With news that the daredevil climber has scaled a new skyscraper - this time the Melia Barcelona Sky hotel in Spain - we speak to the 54-year-old about his incredible life.
Alain Robert climbed his first building at 11 years old.
He was locked out of his apartment building in Bourgogne, France; his parents hours from coming home.
So naturally, when an obstacle stood in his way, the only choice for the young adolescent boy was to climb the seven story structure using his bare hands.
“Ironically the residence name was L’Oisans, the second biggest mountain in France.”
It was ironic because this particular moment would mark the first of many free-solo ascents Alain would scale in his lifetime, who would go on to be known around the world as the “French Spiderman”: the climber who not only scaled cliffs and mountains, but most notably some of the world’s most towering skyscrapers using only his hands, and a bit of chalk.
“It all started after I saw a movie when I was eight, called “The Grieving Snow” [Translated to “The Mountain” 1956], a film inspired by a novel written by Henri Troyat. It’s about a plane flying from India who crashes near the top of the highest mountain in Europe, where two very talented climbers decide to tackle the massif to seek survivors.
“This movie is how my passion was born. When I saw those two brothers climbing such a giant mountain, I realised it symbolised courage. I was terribly lacking of courage but deep down it was my dream to be as courageous as my heroes Zorro, Robin Hood or D’Aartatgnan. So suddenly, climbing some mountains seemed to be more practical than before.”
From that day Alain began to take rock climbing seriously, growing up with a one-tracked mission to face his fear of heights and pursue the path he found to be most daring.
Clambering up L’Oisans provided a priceless life lesson that would start his career: Alain couldn’t possibly fear the act of climbing, while actually climbing.
He quickly became known for being able to take on some of the most challenging cliffs and routes in the sport– all of which were free-solo, meaning he did not have the security of suction grips, harnesses, ropes, or safety equipment.
But Alain would unfortunately realise that such risky ascents can be coupled with dire consequences.
In 1982 the quick-footed rock climber lost his grip, plummeting a horrific 15 meters from the top of a cliff.
Instinctively, he put his arms in front of him to break his fall onto the jagged rocks at the base of the overhang, shattering his wrist, forearms, and elbows promptly upon impact.
“Other parts were also broken, such as my pelvis, my knee, my ankle and my nose but all of those seemed minor compared to the damage of my wrists. After spending 5 days in a coma, I woke up. Some of top surgeons told me that I wouldn't be able to climb again. But in my mind - I decided that I was not going to listen to those people,” said Alain.
It took the passionate climber two years and significant physical therapy to recover.
Though his injuries didn’t deter him from returning to a life filled with free-solo climbs, it did leave him with a permanent condition.
Because of the head trauma from the fall, Alain would now experience a lifelong battle with Vertigo, an ailment that causes episodes of dizziness when tilting one’s head up or down.
At heights of over 10 m above the ground, an illness that inhibits balance was every rock climber’s nightmare – including Alain’s.
“Instead of crying about everything that I had lost, I decided to optimise what was remaining. This has been my personal recipe. Vertigo is vicious but it doesn't make you fall. You just have to accept that what you are seeing and doesn't reflect reality. It is the most difficult thing and feeling to overcome, but when I look at it, I overcome it because I have come to acknowledge that a lack of balance shouldn’t make you fall.”
Alain’s approach and resilience was admirable.
In fact, it would be the driving force behind his determination to take on some of the world’s most steep and slick peaks: skyscrapers.
Like King Kong, Alain scaled the Empire State building in New York City in 1994; unassisted, unequipped, and illegally.
Though the stakes were higher than ever before (1,454 ft to be exact), it didn’t stop him from reaching the pinnacle of Manhattan.
Using a technique of wedging his fingers in between window sills and stepping on protruding ledges, Alain began a journey that would lead him to achieve not one but three Guinness World Records titles for climbing iconic structures.
“Reaching the top is like starting a new life that you have put momentarily on standby. I call it being a born again.”
That feeling resonated with Alain throughout the next 20 years, as he scaled edifices in several nations around the world - ranging from the Golden Gate Bridge, Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, Willis Tower, The City Tower, Edifico Italia, Portand House, Singapore Flyer, all the way to the National Bank of Abu Dhabi.
His legendary climbs made him the record holder for the Most buildings climbed, pursuing a record breaking 121 buildings and counting since his first in 1994 – all while battling Vertigo.
“Over the last four decades I did learn a lot about my state of mind. I’ve come to know I'm a real fighter and even in the worst critical moments of my life I chose to fight until the end. The matter and the target has always been to stay alive - so by being prepared physically and mentally before a climb, more than half of the job is done.”
Each climb has only taken Alain a few hours at a time, with a 400 m building taking a mere two hours.
Every time Alain climbs such large public structures, he has faced great legal consequences for climbing unauthorised, consequently spending a few nights of his career inside a prison cell for defying local laws.
“I got six days of jail in China, nine days in Tokyo, seven days in San Francisco and so on... The list is long.”
But the worst sentence he braved was when Alain climbed his favourite skyscraper in 2009, the Petronas in Malaysia.
Alain had been strongly advised by lawyers not to pursue the climb; it would mean facing a total of up to five years in prison – a fate not be taken lightly.
It might have been an easy opportunity to turn down had the climber not had unfinished business with the 452 m towers.
In both 1997 and 2007, Alain had attempted to scale the uneven surfaces and grooves of the tower and failed – as it was one of the most articulate and difficult surface areas he had ever taken on.
This time, Alain would not only be climbing for himself - a film crew documenting his journey as the French Spiderman, was preparing to capture his conquest of the iconic building.
The pressure and the prospect was enough to convince Alain that he needed to tackle the Petronas for his own personal victory and peace of mind.
Six hours later, Alain had experienced one of the longest climbs of his career, holding on for dear life despite strong winds threatening to throw his balance towards the last phase of his ascent.
Nonetheless, he came back to ground level a victor, as someone who had yet again defied the odds despite the improbable circumstances.
Just two short years later, Alain decided to put his skills to the ultimate test, and tackle a building of record-breaking proportions.
With the help of a number of diplomatic friends he had made from his famous climbs, Alain received the opportunity and legal permission to clamber up the world’s Tallest building: the Burj Khalifa.
At a height of 829.8 m (2,722 ft), this opportunity would be one of the most tremendous for Alain, or any professional in the field.
“In every sense of the term, it was a big victory, as technically speaking the building is no joke. I finished the ascent at nearly midnight. It was cold with a lot of wind, and the top is so much higher than any other building in Dubai that everything lower seems so small.”
The next day Alain celebrated his accomplishment and new world record by eating at the restaurant located at the top of the skyscraper he just climbed with friends.
In a time of six hours and thirteen minutes, Alain had added another incredible record title to collection, for the Fastest time to climb the Burj Khalifa Tower unassisted.
“Getting a recognition from Guinness World Records is pleasing, rewarding, and meaningful. It’s the kind of accomplishment that has a big impact in people's minds.”
Alain further made history in 2012, when he became the record holder for the Fastest time to climb the Torch Doha unassisted.
In a striking one hour and thirty three minutes, he sped up the side of the 300 m (980 ft) tall tower, covered in windows and smooth paneling wearing no safety harness.
Upon reaching the top of the Torch Doha, Alain was so comfortable that he spent half an hour at the highest point making phone calls and giving an interview to cameramen waiting at the building's peak.
“Climbing buildings has made my life very unusual in a way that I never expected. At the end of the day it is a lot of fun, and has made my life more complete and has given me a real sense of who I am.”
Since achieving these records, Alain has continued to climb iconic buildings, and doesn’t make any plans to stop in the future.
He has recently used the media attention he receives from his famous ascents to raise awareness for causes he feels passionate about, such as global warming.
“Deep down I'm one who likes to realise his dreams no matter the consequences” said Alain, “So I put aside all of my problems and I fight for something I love: climbing, which I have dedicated my whole life to.”