Alain Robert, who sometimes goes by Spider-Man, has for fifteen years been known as a vigilante scaler of skyscrapers. And one morning this June, he grabbed an overhang, pulled himself up from the ground, and without aid of ropes or equipment, began climbing the fifty-two-story New York Times Building. Here he tells GQ how he once again turned the world into his gobsmacked audience
as told to devin friedman
I arrived in New York two days before the climb. On the first night, I was a little bit jet-lagged. I couldn’t sleep. I was staying in a hotel near Times Square, and I was awake, watching the buildings through the windows. I put some clothes on and went outside. It was June, a warm night, I felt good. I decided, Okay, I am going to go for a quick try on the building. It was nearly 2 a.m. The surface of the New York Times Building is covered by ceramic rods that look like a ladder that I could climb up, and I wanted to be sure that they were going to be solid, that they could hold my weight. I took care not to be seen, and I grabbed the lowest rod and climbed up a few meters. I was satisfied, so I went back to my hotel and went to sleep.
I had come to New York two months before the ascent to see the Times Building. I’d been wanting to do an ascent to raise awareness about global warming, and then I read about this building online—I saw that it was quite tall and very easy to climb. I needed it to be easy, because I would need to have my hands completely free so I could tie a banner in the middle of the building. So I scouted the site, and I met with my lawyer. Of course, he advised me not to climb. He said I might be jailed and at least I would be fined. Long ago, the U.S.A. was still a country of freedom. But after 9/11, everything became much more difficult. They have changed their laws. The people are so concerned with terrorists.
I climbed my first building in 1975, and I’ve climbed ninety since—the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower, the Taipei 101, which is the tallest building in the world—and most have been this way, without approval. For me this is much more interesting. I love everything that is a little bit on the edge. I always say I like to kick the ass of society. Because the way that the politicians are driving society now, everything has to do with money, everything has to do with safety. There is no more fun. There is a psychologist who commented on my way of living, in the documentary that was made about me, and he said that historically, life for humans has been dangerous. So humans are not especially looking for extra danger. But with passing time, we have reduced danger to a minimum, and for the majority of people, safety is exactly their aspiration. They don’t want to take any risks. But there is still a category of people, like me, who live on the edge.
The night before the climb, I went to dinner with some friends. But I was not in the mood to chat, to have fun. The night before an ascent you are always living a countdown. I left them at the restaurant and went back to the hotel alone. I slept very well. I woke that morning at five or six. At maybe 10 a.m., I gave a small press conference to some selected reporters at the hotel. I wanted to explain what I was going to do and why I was going to do it: because I believe that global warming is an immense threat that we’re not facing. We didn’t tell them what building I would climb. When we left the hotel, some of the reporters tried to follow us. We escaped by going down through the kitchen, and we took a cab and drove around to make sure we weren’t followed. I arrived at the New York Times Building at close to eleven.
Usually the first few meters of the climb are when someone will catch you, so you must begin quickly. But in this case, it was easy. There was no security nearby. There was no need even to jump to start the climb. The access to the first ceramic is right there. It’s like a ladder. I climbed to a small roof, two or three meters above the street. Then I grabbed the next rod and it’s a straight shot all the way to the top.
Once I start my ascent, I forget the cops or the security people. I am absorbed by what I’m doing, how to do it safely, what my next move will be. It’s mental as much as physical. I have been climbing free solo (no ropes or harnesses) since 1977. For some reason, I know how to deal with my emotions even though I am facing my own death. There is no space to think about fears.
Each building is different. On a scale of difficulty, 1 to 10, the Times Building is nothing, a 0.5. The Sears Tower is probably the most difficult building I’ve ever climbed. There are only small horizontal crevices. It’s nearly 1,500 feet tall—when you’re only halfway up, you already feel so high—and it’s tiring because you are repeating the same movement the whole way. It’s difficult to rest. And near the top, when I got near the air-conditioning machines, there was a lot of condensation. It was not something I was expecting, it wasn’t visible. I nearly fell. I experienced fear for a split second. It’s always for a split second, and then you are fighting. You fight because you are trying to stay alive. It took me an hour and a half to finish the Sears Tower.
I was enjoying my climb that morning at the Times Building. I looked down—I look down all the time, it’s no problem for me!—and people below were snapping pictures, pointing, laughing. And along the way, I could see the people inside the building. We communicated by signs, thumbs-up—you can’t hear anything, of course. The thing is, people who are working inside the building, sometimes they are not having so much fun. When they see you, it’s like suddenly they are feeling that something unusual has happened. They are seeing a small guy, completely alone, high on a flat surface—I guess they get inspired. There is something different about climbing in New York; 9/11 didn’t change the way the average person looks at buildings in other countries. This is only in New York; people are afraid of being inside a building. They feel like they are inside a target. That’s why I like to change the perspective, make them see a building as something other than something to be trapped in.
When I was about fourteen stories up, I took the banner from under my shirt and tied it. It said global warming kills more people than 9/11 every week.
When I got near the roof, I realized a policeman was waiting for me. He was shouting, telling me to surrender. He was sitting on a beam, wearing three safety lines, and he was still paralyzed by fear. I was very nice to him the whole time—I said I was sorry if I had created a little bit of difficulty. There were five or six other cops waiting for me, and the way that they grabbed me and handcuffed me—they treated me quite badly. With the police, everything depends on the country. I was arrested for the same thing in Moscow. The only difference is that in Moscow, the police commissioner was hugging me. They gave me vodka! Even in China, I taught the police the word freedom and they were shouting “Freedom! Freedom!” without knowing the meaning.
I was arrested at around noon, maybe a little before. I was lucky to have a brilliant lawyer when I went to see the judge that night. He’s defended people from Greenpeace a few times, so he knows what lines you must cross to commit criminal trespass and reckless endangerment, which I did not cross. I had taken plenty of precautions. Instead of climbing above Eighth Avenue, I decided to climb above the smaller side street, 41st Street, so I didn’t create a mess. I avoided rush hour. In the end, I was charged only with a misdemeanor, more of a violation than a crime. Like a parking ticket. I was released at two in the morning. It was too late to celebrate. But the next day, we went to a nice Japanese restaurant and drank a bottle of Dom Perignon.
I’m 46. I’ll climb maybe another four or five years. I have a climbing wall built into the ceiling of my house, where I train, and I can still be upside down for twenty straight minutes, same as I could ten years ago. I have to watch my weight because it’s easy to get heavy at my age—my optimal weight is 110 pounds. But if I could climb until the age of 50 or 51, that would be wonderful. If I can get people to think more about global warming, that would make me very happy. Before I retire, I would like to climb the Burj Dubai, which is going to be completed in 2009 and will be the tallest building in the world. I will be in Dubai soon, so I’m going to have a good look at it. New York I love because it is exhilarating, always alive, it’s like this alive, never-sleeping thing. For me the problem now is if I tried to climb again in New York, they would put me in jail for a year, which I don’t want. But I will find something new. I can’t tell you where; that would spoil the surprise. What’s the fun in that?
devin friedman is gq's senior correspondent..