Climbing the O2 | Going Up The World's Biggest Bouncy Castle
What it's like to clamber up a London icon
Climbing the O2 might seem like a bonkers idea but if you fancy working up a bit of a sweat and checking out London in a whole new way then this is for you.
The O2 Code
At 52m high the O2 might not be the tallest of London's landmarks but that's still like standing on top of 12 double decker buses, which is enough to get your heart racing, and that height is more significant than you might realise. First opened back in 2000 to mark the turn of the millennium, the O2 used to be called the Millennium Dome and like some weird homage to the Da Vinci Code there's hidden meaning in its construction.
The dome has a circumference of 365m, one for each day of the year, the top of the walkway that runs over the dome is 52m marking the number of weeks in the year and there are 12 masts which represent the 12 months in a year. Yep that's right, climbing the O2 is pretty much like scrambling over an edifice built by the illuminati or space aliens. Going by the UFO like shape we're edging towards space aliens, but that hasn't put off the 300,000 people who've already made the climb and are presumably now living among us in secret, just waiting for their extra-terrestrial masters to begin the invasion of earth.
Up At The O2
You could be forgiven for thinking that climbing the O2 was the preserve of free climbing nutcases like James Kingston, but thanks to the crew at Up At The O2, anyone can take on the dome.
Up At The O2 has been running since 2012 offering people the chance to tramp across a suspended walkway that runs over the top of the dome. Billed as 'urban mountaineering' this climb takes on the feel of an expedition rather than just a sightseeing trip and it actually does require a bit of effort to reach the top. According to O2 stats the average climber visiting the O2 burns around 450 calories crossing the dome and has to tackle gradients similar to those in the Tour De France.
Arriving at 'basecamp' you're greeted by a reception chock full of mountain climbing gear with ropes and ice axes hung across the walls. Following the usual disclaimer paper work it's time for a quick briefing video, hosted by a somewhat creepy explorer who keeps leaning into the camera too close for comfort. Coupled with jerky editing, intended to simulate interference across the massive distance to the far side of the dome, this video actually feels like the trailer to a found footage horror movie making our host's promise to meet us 'On the other side' seem like more of a threat than a reward. That being said, the dvd intro did a good job of ramping up the sense of adventure, giving you the impression that you're about to clamber up Mount Everest's baby brother rather than the London skyline.
Moving through to the fitting room the urban mountaineering theme is pushed further with pictures of explorers and urban climbing legends like Alain Robert adorning the walls. As you exchange your personal belongings for the stuff you'll need for the climb, it's clear that Up At The O2 have invested big time in their gear. With harnesses and safety equipment from the likes of Arco, this is professional grade kit that you're strapping on to climb the dome.
Every climber is given a set of shoes with decent level grip and a warm if somewhat baggy overall that makes you look like an extra from some 90s gangsta rap video. Style choices aside, the overall is tough and well made, providing great protection against anything the British weather can throw at you, which is just as well because climbs will run in pretty much any weather except for very high winds.
The final piece of kit you get is a leash which attaches you to a steel cable that runs along the centre of the walkway. At the end of this leash is a weighty lump of metal with geared teeth which will grab the cable if you slip, preventing a fall, but can be moved with just one hand by pressing it into the right position. Dangling from the front of your suit as you climb the stairs to the beginning of the walkway, this hefty piece of safety gear seemed like a nutshot waiting to happen but thankfully we all made it to the start of the climb with our manliness intact.
Built by a team of 22 riggers and industrial abseilers over the course of 18 weeks, the O2 walkway is suspended a couple of meters above the dome and is constructed of tensioned fabric to mimic the surface of the dome itself. This makes it temptingly bouncy to walk on.
The problem here is that due to health and safety you're not allowed to bounce your way up like a giant trampoline because this can really freak out other climbers, especially those afraid of heights. While not technically bouncing a couple of heavy steps are certainly in order, putting a definite spring in your step and a childish grin on your face, though you are left wondering what parkour legend Damien Walters could get up to on the dome given half a chance.
At the start of the walk you face a fairly steep 28° climb which definitely gets the old lungs working. Sadly health and safety means you can't break out the selfie sticks or phones here and even Go Pros are banned, but you can kind of understand because getting smashed in the head by a flying Samsung or DSLR as it bounces of the roof of the O2 would definitely suck.
Reaching the summit of the dome there's a metal viewing platform where you can grab some photos or even a wife if you feel like it. Apparently the top of the O2 has been the site of 324 successful proposals, which is a great place to go for it because there's nowhere your prospective Mrs can run away. That being said it's a pretty romantic choice with climbs available at sunset and twilight that offer a unique view of London, taking in the river, the Gherkin and even the Shard hiding Where's Wally style between two tower blocks.
Getting down the O2 is actually more of a challenge than climbing up it. The gradient is a couple of degrees steeper than the first half and the walkway drops out of sight as you head towards the Thames, getting some gasps from several members of our group and at least one set of wobbly legs. That extra spring in your step can really get out of hand here, and we found ourselves waddling with bent knees like we'd been caught short to soak up the extra bounce. In hindsight, face planting on the O2 might have been the less embarrassing choice.
Finally reaching ground level we were relieved to find that Sir Creepalot from the intro video hadn't come to greet us and so we headed to the gear room to get changed and go through the indoctrination process with O2's alien overlords...
Climbing the O2 is a funny experience because it wasn't until 15 minutes later that the adrenaline rush really kicked in. Though it hadn't been an insanely tough climb or an edge of your seat thrill ride there was an undeniable buzz that lasted long into the evening. The playful walkway coupled with climbing such an iconic structure just makes you grin and it gets your heart pumping too. Maybe it's the sense of scale, the fact that you're walking over the world's biggest bouncy castle or even the newly implanted alien chip in your neck, who knows? All we can say is that climbing the O2 is a good laugh and you should definitely – JOIN US – go have a climb yourself.
Any way we've gotta shoot, errands to run, spaceships to prepare for galactic domination, you know how it is. But make sure you check out Up At The O2. You won't regret it...
You can climb the O2 starting at £28 per person. Check out Up At The O2's website here.