Somewhere in a downtown Vancouver television studio, a motley crew is gathered for an appearance on a morning talk show. Four red leather couches face towards each other. Three bikini clad 20-somethings sit one one, doing last minute checks on their compact mirrors. On the second, an African dancer and a stand up comedian are engaged in small talk. Bob McGrath from Sesame Street sits on another, and Alain Robert and I sit on the last. I’m here to chauffeur Alain around the city during his visit for the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival.
Bob from Sesame Street tells me that due to budget cuts the show isn’t the the same quality program as it was when I was growing up. “It’s more Teletubbie quality now, aimed at children between 1 and 4.” I tell him I still have my Bob Sings LP.
Alain eyes the girls. There’s some sizing up by everyone going on, but it’s clear nobody knows who this smallish man [5’5″, 105 lbs] in his mid-forties, with long hair and clothes matching the couch upholstery, is.
Alain holds himself with a Mick Jagger swagger that comes from decades of fame. His feats have been witnessed by millions, probably billions. He is by far the most famous person on the couches, but for right now he’s just the strangely dressed man with the busted up face of a hockey player.
He leans over and asks me, “who are the girls?” “I think they swimwear models.” “Models? Those aren’t models. In France we reserve that word for really beautiful girls like Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford,” said without hesitation and perhaps a bit too loudly. I quickly agree and change the subject
When show time hits, Alain is up first. “And now, the man who is known all over the world as the REAL LIFE SPIDERMAN, Alain Robert!” Oooh…that guy — the light bulb switches on simultaneously for everyone. As the man who climbs skyscrapers, Alain stands alone.
Do you plan to climb anything while in Vancouver?
I offered to climb the TV studio building for a small fee, but they declined on my offer. If I climb something illegally I’m sure I am going to have some trouble. Years ago I had some trouble climbing in Montreal. Because I have a lot of upcoming media events, I cannot afford to be stuck in Vancouver. Plus no one has offered to pay my bail and lawyer fees, which can cost upwards of $15 000. People think that I climb a building and that is all, but really that’s just the start of the process.
I suppose I could contact goldenpalace.com, but it’s too cold to climb anyway.
What was your latest climb?
I tried a building in Houston, but I didn’t even get to climb. I was sure that I didn’t even start, but they took my fingerprint on the building, and in fact it seems that I really did climb one meter. Everything happened so fast because Fox News called the police on the eve of the ascent. In the morning there were over 50 cops waiting for me from 6:00 a.m.. My meeting with the media was at 9:30 a.m. but still I tried to climb. I dashed out of the cab and ran like mad, but I got caught. I was quite stupid. Because I was so focused on the story, I completely forgot that I could postpone the event. I thought I could trick the police. The thing is, when the cab stopped, I thought the building was right on the side of the street, but I had to cross over, so already I lost about 2 or 3 seconds. Also the cab stopped in front of another car, so I had to run around the car, losing another couple seconds. You know it’s a matter of seconds. If I had another two seconds, I would’ve done the climb — that is what the cops told me.
But I was stupid trusting Fox News. Each time I do an ascent I work with Reuters, AP, and AFP, because I know these people are not the type to call the cops. They are big press and TV agency, and they are selling the story in other countries.
What were you charged with?
Trespassing, mischief, and drugs. The drugs charge is silly, since they are only prescription drugs. They were for my epileptic seizures which I’ve suffered with since my fall in 1982. I carry them in my pocket just in case.
Trespassing and mischief are misdemeanor charges, however the prosecutor is trying to make it criminal trespass. You know the prosecutor is a real bitch. She wants me to go to jail for a long time. But the good thing is, I nearly have no chance of having the same prosecutor for my second court-case. It is a bit of a lottery who your prosecutor is each time.
You don’t have a personal lawyer?
No it is not possible to have the same lawyer. Even in the US, state by state you must have a different lawyer. Right now I am making a deal with a lawyer who may be willing to defend my case for free, in exchange for some publicity. I know David Letterman wants to do a story on me, so if I can mention the name of the lawyer this would be good.
You’ve had a few serious falls in your career.
My first major injury was in the spring of 1982, a rappelling accident on the cliffs of Valence. I was young and lacked experience. I lowered off of a rope which was fed through a webbing anchor. The webbing heated up and cut, I fell fifteen meters. I broke my ankle, I broke my right knee, and my nose as well. I also broke my wrist in five places. It got infected and I almost needed to have it amputated. After this accident, I started climbing again, even though I had a cast on my right leg and on my right arm. After four months I was climbing at the same level as before, and started to climb even harder routes.
Then I fell again, this time much worse. I was teaching some students to climb, showing them to push on their legs, not pull on their arms. I was climbing an easy route with my hands behind my back to emphasize the point, when I lost balance and fell headfirst from eight meters. I fell onto both wrists, which were completely shattered. After 15 minutes I fell into a coma, I was bleeding badly and lost one liter of my blood. So I was really in a bad, bad state. I spent about 2 months in the hospital. The very good surgeon told me that my climbing was completely finished. But I did relearn how to climb, with much difficulty, and after one year I was climbing some routes which were harder than what I was climbing before my accident.
My third fall was just over a year ago. I was giving an interview for Korean television and afterwards they asked me to climb their building. The building seemed easy, so I started to climb it, but it had just rained and it was wet. After two meters I fell and landed on my elbow. When I got up I couldn’t feel my left forearm. I ended up with forty stitches in my elbow.
This was a major problem since I was scheduled to climb the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101, in a month. It wasn’t until four days before the big climb that I was well enough to climb it. It was quite dirty and difficult, but still I did it. This was two days before the Tsunami.
Have you completely recovered from your injuries?
My knee still bothers me a bit. I had surgery on it and they put a metal plate in it. I was supposed to have it taken out 3 months after, but I didn’t bother going back. Now it’s too late to take it out. Sometimes my knee hurts a bit when I try and ski, but it’s fine for climbing.
I read somewhere that you receive disability from the French government?
I could have been getting money from the government for twenty years, but because I am making some money in climbing it is a bit difficult — I can’t play on both sides. The government looks at me and says, “OK we are paying this guy and we see him on TV climbing, what’s the deal?”
But I have a card that I use for parking. Because I drive a nice car [Audi TT] people are tripping. But then I take out the card and they say, “oh sorry I didn’t realize.”
You are able to make a living at this?
Yes. People pay me to climb their buildings to get media attention for a new building, or a newly renovated building, or perhaps for an upcoming event.
When I climb a building, the story is known throughout the world. That sort of advertising is priceless. Famous rock climbers are only in the climbing magazines. Climbing magazines are small and pay peanuts.
I get photos in Times, CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP, all the major publications, but not climbing magazines. Many of them are too narrow-minded. They look at me climbing a building and say, “that’s not climbing.” What is it then?
Do you sell pictures to publications?
Yes, but things have changed a lot in the last 10 years. Now everything is digital and instant. Anyone can take a good picture. Now when I climb a building, there are 100 good photos of the climb, so it’s hard to sell anything. These days I sell the event.
Who are your sponsors?
Mellencamp gives me clothes (his red leathers) and a bit of money. Goldenpalace.com will give me money if I climb with their logo.
I am sponsored by Boreal, but they no longer give me money, just shoes. They made a rule that they would only give money for people who get pictures in climbing magazines.
Would you go back to free solo rock climbing?
You know I asked Lynn Hill if it would be possible to solo The Nose of El Capitan. I was worried that the Great Roof would be too hard. She said that it was a pitch after the Great Roof that was the hardest [Changing Corners, 5.13+], and would be very hard to solo. I think that perhaps this would be something for the next millennium.
Do you do any movie or TV commercial work?
I get offers for stunt work, but that pays peanuts and the hours are long. Plus they want you to use cables and safety gear. When I climb a building, I get paid up to $50 000. That’s for one hour of work.
Sony sometimes pays me to climb for the opening of a new Spiderman movie, but I’m not in the movie.
That’s when you climb in a Spiderman costume?
Yes, but I would like to get away from the Spiderman image. I want to have my own identity. I am thinking of a different costume, maybe yellow and black.
How did you get into buildering?
I have been solo rock climbing for thirty years. But when I rock climb, I don’t like to follow the routes — I like to go wherever I want. Most people have a guidebook and they stick only to those routes. Rock climbers can be very narrow-minded.
For me, I just enjoy climbing. Also, rock climbing back then is not like it is now. Back then it was something not completely safe. Now they are making climbing much safer. You know these companies like North Face, they want to be able to sell to as many people as possible, so they are going to make climbing as safe as they can. If they say, “climbing is fucking dangerous,” who is going to climb? So they say, “we are living in a safe world, and we are doing safe things.”
With buildering, I get to keep that element of danger. Plus, I very much like the feeling of height, and buildings have even more of a feeling of height than rock faces.
You never use ropes or protection when buildering?
No never. Although sometimes if I am climbing a building legally, the client will make it a condition of the climb that I do it roped. That is the only time I use ropes.
Do you have any plans to retire?
I hope to be able to climb for another three to five years before I retire. I’m trying to make as much money as possible right now for retirement. I’m used to this lifestyle of traveling all over the world, so when I retire I don’t want it to be a modest retirement.
What was your hardest climb?
The Sears Tower. When I first saw it I thought it was completely impossible, but as I climbed other buildings around the world, I came back and saw that it was possible. I went back to Chicago seven times to check the building before I climbed it.
The day I climbed it there was no wind, which is rare in Chicago. But this caused there to be some condensation at the top which made things very difficult. I thought I might fall, but you know, when you are facing a problem where your life is in danger, there is only one option and that is fighting. Fight until you either fall or reach the top. If you fall it is over. If you reach the top, it’s like getting another chance at life.
Did you kiss the ground when you reached the top?
It’s something very nice — a very great feeling. And the more difficult the climb, the more I appreciate that I am still alive.
How long does it take you to climb a building?
Anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours. I spent four hours on Taipei 101, which is just over 500 m.
Have you ever gotten stuck?
Yes on the Arche de la Defense in France. I have tried two times to climb it, but the cracks are very shallow and irregular. Most people think that buildings are the same all the way up, but this is not true. Sometimes they change a little bit, making them more difficult to climb.
This is what happened on the Arche. I got to a spot that was too difficult to climb, so I hung there for 30 minutes while someone came to rescue me. I was rescued by the same people I had trained for climbing rescue two years before.
Didn’t you also got stuck on the Canary Wharf building?
Yes, it started raining. I did not want to climb on this day, but this was the fault of my sponsors. I was there for six days before, and they were paying for me to stay in downtown London which is very expensive, so they wanted me to climb soon.
The day before I climbed, I went to the business district and the security recognized me. They told me that I was not welcome there. We left and drove by a few hours later and there were police waiting.
So the next day when I went to climb I was hidden in the trunk of the car.
Were you arrested?
Yes, the people from Canary Wharf decided to make this a civil court case, because they knew they could get money. These people, they are thinking, “this guy doesn’t give a shit if he goes to jail, he will stay for a couple of hours, and then the next day he will climb again.”
So they sued me for 50 000 £. They took out one of the biggest lawyers in London. Finally they decided on a permanent injunction — I am not to climb any buildings in the district of London. For any buildings presently, or any they build in the future. It was this, or pay 50 000 £.
Are there other buildings you would have liked to climb in London?
Yes there are a couple. Big Ben would be nice, but would cause problems. The Obelisk looks nice, but is not possible. I looked at it when it was being constructed, and it is not possible.
The response of the authorities seems to vary greatly depending on which country you are in. I understand that you have it pretty easy in France.
In Paris, when I am caught I go to the police station for about two minutes. They take my statement and then the police ask me for my autograph. It is the complete opposite of the United States.
But now things are a bit different in Paris. Before, the commissionaire was my friend, so if I ever wanted to climb anything in the business district it was OK. But now he is retired, and the new guy is a son of a bitch.
What’s the worst jail you’ve been in?
Probably Malaysia. I was not treated very nicely there and had to sleep on the floor.
And the nicest?
Probably Sausalito, the jail was brand new and quite nice. I spent five days there. The inmates thought I was a hero. This is a typical reaction of the prisoners once they watch my story on the TV. I had pull-up competitions with the guys in the gym. I could do around 100, and they called me “Little Schwarzy.”
Was that for your Golden Gate Bridge climb?
Yes. The bad part was I climbed the part of the bridge that was owned by Sausalito. There are two pillars, one is owned by San Francisco and the other by Sausalito. The camera crew thought it would look nicer if climbed on the Sausalito side, so that is what I did.
But Sausalito is smaller and the cops don’t have as much to do, so I think they were tougher. In San Francisco, they have much more important things to do. At first I was charged with a felony, and at that time I didn’t know what I felony was. I thought I would just spend a couple of days in jail, and it would be no big deal. But I was lucky and they lessened the charges to misdemeanor charges.
Have you ever had anything break off a building?
No not really. I check the building. I knock on the surface. You can tell if it’s good or not.
Have you ever needed to jump to the next hold?
Of course I have done this move on more difficult cliffs, but only once on a building.
In Montreal I had a big surprise — the building is 150m, and the last three panels were a little bit wider, which I didn’t see when I was studying the building from the ground. So I had to jump, which was a little bit hard.
Have you ever used suction cups?
Only if absolutely necessary. They are scary, I don’t like them very much. The suction cups I bought are not very good. There are 3 pads per suction cup, and each pad holds about 30 kg. There was a better model, which held 60 kg each. I should have bought that one, that way if there is a little bit of dust, and one or two pads don’t stick, nearly each pad would hold my body weight. Mine slip a little bit.
But the pads are better if you are able to push in while you move. It’s better to move with little steps. If you try to make a big step, then you are having some difficulty to push the suction cup.
More and more people are asking me to climb buildings which are completely impossible. In Saudi Arabia I have a very lucrative contract to climb a building for 100,000 Euro. But the building is impossible unless I use suction cups. For that money, you cannot say no.
Does dust pose a problem when climbing?
Yes it can make it slippery. Sometimes if I am climbing a building legally I will ask them to clean the building. Or at least clean the section that I will be climbing. Heat can also make things slippery. I was climbing in Dubai and it was 40 °C at nine o’clock at night. This made things very slippery.
I was treated very well, but in the end I knew it was worth every penny because this was a little on the edge.
How about the cold?
The cold is not as much of a problem. Cold with wind is a problem, because I cannot warm up my hands. For me -20 °C with wind is worse than -40 °C.
I was in New York in 2000 to check out the Twin Towers. It was very cold and I couldn’t feel my fingers. I spent 10 days waiting for it to warm up, but it never did and I had to return home. I planned to climb the towers a year later, but got fucked by the Taliban.
I made a “Climb Buildings” sticker. Maybe I should change that to “Climb Buildings, Before They Are All Gone.”[I give Alain a handful of stickers.] You know this is a great idea. On my next ascent in Paris I am going to put one on the building and tell the police, “look, I am climbing because there is a sticker that says Climb Buildings!”
What do you do for training?
I have a climbing wall in my house. I used to be able to do three one finger pull ups. But for something like that you need to train all the time. My son has bigger muscles than me, and he teases me, but I can still climb harder than him, so it doesn’t matter.
Does he plan to follow in your footsteps?
Both my sons climb a little, but they aren’t very motivated. Once they realized that what I was doing was dangerous, they decided to take another path. I try not to force anything on them.
Do you climb with anybody else?
Not really anymore. I used to climb with friends, but most of them died in mountaineering accidents. These days I don’t really keep in touch with climbers.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
I plan on climbing a building in Barcelona. I’m planning to climb something in New York in June, but I have to choose whether to try Houston again, or do New York. I cannot do both unless I want to go to jail for a very long time.
I would like to climb the CN tower, but I am sure this is not possible. I think I would get stuck below the platform. Although on some buildings there is a beam, which is perfect because it is spectacular, and even though it may be easy, if it is overhanging people think it is difficult.[In 1986 “Spider” Dan Goodwin climbed the CN tower as part of the 10th anniversary, but only to the base of the platform. There is a plaque commemorating his climb in the platform visitor center.]
On March 31, 2006 Alain appeared before a Houston court. He was convicted of trespassing and fined $2000, plus time served. All drug charges were dropped upon presentation of a valid prescription. Visit Alain’s official website www.alainrobert.com.