The date was May 26, 1977, and George Willig was in the middle of something crazy. The young man’s taste for danger had this tiime taken him to the World Trade Center in New York. Ignoring the cops that had rushed to the scene to talk him out of this madness, “The Human Fly” — as Willig would come to be known — was scaling the heights of the south tower. If he fell, it would mean instant death. But even if he made it to the top with his life, the authorities could press charges and bring him to ruin.
Confident in his abilities
As if the situation wasn’t scary enough already, the specific manner in which Willig was attempting this wild feat was super-dicey. Basically, he planned to climb the quarter-mile to the top by locking special plates into the crevices of a window-washing track on the tower.
But here’s the thing: the plates he was using were home-made. He’d basically spent as little as $100 on some kit and he’d proceeded to fashion them himself. He was showing a remarkable amount of confidence in his manufacturing abilities!
Big problems, dead or alive
The durability of Willig’s homemade plates was pretty much the only thing keeping him alive as he edged higher and higher up the tower. If they should give out, then that would be it for him. But even if everything went perfectly — if his plates did their job and his strength endured — he would still be facing some big problems.
His stunt had drawn the attention of the cops, who weren’t at all happy with what he was doing. No officials had been informed of what he’d planned to do in advance, meaning the authorities were likely to come down hard on him if he survived. But Willig had always known the risks.
Acrophobia: a fear of heights
It’s pretty wild to think about, but Willig hadn’t always been comfortable with heights. Back when he had been a young kid, in fact, he was actively freaked out by them. In a book he wrote called Going It Alone, Willig reflected on those early fears, describing the day his parents had taken him up to the summit of the Empire State Building.
“My father sat me on the ledge, where I could see over the edge,” Willig wrote. “A large plate of glass protected me from falling, and beyond this there was a railing with sharp metal jaws. All the same, looking down terrified me, and I clung closely to my father.”
“The Human Fly,” otherwise known as “The Mountain Goat”
Willig had only been six years old on that trip to New York, and he quickly grew out of his acrophobia. As a matter of fact, he went the other way entirely and embraced climbing as a central part of his life. It started with trees, first of all, before he graduated to scaling cliffs. He soon came to be known by those around him as “The Human Fly” and “The Mountain Goat.”
As he got older, Willig kept on climbing. When he was a college student, for example, he once scaled three stories in order to reach his girlfriend’s room. When a big gig was taking place, he had been known to climb up the scaffolding that had been set up around the venue to keep people out. And before long, he was moving into the world of ice climbing.