Inside the resurgent, often deadly craze of ‘lift surfing,’ where thrill seekers sneak into skyscrapers to ride on top of speeding elevator cabs

A still from a video of a man elevatory sufring looking down
A screengrab from a lift surfing video shot inside a Debenhams department store in the UK, posted to YouTube by the lift surfer Beno. Beno/YouTube
  • Lift surfing – or elevator surfing – is a secretive subculture that swept the UK and US in the 1990s.
  • It sees people sneak into tall buildings to ride atop elevator cabs as they speed up and down.
  • Lift surfing is reviving in the UK. Three surfers described to Insider why, and how, they do it.

Inside the bowels of high-rise buildings all over the UK, the 1990s craze of lift surfing is making a comeback.

The mechanics are simple: Enter a tall building, unlock a set of elevator doors, hop down onto the roof of the elevator cab waiting below, and hold on tight as the cab rushes up and down at speed.

Over the past three decades, dozens have died or been injured due to the stunt, and often in gruesome fashion. From New York City to Leeds, people have fallen down elevator shafts, collided with hefty metal counterweights, or gotten squashed between elevators and shaft walls.

A view of an elevator shaft from the bottom looking up
An elevator shaft. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

Nevertheless, it has a devoted following, especially in the UK, where a series of recent stunts – in Kent, Essex, and central London – have drawn substantial online attention and widespread media coverage.

On October 4, a lift surfer known as Ryegi surfed the elevator in London’s luxury Landmark Pinnacle apartment block, which, at 767 feet (233.78m) high, is the tallest residential building in Europe.

“I like seeing behind the scenes,” Ryegi told Insider, “seeing the machinery working.”

Ryegi also recently surfed the Madison and the Wardian, two apartment blocks next to the Landmark that stand well over 590 feet (179.83m). Properties in the blocks sell for as much as $US3.3 ($AU4) million.

“Notify the police if you see this happen and let the concierges know about this growing problem,” a member of a local residents’ group posted on Facebook alongside a link to Ryegi’s stunt.

A view from the bottom of the lift shaft at the Landmark Pinnacle in London.
A view from the bottom of the elevator shaft at the Landmark Pinnacle in London. Ryegi

Vagabonds or elevator enthusiasts?

According to its acolytes, lift surfing emerged in Europe in the 1970s and spread to the US. With the arrival of YouTube in the late 2000s and the rise of “urban exploration” in the 2010s, it morphed from a way for bored teens to pass the time to an established subculture, with a sizeable online following.

Due to the covert nature of the activity – it often requires being in places off-limits to uncertified people – lift surfers like Ryegi use monikers to identify themselves online. The lift surfers Insider spoke to for this article declined to be identified by their real names, citing privacy concerns.

Insider also spoke to Beno, a man widely considered the UK’s most prolific lift surfer. He says he has conducted more than 3,000 surfs since 2015.

A still from a YouTube video taken by the lift surfer Beno.
A still from a YouTube video taken by Beno showing a man sitting on top of a moving elevator. YouTube/Beno

Beno often posts point-of-view footage of his rides for his 41,000 YouTube subscribers and has traveled to 25 countries to surf lifts, even installing a wooden bed in the back of his car. (Why? “Overpriced hotels,” he said.)

Beno and Ryegi both told Insider they were fascinated by the mechanics of elevators and that there is a simple pleasure in roaming places most people never get to see. “I also like to tie a rope to the hook at the top of the lift shaft, so I can dangle from the top of the shaft and see the view,” Ryegi said.

Another lift surfer, identified as BeFaceComputing, told Insider that, for them, lift surfing is simply “thrill-seeking.”

How it works

A lift surfer’s kit bag usually comprises just one essential: Elevator keys.

They can be purchased online for a small cost and allow anyone to safely open elevator doors and gain entry into the shafts behind them.

Intended for use by elevator engineers, the duplicate keys are carried by first responders to free people who get trapped during fires.

“I have so many keys that my bag feels like it is full of bricks,” Beno said.

The average elevator travels at a speed of between one and six meters per second. Beno still remembers how his first 3.5-meters-per-second elevator ride, inside the tower of St Guy’s Hospital in London, shocked him.

“Nowadays, I think nothing of that speed,” he said.

The fastest elevator in the world, a Hitachi installed at Guangzhou’s CTF Finance Centre in China, travels upwards at a staggering 21 meters per second.

But that elevator is beyond the reach of lift surfers, Beno said. “It would have a windshield on top of it, so it wouldn’t be possible to surf,” he said.

“There would be too much security in the building.”

A lift surfer seen pressing the manual elevator control ontop of a lift cab.
A lift surfer seen pressing the manual elevator control on top of a lift cab. YouTube/Beno

‘I don’t know who is dumb and who isn’t’

For lift surfers, the attraction is plain to see, but the culture’s reputation was sullied by a series of gruesome deaths.

Between 1985 and 1990, when New York was the epicenter of US lift surfing, at least ten people died and more than 50 people were injured, the Associated Press reported in 1990.

“People have died by being unsafe, especially when lift surfing was a bigger craze in the 80s and 90s,” Ryegi told Insider. “But people may also die or hurt themselves when being unsafe with anything.”

Beno has never been injured – bar a cut to his fingers from a sharp lift door – but says he doesn’t advise people to take up his pastime.

“It’s simply because I don’t know who is dumb and who isn’t,” he said. “I just don’t want to find out after that someone has had an accident.”

Contrary to popular belief, the most dangerous part of lift surfing is when you’re going upwards. “[It’s] a lot less safe, you could get caught by parts of the lift shaft whizzing past,” he said.

The US-based Elevator, Escalator Safety Foundation declined to comment when asked about the lift surfing craze. The trade publication Elevator World also declined to comment, saying it objects to the media’s obsession with focusing on the negative aspects of elevators.

‘Security go crazy when they see you’

There is little to no evidence showing that lift surfers damage the elevators they ride on, but the stunts have often triggered angry backlashes from building owners, parents of injured children, or tower block residents.

As a result, authorities have tried to prevent it.

Decades ago, the London County Council sealed the roof hatches of all elevators in council properties to prevent “youths lift surfing,” Robin Calaharn, a former elevator engineer at a London council, told an inquiry into the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster.

In many of the highest buildings in the UK and US there is 24/7 security, and the officers occasionally catch lift surfers in the act.

“Security go crazy when they see you,” Beno told Insider. “I’ve had some nasty security drag me about and rip my clothes.”

Lift surfers are also a point of contention in the usually good-natured global community of elevator enthusiasts.

An article on the Elevator Community Wiki fandom, titled “Appropriate Use of Elevator Keys,” was taken down by the author after users chided those who used the keys to lift surf.

“This article has caused nothing but controversy, arguments and bullying since the day it was first published,” the author wrote. “I regret making it and wish I had taken it down sooner!”