Extreme urban climber Alain Robert is in Hong Kong this week to give a talk at the Royal Geographical Society (6:30pm, Tuesday Jan 25th, details at the link). This reminds me to post an excerpt from his hair-raising autobiography With Bare Hands.

Alain has made a career out of thumbing his nose at the authorities and doing what people tell him is either illegal or impossible or both. In this excerpt from Chapter 10, we find him preparing to climb the world’s tallest building, unaware of the deadly surprise that awaits him at the top…

In the clouds: Alain's elevated position is marked with a red circle

Fears and the Sears

The second ascent I made in Chicago was very special, one that still gives me goose-bumps when I look back on it. Before the Petronas Towers claimed the title, the Sears Tower in Chicago had stood as the world’s tallest building since 1973. And what an incredible tower it is! Not just for its height and pure presence, but for its unique design. The Sears Tower is square at its base but as it climbs it tapers inwards with several receding tiers to leave the segmented core standing proudly clear of the impressively aerial city of Chicago. Cloaked in villainous black, there is more than a hint of Darth Vader about this awesome monster.

The first time I laid eyes on the building it never occurred to me to climb it. That was back in 1994 when I was climbing my first building for that Sector documentary, the climb that inadvertently started it all. At that time it was still the tallest building in the world and I was hugely impressed. Even before I got to the Sears I was astounded by the height of the other buildings in Chicago, and also taken aback by the completely vertical nature of them. The sheer glass fascinated me. But standing at 442 metres with 109 floors – or 110 if you count the mechanical penthouse – the Sears Tower was the zenith of the world’s skyscrapers.

I remember I was especially aroused by its height when I visited the Observation Skydeck on the 103rd floor to find a building to climb for Sector. From my vantage point 412 metres up I could look down on a multitude of monoliths, as if I were sitting in an aircraft. Back then I was very much afraid of the prospect of climbing anything man-made and I was not as proud as I am now. Never in a million years would I have believed that anyone could climb that building – and I would have been astonished if I were to find out that the person who would attempt to climb it solo would be me!

But the Citicorp Citibank Building tipped the first domino and led me on a journey all over the world. Over the years, my confidence and ambitions grew and my eye turned towards the irresistible Sears Tower. I made five trips to the city to research the building. I kept delaying ascending it as I would decide it was too risky, too dangerous – but I would always come back for another look. I studied its structure with binoculars from the pavement or from neighbouring buildings, or indeed from inside the Sears Tower itself. I would approach it stealthily at night like a cat burglar and make a few quiet trial climbs at the lower levels to try to crack its code. By night I would study the shift patterns of the security teams and monitor the security cameras to probe for weaknesses. Watching the cameras is fair game, I believe, since they are always watching us. If they have the right to watch us, follow us, snoop around trying to work out what we are doing and where we are going, then I claim the right to do the same in reverse.

On top of my surveillance I had to canvass legal opinion around town to find a good lawyer willing to defend me. Step by step, my dream started to emerge as a possibility. As time passed I peeled further layers of wrapping paper off the Sears Tower and after exhaustive research I became convinced that it was technically possible to do it. It took time to get to this point. In fact it took five years of research and preparations before I was eventually comfortable enough to consider climbing it. Even though I knew it was a technical possibility I was still intimidated by the scale of the challenge – 442 metres plus the difficulties I knew I would face on the way up! This would put my other escalations in the shade. And I could not escape the hard truth that the nature of the technique I would need to employ, coupled with the scale of the tower, could well end with my defeat.

But there is something fabulous about continuously working towards your wildest dream. My relationship with the Sears was a love affair involving five years of flirtation and admiration, five years of passion and yearning. But as with true love, one is happy to wait. One wishes to prolong the intoxicating courtship so that when the magical night does arrive, when one finally gets one’s hands on a lover, to explore her and reach those dizzying heights, it is beautiful, meaningful, perfect. I was in no rush to conquer my beloved. In between trips to Chicago I would climb buildings around the world to prepare myself for the biggest challenge of my life.

Finally I have set a date with my tower. My 747 lands at O’Hare International Airport and I check into a hotel downtown, somewhere I can be close to the Sears. I have waited five years for this, five years of keeping this long-distance relationship going. Everything has been planned meticulously.

In the early hours of the morning I leave the hotel and make my way towards the Sears Tower. I am running through my mental preparations as I approach the giant building in the silence of twilight. I can already see the Sears. What a sight! The black monolith is every bit as daunting as the mysterious black slab of Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact in the silence of the dawn I can hear the rousing orchestral score of that film reverberating in my head as, like a hairy ape in the movie, I dare to approach the monolith and touch it.

I cast my eyes up towards the black beauty, utterly seduced by this angel. Her chastity begui