Alain Robert “French Spider-Man”: The Bad Boy of Climbing
Published on: 03/26/2023
Note: Alain Robert recently gave a unique interview to Climbing House’s Owen Clarke. Check it out!
The small yet ever-expanding world of rock climbing has made significant strides into the mainstream in the last few years. It may have all started with the glorious ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015 by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. Their historical feat was on the front page of the New York Times and led to shaking hands with then-US president Barack Obama and a blockbuster documentary of the same name.
More recently, the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo about Alex Honnold put the spotlight on a very controversial style of climbing: free soloing or climbing without a rope. Interestingly, it also introduced rock climbing enthusiasts to a name they may not have heard in this context before: Alain Robert. Indeed, the divide between rock climbing and buildering (scaling buildings) is such that most people probably heard his nickname, the “French Spider-man”, in relation to a jaw-dropping building climb without realizing the man is no stranger to rock climbing.
Indeed, before switching from rock to metal and concrete, Alain Robert was one of the most accomplished rock climbers in the world. Read on to discover his most extraordinary climbs and some unique insights into his philosophy and motivations.
Alain Robert was born in 1962 in France where he spent his childhood. He has described himself as “scared child” who was terrified of death and used climbing to dominate his fears. When he was eleven, he climbed without any protection the seven-story building where he lived with his parents because he had forgotten his keys (1).
As a teenager, he admired great mountaineers like Walter Bonatti and Reinhold Messner, which led him to start rock climbing in the Vercors and Ardèche in 1975. At the time, Alain Robert practiced sport climbing, a form of roped climbing where climbers clip themselves to anchors as they ascend. A couple of years later, he started ditching the rope to do free solo, a highly dangerous discipline without any protection.
Rock Climbing Exploits
The nineties were a prolific time for Alain Robert with audacious ascents like La Nuit du Lézard (5.13c/8a+) in Buoux, l’Abominable Homme des doigts (5.12c/7b+), l’Abomifreux (5.12d/7c) and l’Abominafreux (5.13a/8a).
In 1991, he forever marked free solo climbing history with Compilation (Omblèze, France), considered the first-ever 5.13d/8b free solo.
Also, despite its lower grade (5.13a/7c), Pol Pot in the Vergon Gorge is another incredible free solo ascent that Robert considers one of the highlights of his rock climbing career (2).
How Good Is Alain Robert in Rock Climbing?
There are a few things to consider to appreciate the significance of Alain Robert’s rock climbing accomplishments. As free solo climber Alex Honnold pointed out (3), an important one is the “cutting edge” level of free climbing at the time.
To put things in perspective, we had to wait 2001 for the first-ever consensus-based 5.15a/9a+ with Chris Sharma’s redpoint of Realization/Biographie at Céüse, France. This means that Alain Robert at 8b was climbing only a few grades below the hardest “roped” climbs of the mid-90s, all while free soloing.
As Alex Honnold puts it: “Totally outrageous!”
Alain Robert vs. Alex Honnold: Who’s Better?
People love to compare climbers to finally settle who’s the best ever. However, it’s far from easy and if you ask any experienced climber, they’ll probably tell you something along the lines of “it depends”.
Besides the era (the hardest grade right now is 9c/5.15d with Adam Ondra’s Silence), there are many factors to compare climbs, as pointed out by Owen Clarke in his article on the hardest climbs in the world. One of them is the length of the climbing route.
Alex Honnold’s Free Solo route, Freerider, on El Capitan is rated 5.12d/7c. However, we wouldn’t want to start comparing it with Alain Robert’s climbs: Freerider is a staggering 2,800 ft/884 m long composed of 33 pitches. It took Honnold 3 hours and 56 minutes to summit what takes several days for “regular climbers” (4).
Less known to the public who witness Alain Robert’s extraordinary art performances on the world’s tallest skyscrapers with amazed and frightened eyes is that he’s disabled to a level of 66% from several falls.
Ironically, the most dramatic one wasn’t while free soloing but rappelling. He fell 50 ft/15 m head first when the knot of his rope got loose as he was trying to help children. He spent a week in a coma and was told by doctors that he would never climb again. This was in 1982. Since then, he suffers from vertigo, epilepsy, and joint problems, but pushes forward, as demonstrated by the many breathtaking climbs he went on to accomplish.
Transition to Buildering
In 1994, Alain Robert went to Chicago to shoot a movie and was hooked on the new world of urban climbing:
“The city of Chicago had just opened a door to a whole new universe, a range of mountains of steel and glass.”
From then on, he started to regularly show up at dawn at the foot of the most stunning buildings in the world, quickly slipping past security with only a pair of climbing shoes and a small bag of chalk for equipment. The legend of the French Spiderman was born.
Why Alain Robert Climbs Buildings
Understanding his fascination for human-made buildings instead of mountains sprouted from Earth’s bosom is puzzling. While most people try to escape the city and recharge in nature at some point, it seems Alain Robert is fascinated by its potential as a gigantic stage where millions of spectators can witness his spectacular ascensions.
“I feel higher on skyscrapers than in nature. In the middle of a city, we evaluate distances better. We have reference points: humans, vehicles that become smaller and smaller, and the noise that reduces. In Verdon, the sight is the same wether you’re at 100 or 200 meters.”
Perhaps the most important motivation of Alain Robert is his desire to wrestle the skyscrapers as “sh*tty symbols” of the authority they represent.
And yet, he obviously respects these metal and concrete structures. Just like in the song of the Velvet Underground Who Loves the Sun, where Lou Reed wonders whether anyone else pays attention to the foremost element of our life, we might ask who but Alain Robert appreciates the surface of the buildings that surrounds us. Who cares like him that a panel is a dodgy handhold or that a specific ledge has been accidentally engineered to enable climbing footwork?
Style & Personality
Narcissistic attention-seeker or punk artist on a mission to rescue us from the dullness of modern-day society, Alain Robert is undoubtedly a polarizing figure prompt to spark the most heated debates.
Dressed like a rock star—long-hair, cowboy crocodile boots, and leather jacket over his bare chest—he speaks his mind without filter, defusing provocative questions with candor and earnestness, even on Instagram where he replies to many of his followers. For instance, when asked whether he knows that his life could end by slipping on the surface of a building, he simply replies with a big smile: “That’s why I’ll try to place my hands and my feet correctly.” (5)
While some of his declarations may be perceived as bravado by the rock climbing community, he’s built his career and livelihood (e.g., he climbed the Galaxy Macau tower to promote The Amazing Spider-Man 2) based on this unique persona.
In his long career, Alain Robert has certainly crafted a unique style that is akin to a show. He prepares his climb as such, rallying journalists to cover his exploits. Of course, he seldom reveals his exact objectives in advance to avoid being bothered by the authorities, but he makes it known when he’s in town to maximize media turnout!
Many of Alain’s climbs have been done without permission. He jokes that he’s got more arrests in different countries than anyone else. Playing cat and mouse with the police when he cannot get the required authorizations to climb skyscrapers is part of the spectacle. It cemented his legend as a rebel who breaks rules and gets away with it.
Things end well most of the time, like in 1997 in Kuala Lumpur. After his first attempt at summiting the Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world until 2004 (88 floors, 452 m/1,483 ft), he spent five days in a tiny cell before dining with the king and queen of Malaysia. Other times were less glamorous, like when he got beaten by Japanese police officers after reaching the roof of Shinjuku Center.
While some climbs are commercial to pay the bills by promoting brands like Gillette or Samsung, Alain Robert has also used his stunts to defend causes. For example, he unfurled a banner about global warming after scaling the New York Times Building in 2008. More recently (and controversially), he climbed Torre Agbar in Barcelona to protest lockdown measures during the pandemic.
Notable Building Climbs
Since the mid-nineties, Alain Robert has climbed around 170 buildings worldwide (6). Some of the most notable ones are:
- Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
- Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, United Arab Emirates (world’s tallest building)
- Sydney Opera House, Australia
- Montparnasse Tower, Paris, France
- Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Alain Robert would later say that this was his favorite climb because of the beauty of the towers, their height, and the fact that it took him three attempts before succeeding).
- Empire State Building, New York City, United States
- Sapphire Mall, Istanbul, Turkey
Later Years and Return to Rock Climbing
Alain Robert turned 60 in 2022 (he will be 61 in August 2023). He celebrated by scaling the TotalEnergies tower in La Défense, France, to prove that “being 60-year-old is nothing: you can still do sport, be active, and achieve fabulous things.” (7)
Sixty also marked the return of Alain Robert to rock climbing. After “22 years without touching rock”, he free-soloed a route in Verdon again.
One thing is for sure, whatever the future holds for the Iggy Pop of climbing, he’s still got his refreshingly irreverent lust for life!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Alain Robert is 60 years old at the time of this article (March 2023).
Yes, Alain Robert climbed the 2,717-feet/828-meter building in 2011. He had the authorization of the local authorities but was asked to wear a harness for safety.
This is a philosophical question. Why does anyone do anything? On Instagram he recently replied to a follower asking him the same question: “That’s definitely beyond explanation. I’m not asking anyone to understand. I do things and live my life the way I like.” To journalists, he sometimes elaborates further: “I climb after life, I fulfil my dreams.”
Rencontre : Alain Robert, le « Spiderman français » qui n’a peur de rien (retrieved on 03/26/2022)
Vanity Fair (France), June 2020
Alain Robert’s Instragram Page (retrieved on 03/26/2022)
Alex Honnold’s Wikipedia Page (retrieved on 03/26/2022)
Alain Robert’s official website (retrieved on 03/26/2022)
Alain Robert, le «Spiderman français», fête ses 60 ans en escaladant la tour TotalEnergies (retrieved on 03/26/2022)
Le Parisien, Sep 2022 (in French)
With Bare Hands: The True Story of Alain Robert, the Real-Life Spiderman (autobiography)
Alain Robert, July 2010