How David Lee Roth Risked His Life for the ‘Skyscraper’ Cover
Some fans found David Lee Roth's synthy Skyscraper stomach churning when it was released on Jan. 26, 1988. But that’s nothing compared to what the former Van Halen frontman endured while shooting the cover for his second solo album.
A relatively experienced climber, Roth hadn’t done much aid climbing – that is, ascending with the use of tools such as pitons, which are metal bolts hammered into gaps in the rock face. But assistants Werner Braun and Ron Kauk felt like they had all the experience needed to allow adventure photographer Galen Rowell to secure the shot.
The chosen location was Half Dome, a granite expanse in California's Yosemite National Park, which rises 4,373 feet. Braun recalled that, after an overnight stay in the park, the production team made its way to the Half Dome summit and waited while Rowell looked for his location.
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“He spots his ace in the hole, and tells Ron and me to set up David at the spot you see on that cover,” Braun wrote on the Supertopo climbing forum in 2005. “Galen wants David out in some no man’s land with very little features for anything that’ll hold worth shit.”
Telling Galen about his concerns that he couldn’t see anywhere to hammer in an aid, he was told to get on with it, and replied: “Okay, man, whatever.”
Kauk went down on a rope to place some aids appropriate to when a climb is rated A4 on a scale of A1 to 5. A4 is described by one website as a “nightmare of rotten rock and death blocks” where the climb leader “will suffer in a perpetual state of mind-boggling terror as they sketch from one horrendous placement to another.”
Kauk admitted to Braun he could only hope the last piton he’d placed, which was “sticking more than three-fourths of the way out,” would hold Roth’s weight.
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This Wasn't His Only Brush With Death
Braun waited by the installed aids while the singer came down the face on a separate rope and saw the piton in question, a Black Diamond Lost Arrow measuring 3.4 inches, of which less than an inch was embedded in the rock.
Roth “takes one look at that thing and says, ‘Fuck! I’m not hanging off that thing. It’ll pull out and I’ll die.’ He is now visibly shaking real bad and scared shitless,” Braun said. “I tell David that I’m the rigger and that he has to have faith in the rigger, and the rigger will never lie to you.
“Now, David has probably heard every bullshit line but then he’s never really aid climbed,” Braun added. “I tell him that piton is one foot long and that seven inches of that sucker he’s looking at is buried in that horizontal crack, to his total disbelief.”
Kauk encouraged Braun to keep up the lie as Rowell became impatient. “Finally, after more bullshit lines, David buys them and gently as hell gets on that thing, shaking like shit, until Galen shoots the camera,” Braun said. At that moment, Roth found his rock-star attitude, managing to provide “smiles and all in between bouts of shakes and deep breaths.”
Rowell shot 20 rolls of film in “record time” before Roth reattached himself to his rope and climbed to safety. Braun recalled that the piton came out with “one jerk of my hand.” He later gave the two climbers a souvenir carabiner rope shackle, plated with gold and engraved with the words “Diamond Dave.”
Naturally enough for an adventure sportsman, the photo shoot experience (which also included shooting scenes for the “Just Like Paradise” video) hasn’t been Roth’s only brush with death.
“I’ve also made every mistake possible,” he later told Vogue. “I’ve gone out with the wrong gear. I landed myself in the infirmary in the Amazon; I thought I killed myself in the Himalayas. I thought I killed everybody else but not myself in the South Pacific. I walked around for almost two years without my back molar and the one next to it because I cracked them in half when I had dengue fever. I’ve broken everything twice, just to make sure, and I’ve had seven surgeries, all of them structural.”
Roth noted that his family was used to the hospital trips: “The first three times you go, there’s a whole pit crew … four generations including your grandparents, your mom, the wife, the kids, the boyfriend of the daughter, and everybody else," he said. "Fourth time you go in, you get dropped off.”
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Gallery Credit: Nick DeRiso
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