Guts, grip and gumption

Vertigo, 60% disability, a five-day coma, arrests, near-fatal falls -- Alain Roberts isn't your average climber. He tells Fiona Fernandez about why he feels alive every time he reaches the top of a manmade monument

"I take it one step at a time. Honestly, it's always a good feeling at the end of it. If it's a difficult climb, I focus on my target. I don't have much time to think about falling or dying. All that matters is the short perimeter around my limbs," 49 year-old Alain Robert is giving us a slice of his average day in the office. Speaking to us from France through his thick, accented English; we are able to get a sense of what life is for this Urban Spiderman, as he is popularly recognised around the world.

Alain's youngest son Lucas learns to climb as soon as he can walk

Daredevilry, my middle name
Robert overcame vertigo, numerous injuries that have left him 60% disabled, survived a 15-metre fall to land in a five-day coma, several arrests for illegal climbs atop some of the world's tallest urban landmarks. At last count, he scaled 85 manmade structures.

"In 1982, I fell twice from heights of 15 metres. After the second fall that year, I slipped into a five-day coma. The doctors said I wouldn't climb again. As a young boy I was afraid of heights. I overcame the fear when I slowly began to climb craggy cliffs near my home and later, scaled the French Alps.

When I fell, I was a 19 year-old gutsy youngster. Naturally, news of my condition came as a huge shock," recalls Robert of the life-changing instance where he had to make a choice. Thankfully, in his case, he took a risk, and it paid off -- "I realised that if I could succeed, all those years ago as a young boy, why not now.

I needed to find the truth for myself. I wasn't sure if I would be as good as before. But I wanted to try, so I gave it a shot." As it turned out Robert recovered to become a better climber. "Never on earth did I imagine such a comeback," the million-mile distance doesn't hide the excitement in his voice. 

Robert took to climbing at a young age, purely as a means of recreation and soon enough, he was scaling exterior walls and buildings in the neighbourhood. His physical conditioning from an early age saw him never have to use a rope and instead, make use of the small protrusions of walls and windows during his climbs. While on his climbs, he usually carries chalk powder to absorb sweat from the hands.

Get a grip
"Scaling the 443-metre-high Sears Tower in Chicago in 1999 remains his most difficult climb. During the ascent, everything depends on the ledges on the window frame and in this case, these were quite small. 70% of me believed I could stay alive while the remaining 30% said I might fall or worse, die. I wasn't sure I would succeed.

I felt as if I had put my life in danger. But then, I came alive once again after reaching the top," reveals Robert of this death-defying climb. In fact, what didn't help matters during as he scaled the 108-storey building was a thick fog that covered the glass and metal panel of the outer wall, making the walls treacherous to grip on to.

His scaling of the 452-metre-high Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur on the third attempt in 2009 was another life-changer -- "I attempted to conquer it in 1997 and 2007 but couldn't complete it because of legal issues. I didn't want to land up in a Malaysian jail -- those can be quite scary!" While the plan was to reach the last floor, he didn't think he had it in him to reach the absolute top, "I thought it be impossible to scale. So when I touched the spire, I had to pinch myself to believe I had conquered another landmark."

In India, Robert scaled the 100-metre-high Amanora Tower in Pune in 12 minutes flat! "I would love to scale some of your country's tall landmarks; I need to get my research in place before I play Spiderman in your part of the world." Who needs Peter Parker?

Vertical limits
Some of Alain Robert's climbs over the world's most famous landmarks
Sydney Opera House, Sydney (1997): 65 metres
Eiffel Tower, Paris (1996/7): 313 metres
New York Times Building, New York  (2008): 228 metres (unfurled a global warming banner and was arrested by the police)
Empire State Building, New York (1994): 381 metres
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (1996): 227 metres
Singapore Flyer, Singapore (2010): 165 metres
Taipei 101, Taiwan (2004): 508 metres
Burj Khalifa, Dubai (2011): 828 metres

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