“I need to put my life at risk”
After Alain Robert climbed the world’s tallest twisted tower in Dubai, we delved inside the warped mind of the French Spiderman.May 10, 2015
“I am peculiar,” says Alain Robert with a smile – searching for the right words to explain why he has spent the past two decades scaling Earth’s tallest buildings, often illegally and seldom with safety equipment. “Every once in a while I need to put my life at risk. Why? I don’t know. But it makes me feel alive.”
It is 15 April 2015, three days since Robert – a 52-year-old urban climber known as ‘French Spiderman’ – scaled Dubai’s Cayan Tower, the world’s tallest twisted skyscraper. Conquering the 1,005ft high structure in just 65-minutes, the ascent earned Robert a Guinness World Record (his fourth), and he did it with his bare hands alone – bar a bag of chalk and some sticky tape for purchase.
With Dubai cloaked in darkness, the pint-sized Frenchman (who is just 5ft4in and weighs 50kg) was illuminated with a spotlight throughout, dressed in a branded T-shirt as he negotiated the tower’s 73-storeys with careful precision – aware that just one misstep could result in certain death. Not that he looked anxious, taking occasional pauses to salute his legion of cheering followers below. “I have a very good fan base,” gushes Robert, moments after landing back in Bali – his adopted home for over a year. “All these people – from Pakistan, from India – to them, I am like a God.”
Robert was scarcely back on terra firma after this, his 121st career climb, before the high-rise conquest had gone viral, making headlines from China to the United Kingdom, USA to UAE. Robert often uses his ascents to raise awareness for charitable causes, others merely for adrenaline and to sate his taste for danger, whereas the more commercial climbs – such as this, organised to promote a Cayan Group launch – are his way to earn a living. Yet, though Robert is understood to net anything up to AED 185,000 for sponsored ascents, you might be surprised at the fee for his latest, record-breaking stunt: zero.
“I shouldn’t tell you,” Robert reveals, “but this time I got nothing. I heard they wanted to give me something and that I would not be disappointed, but I left Dubai with more expenses [than pay].” And yet, though 21-years of scrambling up urban landscapes has carved Robert a media profile every bit as massive as his beloved skyscrapers, Alain Robert is not a celebrity. Not really. Though his name and death-defying stunts are known the world over – as synonymous with the ‘Spiderman’ brand as any actor to have ever shot a CGI web – he ensures a degree of normality by not possessing an entourage. Robert travelled to Dubai with two childhood friends, has no agent or media representative to speak of, while any journalist hoping to interview him is simply asked to call his mobile phone for a chat.
However, with Robert rarely out of news headlines for more than a few months – whether for breaking a record, being invited to scale a newly opened high-rise or being prosecuted for one his many illegal ascents – he has as such become a target for critics. Some fellow climbers brand Robert a ‘sell-out’ for cashing in on his climbs. It seems this bothers Robert somewhat, as he brings up the topic before I have the chance.
“Sometimes people say I have sold my soul for doing corporate events,” he says, “but that’s not exactly the truth, you know? It’s fun to make a living doing something you like.
“When I was younger, I could live outside in a sleeping bag, not shower and not care. But that’s a different period of my life. You cannot live your whole life living as if you are 15 or 16. I’m 52. I need to have a house, I need to make a living – just like any other human being.” Turbulent child
Robert Alain Philipe was born on 7 August 1962, in Bourgogne, France. His father was a phone company rep and his mother a housewife. Young Robert – the family’s second son, with two brothers and a sister – longed for a life of adventure.
In his autobiography With Bare Hands, he describes himself as “a turbulent child, a reckless person, ceaselessly tormented an driven by the spirit of adventure,” and he soon developed a love for climbing. There remained just one problem, however: Alain Robert suffered from vertigo. It’s something that still troubles him now, yet the determined young French boy’s method of managing this fear was to meet it head on.
Robert was afforded the perfect opportunity to face his fear when, aged 12, he returned home from school only to realise he had lost his keys. He knew, however, that a window in the family’s apartment was never locked, and so he climbed up seven-storeys and let himself in.
His passion ignited, Robert had few other hobbies as a youngster, in time swapping the trees of his village for France’s abundance of rocks. In spite of his fear of heights, Robert made it look easy, shimmying up the most precarious cliffs with finesse, sometimes so confident in his skills that he’d leave his safety gear in his backpack. But, then, disaster. Alain Robert suffered two devastating injuries in the space of a year that very nearly claimed his life, and was certain to end his climbing career for good. The first came in January 1982, when a rope snapped 15ft up and sent him into free fall, Robert fracturing several bones and nearly lost a foot to infection. His surgeon said he’d never climb again, but, four months later, Robert was back on the cliff face. Two months on, just six months on from his first fall, Robert suffered a second accident – again due to faulty ropes – and was plunged headfirst towards rocks.
After five days in a coma, Robert awoke to a fractured skull, elbow, knee, forearms, pelvis, nose; smashed wrists, ruined nerves and very nearly two amputated hands. Robert couldn’t walk, could barely talk after a tracheotomy, and was not expected to be able to complete daily tasks, let alone climb.
It seems you just cannot get in the way of Alain Robert and his dream, however, as after two months in hospital, six operations and a large amount of metal added to restore his bones, Robert walked through his front door. Despite 66 per cent paralysis – so severe that to this day he can barely grip, make a fist or rotate his right hand – he vowed to rise again.
Skip forward to 1994, and Alain Robert is not merely climbing, but is one of the premier faces in free solo (without safety equipment) – long since abandoning the harnesses and ropes that in fact caused his falls. What’s more, after being approached to scale an American building as part of an adventure sports documentary, Robert lit the fuse to an entirely new career: urban mountains.
Soon, Robert was ticking off illustrious architecture in all corners of the globe, including (though not restricted to): the Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower, London’s One Canada Square, the Golden Gate Bridge and Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur (below). ‘French Spiderman’ became a household name, but often waiting for him atop these metal mountains were usually the police. Their receptions were, let’s say, mixed. “A lot of them like to take pictures, or sometimes they ask me to show them exercises,” says Robert, who has been arrested over 100 times. “And then, some of them are assholes. In Japan, I reached the top of the building [Shinjuku Center, in 1998] and they started punching my face.”
Despite his many arrests, court appearances and extortionate amount of cash paid in fines, the longest time Alain Robert has spent in jail is seven or eight days. “Just nice,” he says, laughing. “More like a funny experience than serious.” Robert’s role as a professional outlaw has also seen him banned from Australia for 10 years, China for five – though the latter invited him back within a matter of months.
Now 52, Alain Robert has no intention of retiring. A medical marvel, master of his fears and daredevil who dodges the grave every time he goes to work, by the time you read this Robert may have embarked on his next climb (this time in France), whereas every new sky-high structure erected represents a new challenge.
Dubai’s Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building at 2,717ft – was conquered by Robert in 2011 in six-hours (while wearing a harness to comply with safety regulations), and it’s likely that, come its opening in 2019, you may spot Spiderman crawling up Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Tower (3,281ft). For now, perhaps the biggest irony of Alain Robert’s miraculous career is that it is not vertigo, disabilities nor the threat of death sees him grounded, but bureaucracy. He finds it amusing that New York City’s so-called ‘anti-Spidey law’ (introduced after Robert scaled the New York Times Building in 2008) means climbing the 1,776ft tall Freedom Tower would see him imprisoned for several years.
What’s more, Robert’s very appearance in London’s financial district in 2012 was enough to see him banned from The Shard, Europe’s tallest structure at 1,004ft. “I was a bit upset about The Shard, I have to confess,” Robert says with a sigh. “I found it unfair that the UK, a civilised country, can forbid a guy to go near a building and [if he climbs it] put him in jail for as long as you want – even a lifetime. It’s hard to believe.”
But, then, write Alain Robert at your peril. The man has made a habit of triumphing against all odds, breaking countless laws (and bones) and somehow still getting away with it. And he will continue to live his life vertically, no matter what the consequences.
“I can be arrested, banned from a country, but for me there is no doubt in my mind – I’m not going to stop. Sometimes it is illegal, but this is what I enjoy. No one can stop me.”