mother works in the family business and his father is a chartered surveyor – but began climbing the roof of their house at just 12 years old. As a teenager, he progressed to climbing walls and then to cranes, upon which he performed high-altitude stunts, such as handstands or sit-ups – he estimates that he’s since climbed over 100.

“I was inquisitive about fear,” he says. “It was a test of my mind, not my body. A fascination with willpower, fear and harnessing it. I was more scared of getting caught and my family finding out than the danger itself. It was certainly an escapism. You’re going against the norm of society, you’re not conforming to the clutches of mediocrity. It’s freeing and, once you’ve felt that, it’s quite hard not to go back to it.”

King’s “borderline psychotic obsession” with climbing the Shard was ignited after first seeing it from the bus on a school trip to London. In 2018, he moved to the capital, making ends meet as a door-to-door fundraiser and a personal trainer while training voraciously, often for around four hours a day. “I was living a double life to an extent,” he says. “My parents didn’t know and I’d hide it to protect them emotionally. There’s a tremendous amount of guilt but I just simply couldn’t get to the end of my life and know that I didn’t give it a shot.”

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At 4.55am on 8 July 2019, before the sun had risen and the hum of the city crackled into life, King left his nearby hotel and began his attempt to become the first person to free climb western Europe’s tallest building. “I could feel this atmosphere in the air,” he says. “It was the calm before the storm. In a moment’s notice, I’d know if my dream was successful or not, if I’ll live or die. Nobody knew what was going to happen but me.”

King used suction cups to start his ascent and travelled 300m into the air. When he reached the top, police were waiting inside the building, which had been cordoned off, as a large crowd gathered below. But after around 30 minutes of questioning, King was released. “By now it was the middle of rush hour,” he says. “People barging past me, who had no idea what had happened. It was so weird. Eventually, I put out a short video of me scaling it and my phone didn’t stop ringing for a week.”

A whirlwind of media followed, appearing on Good Morning Britain, “trying to articulate everything and convince Piers Morgan I’m not a reckless fool”. For his parents, finding out was a “harsh mix of emotions”. But steadily, the fervour petered out and all that remained was King’s court appearance. “I knew going to prison was a possibility,” he says. “It wasn’t a shock. Should I have actually gone though? It doesn’t seem right.”

Transferred to HMP Pentonville, a notoriously violent Category B prison in Islington, King was thrust with wide-eyes into a “shark tank”. On his first day, someone came into his cell with a knife. “All these people are shouting at me in different languages, banging the door,” he says. “I got used to hearing the sirens, seeing people stabbed over tuna tins, people demanding money from you. I was constantly on edge.”

Prison brought a new sense of perspective, a realignment of priorities, but not a lessened love of climbing. When King was released, at first, he found it hard to let his guard down. He learnt to bask in life’s simpler, comparatively mundane pleasures: seeing friends; enjoying drinks; lazing the days away. 

Like all of us this year, he has been suspended in time, finally forced to stay at sea level. On the one hand, Barcelona represented the end of the Shard climber. On the other, life is only just beginning, and who knows how high it will take him next. 

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