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 beguiles me. But she is a complex character who can turn in an instant. As I take in her alluring lines I can’t help but notice she is half-devil too. The black silhouette of the she-devil fills the overcast dawn sky and glares down at me. Her dark skirts, her hunched shoulders… Perched menacingly upon her crown, a pair of radio and television antennae form her satanic horns. How dare I try to mount her? She’s not that kind of girl. Just because she is dark and demonic doesn’t mean she is available to this foolhardy Frenchman or to anyone else. I know she will not make it easy for me, that I will have to earn it.
But then, before my eyes, she takes on a gentler angelic persona. She allures me. Does she blush a little with the gentle approach of the sunrise? It is hard to tell with this one, but I know that as a demi-angel she will also protect her virtue against my passions. She wavers back and forth just like a true woman. Half angel, half devil… I am attracted by both.
As I approach her sheer glass walls I am almost overwhelmed by the anticipation of a fierce battle. I know this will be my toughest urban climb yet and I will need to fight hard to see the rising sun set tonight. I feel the hairs prickle on the back of my neck, my heart pounding faster. As I approach I seem to shrink, becoming increasingly insignificant before this giant.
The horns of the she-devil are lost as I pace down South Wacker Drive. This is the only face of the building that I can climb, since it is the only side which leads straight up to the 110th floor. I will need to climb in the middle third of the building since it juts in with recesses on either side further up. To climb a face which is set back would allow me to rest before taking on the next leg, but of course it is the perfect way to get arrested and I have no intention of risking that. This escalation will be extreme and my concern had twisted into fear. Earlier I had called Nicole and told her of my state of mind. But as usual, she was more confident than me that I would succeed, and she reminded me of all number of positive things that meant I could make it.
It is 5:43am and I am poised like a sprinter in the starter’s blocks. I just have to wait two minutes now as I know that at 5:45 the security guards change shifts. When the shift ends I will have two minutes alone for me to start my climb unmolested.
At exactly 5:45am the guards leave their posts and enter the building. For a moment the Sears Tower is unguarded, and apart from gentle birdsong, the streets are silent and deserted with not even a breeze. The coast is clear. Quickly I steal my opportunity and cross the road. I check left and right and then start climbing the Sears Tower in a relaxed, comfortable way. The first 15 metres are going to be complicated as I need to climb onto the roof of the main entrance, virtually under the noses of the new shift of security guards who could emerge for work at any moment. I must get away from my exposed position near the ground as fast as I can. With so much glass I am totally exposed to anyone inside the wide entrance lobby should they look towards the glass doors. The first few seconds are critical as I don’t want to get collared before the ascent has even started.
The main entrance is tricky as I must pull myself up sheer glass onto an elongated triangular hood sheltering the entrance doors. It is not especially easy to navigate but I get around it and make it onto the top.
Now I am off the ground I can start ascending the sheer walls. Although I am on top of this glass veranda, I am not safe yet as I am still plainly visible to the whole lobby. I have to make a good ten metres before I pass out of view. Briskly but securely I scale the vertical glass walls by gripping the panes at their edges and driving upwards with my slippers. I do so with barely a second to spare, because just as I reach the safety zone I see the guards marching through the lobby. Although I can still be seen from inside, I am high enough that they don’t tilt their heads up to view me. Below, a line of guards files out the doors. But it is still quite dark and the veranda partly shields me, plus I am quite well obscured against this ebony tower. Oblivious, and resigned to their daily routine, they split to take their posts. Well guys, I am going to liven your day up a little. Soon you’ll be having your most eventful shift for a while!
My lawyer George Andrew is already in place nearby and looking up at me. He is ready to talk to the cops when the alarm is raised, which surely must be happening very soon. But by now I am away from the guards and steeled with determination. The doubt of the past few days is left on the pavement and I feel more like a tiger than the humble little mouse I was just a few minutes ago. Fire gushes through my veins now in place of apprehension.
I feel great and keep climbing, clearing several more floors. The escalation is proving to be quite difficult though, as during my trial runs I had only climbed two or three metres, making it impossible for me to gauge how I would feel climbing a substantial section of vertical glass. How will I feel after almost half a kilometre of this? I know already that I will be fatigued. I look for a rhythm but it doesn’t immediately come.
Soon I hear agitated yelling below me as the security guards become aware that a figure is moving up the side of their building. As I survey the scene below I see George Andrew in the blood orange sunrise strolling calmly towards the guards to explain the situation. A few listen, hands on hips, while the others tear around pointing fingers and gesticulating. There is more yelling and anger, directed at me though, not at George.
On many of my climbs my partners-in-crime or associates have been set upon by angry security guards keen to vent their anger on someone, but in the USA no one dares assault a lawyer – even though they seem to be as universally disliked in this country as tax inspectors or traffic wardens in other parts of the world. I admit I am perplexed about this American penchant for hating lawyers; it must be something uniquely cultural. In the majority of American sitcoms I have seen, the lawyer is portrayed as a slimy and greedy weasel free of ethics. I wouldn’t say that describes George Andrew who seems to be in control of things down there. I allow the minor distractions beneath me to dissipate from my thoughts.
I continue applying my technique – wedging my bound fingers and the tips of my toes hard into the edges of the window frames and pushing upwards with my feet, pane by pane. Quickening and slowing my pace I try to find the harmonics of the Sears Tower so I may move in tandem with them.
I try to find a wise and steady rhythm, but after half an hour I am still having difficulty finding it. The movement I am using is physically draining and even quite painful. My fingertips are bruising as I ram them into the slender gaps, but still I am progressing well and the pavement has already sunk away from me. In the periphery of my vision I notice the subdued flicker of the flashing lights of emergency vehicles reflecting off the glass. A look down reveals an ambulance, a fire engine and a couple of cop cars plus a bunch of people gathering. All seem to be pointing or looking upwards. Some of them look like commuters on their way to work who have stopped to catch the Alain Robert breakfast show. I can only assume that my lawyer is in there handling the cops.
After a dozen more floors I pause for rest and observe that I am now slightly higher than the Citicorp Citibank building that I climbed five years ago. This means I must be approaching the midway point. Encouraged, I feel glad to have made this benchmark, but a glance upwards reminds me that the distance above me is still absolutely huge. The set-back sections jut inwards on either side above me and the lines of the centre of my path converge on a distant point. It is an awesome and breathtaking sight. My next target is to match the height of the next tallest building not far from the Sears, 311 South Wacker Drive. Once I draw level with that I will have climbed 293 metres. That milestone will give me a boost but it will still mean I have another 150 metres to go…
I push on to my next target, sweating and grunting. I am fighting very hard to keep my rhythm and once in a while I am forced to stop to rest. I grip the window groove in one hand by the tips of my fingers, then shake my free forearm to banish the accumulated lactic acid. I peer around to survey the skyline and I am quite happy with my progress, but when I behold the task ahead of me it is still overbearing. Very few of my escalations have ever got this high and virtually none have been so technically demanding. If I complete this challenge this will be the highest building I have ever climbed. The Petronas Towers were recently completed and took the title the year before, but of course I was intercepted at the terrace 80 metres shy of the top and never made it to the summit. Technically this building, with its sheer glass and lack of texture, is immeasurably more difficult. The Petronas Towers have struts and ledges to grasp onto, with ample opportunities to rest. The towers also curve gently inwards toward the spires at the summit, providing support for the climber underfoot. In contrast the Sears is a mirror of featureless black glass, with only narrow grooves around the window panes for grip. The unyielding structure is bolt upright all the way to the top. It is completely flat! Naturally that makes it a lot more tiring.
I flick off the lactic acid in my other arm and resume the climb. But now I have moderated my technique a little and I do not squeeze my fingers into the groove with too much strength, as this is both tiring and taxing on the flesh of my fingers. By now I have settled into my stride and have finally found my rhythm. I am totally focussed on my target. I neither think nor feel. I am like a climbing machine. The building and I are one. Steel and glass, skin and muscle, both fuse into one entity, one being. It is as if we were both created for this moment, this intense present tense. I barely notice the presence of helicopters for the live TV news channels buzzing around the Sears Tower, nor the sirens of the fire trucks and cop cars 200 metres below. I sense the rotating blades of the choppers as they hover nearby but they do not perturb me. It is something akin to the background conversation in a restaurant.
One hand up, fingers wedged, the other hand up, fingers wedged, foot up, toes wedged, push through the foot… metre by metre… floor by floor… total concentration. I am completely alone up here and this is terrific! As I climb ever upwards I am really enjoying the ascent, especially now I have perfected my technique. I know exactly how to jam my fingers and feet in the narrow grooves so I do not tire or hurt myself with each move as I did for the first half of the escalation. I can use precisely the right pressure for a firm but gentle grip.
As I ascend I have to solve various problems as the structure is not regular or uniform all the way up. Sometimes my fingers are not well accommodated by the grooves around the panes or else I encounter difficulties getting my toes into the gaps and need to improvise.
Another positional check and I realise I have exceeded 311 South Wacker Drive and must be a shade above 300 metres! Less than 150 metres remain between me and the top. With two thirds of the escalation behind me, my confidence rallies. I know the home straight will be arduous but I still feel in decent shape and know that despite my mounting fatigue I have a very decent chance of making it to the top.
I climb another two floors, taking care with my feet at this irregular juncture. I am now entering the more dangerous section of the climb. After a while, a climber can’t help but tire physically and mentally, and this is when he starts to make mistakes. I have toiled long and hard but still I am nowhere near the summit. Only now do I really appreciate the enormity of this climb. I try to maintain precision in my technique and concentration but it is getting harder. As each floor passes my strength is sapped a little more, but I remain positive and determined.
I am not sure how high I am but I know by now I have climbed higher than I ever have on a building. I am entering new waters. Maybe another 20 storeys or so remain? As I grab the structure, suddenly one of my feet betrays me and slips a little! For a chilling split second I have the heart-stopping sensation that I am falling. But at the crucial moment I am able to react. In a flash I tighten all my muscles simultaneously, arresting the slip before my foot leaves the pane and the rest of me with it. In the blink of an eye I somehow avoid utter catastrophe. Shock sweeps through me. Fuck! What was that?
I check out the glass panes and see that the building is dusted in a fine layer of damp… Almost invisible, this condensed layer of vapour took me totally by surprise. When rock climbing, a climber receives advance warning signals from his cliff. Limestone for example is quite white and when it gets wet it darkens significantly to a muddy brown, giving the climber ample notice to take extra care. In such circumstances you are not surprised by the dampness – you can see it. But glass and steel are impervious to moisture and do not react to it, giving no clues as to its presence. You just can’t see it until the later stages when it is sodden and pools into droplets on the surface.
I check my airborne surroundings and notice mists. No, not mists. Clouds! Around me float the gentle swirls of stratus fractus clouds which are subtly encircling the peak of the building. As I watch, a grey layer of stratus nebulosis seems to drop, to leave ghostly mists smothering the summit.
There is no doubt that this is a very, very serious development. The clouds pose a considerable dilemma. A wet building is difficult if not impossible to climb. Glass is one of the worst surfaces imaginable when in contact with even the slightest moisture. Unlike rock, water just sits on top of it, lubricating the surface like oil – and I am hanging onto a 442-metre wall of glass.
The grey sky exhales its damp breath like a curse all over the upper floors of the Sears Tower. Climbing further would be unwise in the extreme. I should reverse out of this deadly zone but it is far too late to climb down, there’s no way I would make it. Cold fear wells up within me. There is no escape. But I have to avoid panic, and instead concentrate acutely on the side of this building and think fast. I rack my brains to think of another strategy, but can find none. It’s a long way up… and an even longer way down. Clouds above, tarmac below. That’s my choice. I peer up once more and note with an awful empty feeling that the clouds now obscure the summit of the Sears Tower. The building must be drenched. My chalk will be useless. My feet will be skating around on a vertical ice rink. A second pulse of fear swells through me, shooting out of my kidneys and surging through my veins. I freeze.
I am petrified and at a loss for what to do. If I move, I could slip and fall. But I can’t stay here! If I let it, fear will consume me and I shall probably be dead within the hour. I hang onto the building for an eternity, paralysed with fear. I am hoping for a miracle, a blaze of sunlight and a drying wind, but I know it will not come. I am trapped in a diabolical spot.
But my resolve has not totally deserted me and neither has my rationale. It feels like suicide to attempt climbing into the clouds but I know I have enough stamina to put up a fight and I will fight to the end, whether that means reaching the top or, more likely, falling to my death. If the Sears Tower is destined to become my glossy ebony tombstone then so be it. But not yet. I am still very much alive. As I accept my fate, my fear mutates and distorts into something more useful. I draw a deep breath and climb upwards.
Slowly… painstakingly slowly… my focus is absolute. With utmost delicacy I see if I can make the next floor. Right now that is all I can realistically aim for, all I can hope to achieve, but I’ll settle for that.
I barely dare to push against the building and try