The Alain Robert Interview
Somewhere in a posh Vancouver television studio, a motley group of people are gathered. Four red leather couches face inwards, a coffee table sits in the middle. On one couch, four bikini clad girls are primping themselves. On another, an African dancer and a stand up comedian are finding common ground. On a third, sits a smallish Frenchman with long hair, the busted up face of a hockey player, and red leather pants that disappear into the couch. I sit on the fourth, taking it all in. The Frenchman leans over and asks me, "what's with the girls?" I tell him they are modeling swim-wear for the TV variety show he is about to appear on. “Models? Those aren’t models. In France we reserve that word for the really beautiful girls like Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford”. He is talking rather loud, and I hope to God the "models" can't hear us. Meet Alain Robert, the elite solo climber from France the world has come to know as Spiderman. Alain has climbed over 70 of the world's tallest skyscrapers, including Sears Tower, the Golden Gate bridge, Petronas Twin Towers, Taipei 101, the Sydney Opera House, and the Eiffel Tower. At 43 years old, with 4 skyscraper ascents to his name in the last six months, he shows no sign of slowing down. His 110 lb frame has endured more broken bones and trauma than doctors would deem humanly possible -- given his profession and past, it is truly a miracle that he is alive today. But today Alain isn't climbing anything. Today, Alain is on a whirlwind tour of Vancouver media appearances. Although he did offer to climb the TV studio building, which happens to be Vancouver's tallest skyscraper, for a small fee.
Do you plan to climb anything while in Vancouver?
No, if I climb anything in Vancouver I’m sure I am going to have some trouble. Years ago I climbed something in Montreal and I had some trouble. 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 US. People think that I climb a building and that is all, but really that is just the start of the process. I suppose I could contact goldenpalace.com, but it’s too cold to climb anyway.
Alain attempted this tower twice before successfully climbing it. On his previous attempts, his feet cut loose at 50m above ground, causing him to barn door. Luckily he was able to remain composed enough to descend. On his third attempt he wrapped his climbing shoes in tape, making the foot jams easier. Framatome, Paris. August 14th 1998
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 one of the media, most likely Fox News, called the police on the eve of the ascent. In the morning there were over 50 cops waiting for me from 6:00am. My meeting with the media was at 9:30am, but still I try you know. I dash outside of the cab and I run like a mad, and finally I get caught. I was quite stupid, because I was so focused on the story, that 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, he stopped the car in front of another car, and 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. 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. But this time I contacted Fox News, which was a mistake.
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 suffer from 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 was a real bitch. She wanted 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 know he is not trying to defend the criminal of the century, just Mr. Spiderman.
Alain trying out some holds. TD Tower, Vancouver. February 25th 2006
Is climbing buildings always illegal?
No, I will climb a building if given permission. 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.
You are able to make a living at this?
Yes. Famous rock climbers are only in the climbing magazines. Climbing magazines are small and pay peanuts. Me, I get photos in Times, CNN, BBC, Reuters, AP, all the major publications; but not climbing magazines. Many of these climbing publications are too narrow-minded. They look at me climbing a building and say, “that’s not climbing.” What is it then? But I don’t mind. The major publications pay much more.
So you make money selling pictures and stories to news agencies?
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.
Do you have any rock climbing sponsors?
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. But 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?
No not really. I get offers, but mainly for stunt work, which pays peanuts. 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 000US -- 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 would 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 really like to follow the routes -- I like to go wherever I want. Most people, they 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.
"Please offer this table to our customers with disabilities." Vancouver. February 24th 2006
You've had a few serious falls in your career.
Well 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. I went out and looked, and 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 in Taipei that I was well enough to climb it.
How was the climb?
Quite dirty and difficult, but still I did it. This was two days before the Tsunami.
Have you completely recovered from your injuries, or do some things still bother you today?
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?
Yes and no. I have a card that I use for parking. But usually, because I am having a nice car, [Alain drives an Audi TT] people are tripping. But then I take out the card and show them, and they say, “oh sorry I didn’t realize.” But you know, 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 they look at me and say, “OK we are paying this guy and we see him on TV climbing, what’s the deal?”. So now I just use it to park my car.
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.
Alain breaking free. The two men holding back the security guard are Alain's own "personal security", hired after Alain was battered by guards on a previous attempt. TFI Tower, Paris. June 1995
What was the hardest climb you’ve ever done?
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 20 minutes to 4 hours. I spent four hours on 101 building in Taipei, which is just over 500m.
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. You know 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.
If I remember correctly, you also got stuck about halfway up 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. So I said OK, I’ll climb today. I have a funny story about this climb. 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. When I drove near the building, there were police and everything. So the next day when I went to climb I was hidden in the trunk of the car.
Were you arrested after your attempt?
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 sue me for 50 000 GBP. They took out one of the biggest lawyers in London. Finally they decided on a permanent injunction, that 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 GBP.
Are there any 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 US. 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.
Alain 20 minutes later. TFI Tower, Paris. June 1995
What's the worst jail you’ve ever stayed 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 pushup competitions with the guys in the gym. I could do around 100, and they called me “Little Schwarzy.”
That was 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 in Sausalito, it 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, but 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?
You know the 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. Of course I have done this move on more difficult cliffs, but only once on a building.
Have you ever used suction cups?
I used them once in Doha, Qatar. They are a little scary, I don’t like them very much. I use two suction cup units -- one for the hands and one for the feet. But you know, more and more people are asking me to climb buildings which are completely impossible. Like 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. But for that money, you cannot say no.
Calico Building, New York. October 1995
The suction cups I bought are not very good. There are 3 pads per suction cup, and each pad holds about 30 kilo. There was a better model, which held 60 kilo 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.
Does dust pose a problem when free 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 degrees, 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, have you ever lost feeling in your fingers?
For me the cold is not much of a problem. Cold with wind is a problem, because I cannot warm up my hands. For me -20 degree with wind is worse than -40 degrees. I had this problem once when I was in New York to check the Twin Towers, this was in 2000. It was very cold and I couldn’t feel my fingers. I spent 10 days checking everything, and then returned home as it was too cold to climb. I rescheduled to climb the towers a year later, but I got fucked by the Taliban.
I made a "Climb Buildings" sticker [I give Alain a handful]. My original idea was to put "Climb Buildings, Before They Are All Gone".
You know this is a great idea. For sure I am going to use them. On my next ascent in Paris, I am going to put one on the building, and I will tell the police, “look at it, I am climbing because there is a sticker that says 'Climb Buildings',” and make a joke out of it.
Alain playing on La Villa.
What do you do for training?
I have a climbing wall in my house that I practice on. It goes up one wall, across the ceiling, and down the other. 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.
Your family climbs as well?
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 anybody.
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 buildering projects do you have planned for the future?
I plan on climbing a building in Barcelona. I am planning to climb something in New York in June, but I have to choose whether to try the climb again in Houston, or whether I am doing the one in New York. I know 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.
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. ArdArvin is the founder of buildering.net.