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Fri 14 Nov 2008 04:00 AM

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Alain Robert: Spiderman

'Human Spiderman' Alain Robert's next challenge is to scale the Burj Dubai, he tells Melissa Sleiman.

He has climbed the world's tallest skyscrapers with his bare hands and has been arrested over a hundred times. 'Human Spiderman' Alain Robert's next challenge is to scale the Burj Dubai, he tells Melissa Sleiman.

Whenever Alain Robert stands on top of one of world's tallest buildings, he feels more alive than ever. Not because the panoramic views tend to make him emotional - rather, he is relieved to be on solid ground again after climbing the skyscraper for hours without protection.

Robert is a so-called ‘free solo climber', someone who does not use protection ropes or cable gear, but instead uses only his bare hands to scale a structure. "You fall, you die," is how the 46-year-old describes his profession. Even a safety net would be useless. "It's like falling into the water from over 50 meters height - you'll end up dead."

Robert has climbed dozens of buildings in the past 15 years. Among them are the five of the tallest buildings in the world, located in China, Malaysia and Taiwan. The latter was then home to the tallest of them all, the Taipei 101 (509 meters height). Other notable climbs include the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Robert's achievements also include a world record for the most extreme solo performance in the gorge of the Verdon (south of France). In 1993, he received an award from the International Olympic Committee for his difficult building ascents. It was handed to him by former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Pretty amazing, considering that Robert was afraid of heights as a child.

"When I was young, I was shy and afraid of everything," Robert tells me. "I dreamt of being an adventurer like my heroes, such as d'Artagnan of the Four Musketeers. So I challenged myself to do something courageous. I realised that I'm responsible for my own destiny.

He secretly learned to climb when he was a boy scout. His parents didn't understand his desire to be a top climber. When he was 12 years old, he did his first building ascent - he climbed eight floors to get home, because he'd forgotten his keys. Later on, Robert started training on cliffs in the south of France, around his hometown Valence.

"I enjoy the thrill of doing something adventurous, the calculated risk," he explains. "The danger is very appealing. If you're in between life and death, you're on the edge. I'm much more an adventurer than a person practising a sport. Actually, I'm even tempted to tell you that I don't like sports!"

Robert took on another challenge from the age of 29 - he shifted to climbing buildings in addition to mountains. He had been approached by Sector, a sporting watches brand and one of the biggest sponsors of adventure sports, and agreed to climb various tall buildings in the United States. The subsequent ascents were filmed as part of a documentary called No Limits.

That was the first time in his life he had seen a skyscraper. He was shocked when he saw the high rise blocks - quite a contrast to the modest heights of buildings in French cities. The prospect of scaling the walls of a Chicago skyscraper chilled him and he decided to check their designs. "First I found it a funny idea to climb them, but I decided to give it a try after I saw that some buildings had ledges and things to hold onto."

Following an outburst of media attention, he soon flew to places all over the world to climb buildings. Often, he aims to raise awareness for a charity or a cause and is hired by an organisation, which in some cases demands that he uses protection ropes. In 1994, he promoted empty flats for the homeless in Paris, in the presence of Bernadette Chirac and Genevieve de Gaulle. In Borneo, he raised over $150,000 for the Sabah Foundation, a government organization aiming for sustainable land allocation.

In the UAE, he works for e-Education Without Borders, a conference promoting the use of modern technology in education. It's hosted by the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), and convened under the patronage of the Federal National Council. Robert will be climbing the Burj Dubai in March to attract attention for an event. "They were looking for inspiring people," explains Robert. "Six or seven students from universities such as Berkeley and Harvard will be attending and I will also give speeches."

Robert has already assessed the Burj Dubai during a holiday in the UAE last week. The structure, now standing at 707 meters height, is expected to be completed in the coming year. "It's a serious ascent," he states.

"It's not completely straight from top to bottom, so I climbed a few meters at different levels of the building. Next year, I'll climb it to the highest floor. But only after they clean it from top to bottom - the building is covered with dust."

It will be Robert's fourth ascent in the UAE. In 2003, over 100,000 people witnessed him climbing the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. Two years later, he reached the peak of the Etisalat building in Abu Dhabi. He did so with the approval from Sheikh Nahyan Mubarak al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Higher Education. In 2007, he climbed the ADIA building.

Robert enjoys his work, and has been cashing in on the adventures as well. So far, he's written three books about his life and appeared in two documentaries. The first documentary was released in 1998 and shown in over 190 countries. The second was made for Channel 4 in the UK. Last month, he was in Los Angeles for the premier of his movie titled ‘The Legend of Spiderman'. He has also climbed buildings to promote the first and second Spiderman movies.

"It's a very good source of income," Robert says about his salary. However, he dismisses reports of having earned tens of thousands of dollars per hour. "That's crazy. It varies from job to job. I negotiate with whomever is hiring me to pay for my efforts, hotels, flights and lawyers."

The latter certainly is a necessity. Robert has been arrested over a hundred times for illegally scaling buildings. "The cops and security are always waiting for me at the top. But it depends on the country what the consequences are for my ascent. In France, it's not a big problem. I'm friends with the head of the police in Paris. In the US on the other hand, they are very strict about the law."

This year, he was handcuffed after climbing the New York Times building and putting up a banner saying ‘global warming kills more people per week than 9/11'. He spent a day in jail and appeared in front of the grand jury court a week later. He wasn't convicted. In December, he has to go to New York for one last charge - being responsible for the police having to close the street with spectators.

"Usually I get charged with criminal trespassing," says Robert. "But you can argue about that. For example, in New York it's not really trespassing if there is no fence around the building. I've started taking a good look at all the laws, because each state has a different law and every time I'm working with a different lawyer."

Still, he has faced some tough times. He has been jailed in China, Malaysia and eight different states in the US. He was beaten after being arrested in Japan - "you have good cops and you have bad cops" - and banned from China for four years. "Although I did get a visa for a week to climb a mountain," he laughs.

He says he doesn't plan on climbing in the business district of London again. He got a lawsuit after climbing the Canary Wharf Tower and faced a fine of 50,000 GBP (US$80,000) unless he agreed never to climb in the area again. He chose the latter. "I'll only do it if the company hiring me agrees to pay the fine."

In some cases, the police and security try to prevent Robert from climbing a building before he arrives in the district. That doesn't stop him from trying, though. "Once, I escaped 150 cops waiting for me at the Elf building in Paris. I hid in a car and waited for a gap between the officers. I jumped out of the vehicle, ran to the building and started climbing. They can't catch you as soon as you've reached a height of two meters - they can just try and grab your ankles."

But although Robert says he feels "like a fish in the water" when he climbs, it hasn't always gone well. He got stuck for thirty minutes when climbing the Arche de la Defense in France and had to be rescued by the fire brigade. "Sometimes, you encounter difficulties you don't expect or the weather conditions are not ideal. I gave up a few times. That was a long time ago.

He has also had three serious accidents in his life. "The worst happened when I was 19 years old," he remembers. "I fell head first from 15 meters height and both my wrists were completely smashed. I broke my skull and both elbows. I was in a coma for 5 days.

"After I woke up, the doctors told me I wouldn't be able to climb anymore. At that time I thought it was true. I was so weak. I couldn't move, couldn't walk, and lost a lot of weight. I still have some bodily restrictions, like in the way I move my wrist or the way I extend my arm. I suffer from vertigo and have trouble with internal hearing. They wrote that I'm 60 percent disabled, but that's just a number - I'm fine."

During rehabilitation, he set targets for himself every few days and progressed slowly. "The funny thing is that less than two years after the accident, I became better than ever at climbing. I'd found a lot of power in that accident. That was a big surprise."

His family supports his decision to be a free solo climber. "Of course they are concerned," says Robert. "But this is my way of living. My wife Nicole and our three boys have an unspoken agreement with me: we don't discuss the topic. They don't interfere in my life and I don't interfere in theirs." None of them climb, but his oldest son is also adventurous - he joined the army.

Robert says he never wanted to give up on climbing, not even after his most serious accident. "Everything I do is a lot of fun. The way I see it, there are people who are surviving instead of living, such as the people working in the offices I climb. They're stuck inside for 12 hours a day. According to me, living until the age of 50 is much better than surviving until the age of 90."

Ron 6 years ago

There is no question Alain is a great climber, and a good entertainer. However, I do have this fear that one day he will make a mistake, and that will be the end of it. Riding a motorbike is much safer compared to what he does but I have friends, just the usual careful riders, that lost their lives due to some rare, one-time error in judgement.