Adrian Batten spends an illuminating afternoon with Alain Robert, the French Spiderman, as he prepares for a tricky climb in a troubled Hong Kong.
IT is when we live with the reality of our immediate extinction that we live most intensely. As adults most of us would understand if not agree with the statement. And yet we don’t understand, not really. It is a truism, just words. The concept becomes commonplace and two-dimensional. It is only at exceptional moments, when we fall in love, experience catastrophe or face great danger that time slows down and we enter an altered state of heightened reality.
Most of us are neither structured nor wish to live at such intensity. Love settles down or dies. If we survive catastrophe or moments of great danger, the memory fades and life goes on. There are those few of us, rare people who really do manage to lead their lives at this level of intensity. We envy them, even while we lack the desire or ability to emulate them. For us, such people possess a numinous quality conferred by their willingness to risk self-extinction without the desire to achieve it. Quite the contrary in fact, their desire is to live long and do it all . . . full on.
I met and shot the breeze for an entire afternoon with just one such person last month, high up on the Bukit plateau in the windy halls of the Uluwatu Renaissance Hotel. He was Alain Robert, aka ‘the French Spiderman’, who has for the past six years had a home in Bali, where he lives on the Bukit in a house nearby with his Indonesian second wife and their young son.
Alain Robert, aged 57, is a rock climber acknowledged as one of the leading exponents of an elite niche among climbers known as Free-Solo. This means climbing a sheer 300m cliff face alone, unroped and without any mechanical aids. Just you and the rock face, with perhaps a bag of chalk around your waist to dry your hands. Even a short way up in a climb if you fall, you will die.
Climbing in this way is very ancient, arching back to the time when man first went out into the savannahs and raised his eyes up to the mountains. It pitches man against nature in the starkest way possible.
Robert is a small, seemingly slight man just 1.65m (5.5ft) weighing just 50 kilos with straggly shoulder length hair and a prominent Gallic nose that has been broken four times. He has had three serious falls in his career to date. The most serious nearly killed him, leaving him invalided for two years before, quite remarkably, he overcame his disabilities and returned to climbing. Nonetheless, as a result to this day he suffers from vertigo and is prone to epileptic fits.
After a while you notice the pronounced upper body strength and the lithe suppleness of the rest of the man’s body. There is not an ounce of fat on Alain. Which is just as well as he was eating bread, prosciutto and fritto misto all washed down with Chandon Brut for four hours non-stop. His metabolism is obviously that of a 19-year old surfer, not a man three-years shy of his 60th birthday. In appearance he looks like an Apache version of Iggy Pop.
In fact a fortune teller did tell him he was descended from the native Indians of America’s South West. Something he resonates with and dresses accordingly. Once, jailed in his attempt to scale “my Everest”, which is what he calls Kuala Lumpur’s Twin Towers (450m), he went straight from his prison cell by limo to dine with the King of Malaysia in a leotard, bare-chested save for a signature lizard-skin waistcoat. He speaks English fast and well with a pronounced French accent, which can sound opinionated but isn’t, in the light of the humour, street smarts and self-knowledge he brings to his conversation.
As a child Alain was shy and quiet, but in his inner life he was, he said, “D’Artagnan, Zorro and Robin Hood. I identified with adventure and the outlaw spirit”. He still does, adding Che Guevara, the Dalai Lama and Abbé Pierre to his list of icons. Even today 70 percent of his climbs are illegal and he’s been jailed and fined on many occasions. His life changed aged 12 when he was locked out of his parents seventh floor apartment and had to climb up to it. From that day on rock climbing became his life. Before he was 20 he was climbing free-solo and went on to become one, if not the best – in what was to become the purest and most classic form of what we now call extreme sports.
In the mid-1990s Alain was to experience a second epiphany, when he discovered “Buildering”, a clumsy word to describe the niche of niches, that is climbing skyscrapers free-solo. Climbing was Alain’s life and passion, but only when he climbed a skyscraper did it all come into focus. His need for fame and recognition, to attract beautiful women, make pots of money, be accepted by poets, kings and vagabonds, to lead life utterly on his own terms – all came to pass. And to add icing to the cake, all the while supporting progressive causes, the little guy and, best of all . . . giving the finger to power.
Since 1997 Alain has climbed over 160 of the tallest structures in the world’s major cities, most of them illegally. He has fallen, been jailed, fined and punched in the face for his temerity. But the public love him for it, he has tens of millions of hits online and the powers-that-be are conflicted. Some really hate him and try to stitch him up any way they can, while others just “tut tut, bad boy”, fine him a nickel per floor, and invite him to dinner.
Perhaps Alain Robert’s greatest gift to us is his divinely inspired ability to take a big black pin and stick it to the most prominent parts of the Masters of the Universe. He has, to coin a phrase, become the perfect outlaw for our day and age . . . a modern incarnation of the parfit gentil knight of old, the Urban Iconoclast.
Recently Alain has turned to motivational speaking. He’s good at it and has successfully added a second income stream to his sponsored climbs. At age 57 this is a smart move but he’s not about to give up climbing. With a man this fit he could go on well into his 70s. Along with the ready opinions and obvious intelligence there is a vulnerable quality to the man and he is easy to like, so one fears for him. We root for him and want him to go on doing what he does so well, and . . . we want it to end well too.
Alas, what we want is irrelevant. In the great scheme of things, the act is supernal and the effect numinous. That’s the way of it, it couldn’t be other. “Most people dream their lives, I live my dream”, says Alain.