There are two things Alain Robert has never desired: safety or permission. For the past 17 years, the 48-year-old Frenchman known as the Human Spider has scaled most of the world’s tallest skyscrapers — without ropes, usually illegally, and with scant regard for consequence. The reasons he does so are numerous and complex, but there has always been a thrilling logic to his climbs: if he falls, he dies.
“It’s a job, yes, but also a passion,” he tells me. Passion is an interesting word. It connotes joy and suffering. Robert has known both. He is an extraordinary sight, usually in leather, rarely out of his tan cowboy boots. Physically, he is tiny, just over 5ft 4in tall and weighing little more than 8st. His hair is long, wild, and balding at the crown, like a dissolute monk’s, and his crazy nose, battered out of shape by a series of accidents — most remarkably, two falls onto rock from more than 10 metres in 1982 — gives him a constantly inquisitive air. His attitude, meanwhile, has always been defiantly anti-authoritarian.
For his most recent climb, however, something was different. As evening fell on March 28 in Dubai, Robert became the first person to climb the steepling Burj Khalifa — at 828 metres, the tallest building in the world — in a six-hour ascent watched by thousands. It was, without doubt, an extraordinary feat. Robert calls it, “no joke, one of the hardest buildings I ever did in my life”.
But this time there were no police waiting to arrest him at the top. Robert had been invited, as a guest of the Emiratis, to scale the building. He says that, because of the building’s Fort Knox-style security, there was “absolutely no way” to climb it illegally. So he decided to play by his host’s rules. “I prefer to climb it this way, than never have the chance at all,” he tells me. Yet the ropes will have bothered many: till now, Robert has always set out to “kick the ass of society”. This time, he had not just an official blessing, but safety equipment and a licence.
What did the crowd in Dubai think? Were they exultant? Did they feel, as I did when I have seen Robert climb, the butterfly elation of watching a man test himself in lethal conditions? Did his daring give them goose bumps? Or, because of his safety equipment, did they only see a middle-aged Frenchman attached to a very tall building?
Some months ago, I spent two days in Paris with Robert before he scaled an office block in La Défense, the business district on the edge of the city. The night before the climb, we ate at his favourite restaurant: Le Ciel de Paris, on the 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse. It’s easy to see why he likes the place. Not only is he treated by the staff as a celebrity (he has climbed the Tour Montparnasse three times), but from his table he has the best view in Paris.
As Robert ordered his first glass of champagne, a storm moved over the city. Lightning flooded and split the night sky, and heavy rain hammered the high windows. Suddenly, the Eiffel Tower was no longer visible. Robert knew that if the rain continued into the morning, his ascent would be postponed. But there was, he said, no point worrying about the weather. He ordered foie gras.
Robert began climbing skyscrapers in 1994, when he was asked whether he would like to attempt an ascent of an office block for an extreme-sports documentary. The director wished to contrast the red cliffs and peaks of the American southwest with the “glass mountains” of an American city. Robert thought it would be “pretty cool”, even if training at home in Pézenas — the docile Languedoc village where he still lives with his wife, Nicole, and three sons — was tricky. The tallest building there was just a few storeys high. Still, six weeks later Robert had scaled Chicago’s Citicorp Center. His life changed “dramatically and irrevocably” at that moment.
Before his epiphany, Robert was already one of the world’s best “free solo” climbers, having made some of the toughest ascents on rock without ropes or assistance of any kind. He started free soloing when he was 12 years old, and decades of training have strengthened his sinews to superhuman levels. His skeleton, meanwhile, has taken a pounding. His heels, pelvis and arms have been shattered by serious falls. His left forearm is “completely smashed… like a wine glass”, and his right wrist has been cracked so severely that he cannot turn it in certain directions. To add insult to serious injury, he is also prone to occasional epileptic episodes and suffers from vertigo. His regular surgeon, Gérard Hoel, is baffled that Robert can still walk, let alone climb: he calls his most famous patient a “medical enigma”. Indeed, the French government considers Robert to be “up to 66% disabled”, which he finds amusing. Even in his forties, he could perform pull-ups using only a finger.
Why climb with no ropes? In his book, With Bare Hands, Robert explained the appeal in cod-philosophical terms, writing: “I preferred to spurn the pollution of the safety net and experience the climb in its naked form.” In person, he offered a more complicated analysis. “As a child, I was afraid of everything. I was very insecure. I was lacking in self-confidence. But always, I had this dream that I could be like Zorro or Robin Hood. There were always two Alain Roberts — the Alain who was real, and the Alain who existed in my dreams. I think solo has to do with that. It’s to do with courage. Maybe I am wrong, but I always thought it was courageous to climb without any safety equipment.”
Climbing, therefore, was a means to prove himself. Robert remembers an incident when he locked himself out of his parents’ apartment in Valence when he was 12 years old. He knew a window on the seventh floor was always left open, so he scampered up the side of the building and let himself in. His mother was angry with him for the stunt, but he remembers his father “looked at me a different way from that day”.
In his twenties and thirties, his greatest free solo ascents attracted the attention of the climbing world. But before that first skyscraper coup in Chicago, Robert had been working 18 hours a week in a sports shop to pay the rent, while indulging his addiction in his spare time. Now he saw an opportunity. “I won’t say I am f***ing clever,” he says, laughing. “But after Chicago, I realised: I have a chance to change my life. Maybe I can live, I can travel, I can work completely by climbing.”
Since then, he has climbed more than 80 skyscrapers and monuments — including the Empire State Building in New York, One Canada Square in Canary Wharf, London, Shanghai’s Jin Mao Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. He has gone from contented introvert to showman and celebrity, and is sometimes paid tens of thousands of pounds to make new ascents, advertise products or speak at after-dinner events. Although his legal fees mean his finances are “not fantastic”, he now owns his house in Pézenas and a smart Audi TT Roadster.
Robert’s feats, however, are so much more than publicity stunts. They have an extraordinary catalytic effect on bystanders too. In 2003, 100,000 people watched him climb the National Bank in Abu Dhabi, “A glorious and magical moment.” In Rio he ate with the kids from the favela, and in Malaysia he dined with the royal family. In any language, it is obvious what Robert represents: mischief in a world of rules.
Robert’s climbs are, as much as anything, an exercise in willpower. Take, for example, his second attempt on the 442-metre-high Sears Tower in Chicago, in 1999. Twenty storeys from the summit, Robert’s foot slipped and he almost fell. On the surface of the building a fine layer of moisture had accumulated, borne by clouds that had just rolled in. The building had become “a vertical ice rink — clouds above, tarmac below”.
For a moment, he was “petrified” and thought he was going to die. But backing out was not an option. He climbed the remaining 20 storeys centimetre by slippery centimetre. After several hours, his muscles screaming, he made it. He was so elated at the summit that he stood on the ledge and let out a “10-second roar”.
“It was,” he says, “the yell of pure life.” The policemen on the roof, who had come to arrest him, were stunned.
In urban climbing, or “buildering” as it is sometimes inelegantly known, the ascent is only half the adventure. Unless permission has been granted by the property owner, such climbs are illegal, so there is a heist element to the escapade. At the National Library in Paris, for instance, Robert employed an attractive friend in a “devastating miniskirt” to distract guards. At the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, he booked a massage on the sixth floor to gain access to the building’s north face. He made his third, successful ascent on the Petronas Towers before dawn. Usually, however, he simply runs at the building and starts climbing, hoping that swiftness and the element of surprise will carry the day.
Few lawmakers, in any country, could have anticipated Alain Robert. And, for that reason, the legal ramifications of his climbs can be uncertain (except in New York, where in 2008 they formulated special “Anti-Spidey” legislation). Before tackling the Petronas Towers, he received a grave prognosis from a lawyer that he might spend three years in a Malaysian prison for the stunt. In the end, they released him without charge. Indeed, the worst punishments Robert has received are hefty fines, a few nights in a cell, and, in the case of China in 2007, a five-year ban from re-entering the country.
As an athlete-performer, Robert is often compared to Philippe Petit, the funambulist who walked between the twin towers in New York in 1974. But unlike Petit, Robert has sponsors, and causes to promote, including climate change and the plight of native Americans. He was given permission to climb the Burj Khalifa in recognition of his “good relations” with the UAE, while in Dubai on a speaking tour that saw him rub shoulders with the likes of Tony Blair. “Sometimes you meet politicians and they are assholes,” he says. “But actually, Blair is a really nice guy.”
For the fans who view Robert as an anti-establishment folk hero, this kind of statement might grate. “Should I apologise for being famous?” Robert says. “I won’t tell you that I don’t like it, because that would be very dishonest. I don’t think being famous is bad. I deserve it more than Paris Hilton. What has she done? She goes to parties. At least I have done something. I am not making much money out of climbing, so should I apologise for the money I do make?”
Certainly, he does not live in lavish style. He may enjoy champagne and a good cheese, but he flies economy class. The only member of his entourage is a burly old friend called Claude — the Obelix to Alain’s Asterix — who sometimes drives him to climbs and helps with security.Otherwise, Robert makes all arrangements himself, on his BlackBerry. He also trains in spartan style. He has remodelled the ceiling of his bedroom as a climbing wall, where he can be found hanging upside down like a bat for 20 minutes at a time. Otherwise, when he is at home, he mucks in with the chores.
What does his wife think of his profession? “Nicole respects me for the things I love to do,” he says. “She does not tell me to stop. Although, like me, she thinks there will be a time when I do stop.”
How could Robert quit? Even he finds retirement hard to imagine. “Maybe in the future, I will do more public speaking,” he says. “When I was young, I thought it was courageous to solo. Now I realise that it is only one part of courage. It’s far more courageous to go and help people who live in a slum in India. Actually, climbing a building is a little bit selfish. I have changed my attitudes. The truth that I knew at 19 is completely different to the truth I know now.”
The day after our dinner at La Tour Montparnasse, Alain Robert tackled the Tour Ariane in La Défense — a 152-metre office block with plenty of footholds. Below, office workers, cleaners and soldiers from the nearby Ministère de la Défense smoked cigarettes and watched the show. The building’s chief security officer, a fat man in a tight red polo shirt, ran and shouted at the disappearing climber, “Alain, arrête!” But Robert shrugged and continued. What was the fat man going to do? Climb after him?
At the summit, Robert was arrested by the chief commissioner of the district — but not before an ovation from the crowd. Having taken the elevator to the ground floor, Robert then told the waiting television journalists the authorities had been “très sympas,” before crying “Vive la France!” The commissioner, charmed, gave him his business card, and told him to call should he ever wish to climb in La Défense again. A slap on the wrist and Robert was a free man.
After his climb, he explained the joyful reaction of the crowd. “A place like La Défense represents everything that they hate: it’s about work, and a boring job, and maybe they think their building is ugly, this big tower with lots of glass. But for me, it’s a kind of urban mountain, I love it. I make it a kind of wonderland. Everywhere I climb, I see people who are happy.” He was right. For maybe an hour on an autumn morning, a small patch of Paris’s business district became a circus. Of course, the people were marvelling at Robert and his skill, but they were also considering their environment in a new way. Many had never noticed, or even met, their colleagues from other floors. There was, I could not help noticing, some significant flirting taking place during the performance.
What next for the mischief-maker? Does his licenced conquest of the Burj Khalifa represent a change of attitude? After his record-breaking ascent in Dubai, I asked Robert whether he would return to climbing skyscrapers without safety equipment or permission. “I prefer to do it without rope and illegally,” he said, before adding “at least, without rope.” At 48, the scared little boy from Pézenas still needs to prove himself. But who could blame Robert if, in comfortable middle age, his wish to kick society’s ass is weaker than it once was?