After a year of letting my fear of heights go untested, I figured it was time to get high again.
on’t wear short skirts and no high heels,” I was warned. The wind at the top would be enough to do a Marilyn Monroe number on your dress and, at just 40 meters (131 feet) shy of half a kilometer (1,640 feet) up in the sky, sensible footwear would be needed to ensure secure footing.
It seemed like a masochistic venture. With my crippling vertigo, why would I want to take a trip to the very top of Taipei 101, Taiwan’s tallest–and the world’s tallest between 2004 and 2010–building? But it also felt like a challenge. My fear of heights hadn’t been tested for a while because the COVID-19 pandemic had shut down much of international air travel. So, I decided it was time to get high again.
Taipei 101 is a beloved symbol of both the city and Taiwan itself. It is to Taipei what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Wherever you are in Taipei you can see its distinctive shape–a steel-tipped, blue-green glass bamboo stem–rising head and shoulders above everything else. Nothing comes close to it, with the next tallest building being Taipei Nanshan Plaza which is a mere 48 stories.
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The indoor and outdoor viewing platforms on the 89th and 91st floors have, respectively, long been open to the public with their 360 degree sweeping views of the city on sunny days. But neither offers the same tantalizing experience of being right there on the edge. Indoors, you’re separated by a thick pane of glass; outdoors, there is a giant slatted fence. More recently, Taipei Financial Center Corporation (TFCC), the company that owns the skyscraper, launched trips to the very top 101st floor, 460 meters (1,509 feet) above sea level, where there is nothing between you and the clouds but a chest-high wall.
According to TFCC, Skyline 460 is the highest outdoor platform in the world. The very thought was enough to send my heart thumping and cause my palms to go slick with sweat.
The day of my “ascent” there is a soup of wispy clouds in the blue sky and a haze in the air. I’ve heard that if the skies are crystal clear, you can see a glint of the ocean on the horizon, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the northeast. Negotiating three lightning-quick elevators to get to the 101st floor—they go so fast that my ears pop–I’m surprised to find myself in a glassed-in room. Apparently, Skyline 460 is up yet another flight of stairs, making it effectively the 102nd floor. Taipei 102, though, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Directed into putting my bag in a locker and my phone into a plastic sleeve with a bright yellow strap to hang around my neck, I’m then helped into a safety harness that loops around my thighs and shoulders. There is a thick rope, a chunky scarlet carabiner, but no parachute.
I climb the stairs and walk along a short corridor that is carpeted with dry ice, a device to reinforce the idea that this is a ”walk on the clouds.” Hesitantly, I step through a heavy door. It feels dangerous, but I soon learn I shouldn’t have worried. Immediately, a security guard, tethered to the wall and with a burbling walkie-talkie strapped to his chest, takes my rope and clips me to a railing that runs around the perimeter of the platform.
It’s surprisingly calm up top, with just the gentlest of breezes to ruffle my hair. The scene is breathtaking and, even at my short 1.58-meter (5.2 feet) height, I can see over the barrier that is about level with my shoulders. The city is spread out like a messy carpet below. I feel uplifted, a little exhilarated, and attempt the dizzying look straight down. But there’s a ledge a couple of meters wide that blocks the sheer drop from view.
With the harness, which now seems like a bit of an overkill, and the ledge, my vertigo is virtually untriggered and I can fully enjoy the experience of being on the highest outdoor platform in the world. I crane my neck and look up at the spire, which takes the tower up to a height of 508 meters. That part of the building is not accessible, I’m told. I’m the highest one can go on Taipei 101.
The wind is picking up, and it begins to whistle around the spire. I can also hear ambulance sirens and the hum of cars, buses, and motorbikes below. The city extends in all directions, ringed by green forested mountains. I spot landmarks–the orange curved roofs in traditional Chinese style topping ceremonial buildings dedicated to former political leaders–Sun Yat-sen, and Chiang Kai-shek memorial halls. They are a splash of color amid the grays and browns of the urban landscape. The streets fan out in straight lines in a nod to the design of Taiwan’s former colonial master, Japan (1895-1945). The snaking lines of the two main rivers–Tamsui and Keelung–wiggle their way through the grey.
There is a small photo platform against the railing where you can, for extra drama, pretend you are sky-diving. I feel a twinge of fear of what might happen if my smartphone is whipped from my hand by a sudden gust and taken over the edge of the ledge. At that height, it would surely kill someone at street level. I quickly put it back in its plastic pocket.
It is rare to survey the city from this perspective and this close-up. Everything now makes sense; I see how the puzzle of Taipei’s districts fit into one whole. This is a much more personal experience than that offered by the lower-level observatories. The cars and buildings, looking like toys, could be an arm’s stretch away. I can imagine in inclement weather, battered by rain, wind, and fog, it would be even more thrilling.
After 30 minutes or so, it’s time to go back down. I’m unbuckled and slip back to the dry ice. There’s plenty more to do in Taipei 101: a climb-in flight simulator, those two observatories, a tower-top restaurant and bar, a high-end shopping mall, and a food court. Between the 87th and 91st floors, there is a giant golden ball with a weight topping two Boeing 747s. It’s a 660 metric-ton tuned mass damper, held in place by eight cables. A fault-line serrates Taiwan and typhoons batter the island usually every year. A building this tall needs some fancy technology to stay safe. The damper is a feat of engineering that keeps the tower stable.
It’s on the 91st floor when I do finally get a kick of vertigo.
This is where the stairwell starts or ends, depending on which way you look at it. It spirals all the way down to the ground–2,046 steps–and through the gap between the banisters, it seems to go on forever. It’s too narrow to fall through, but my head starts swimming nonetheless. I picture myself tumbling, head over heels like a cartoon fall.
Every summer, athletes from across the globe sprint up these stairs in the Taipei 101 Run-Up. The fastest time, I’m told, was 10 minutes 29 seconds. I wonder how long it would take going the other way.
I opt for the elevator and glide back down, my heart steady and my palms dry.