Spider-Man returns to scale new Dubai heights
DUBAI // Alain "Spider-Man" Robert has survived two comas, three skull fractures and so many nights in prison cells around the world he no longer keeps count.
But those hurdles barely register against the French daredevil's passion for scaling skyscrapers - usually with no rope and no permission.
Alain, 49, has logged 125 towers, including the Burj Khalifa in March last year.
His feats make him one of the few people worldwide who can comfortably put to shame the Hollywood action hero Tom Cruise, who wowed global audiences in last year's film Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol by swinging around the world's tallest tower from a cable.
Alain may also be one of the few with a lower body-fat ratio than that of the movie star.
"I don't understand why we are making such a big, big story out of Tom Cruise," he says. "He did three metres on the building. He was pulled by a cable. Me, I started at the bottom and I went all the way to the top."
Scaling the Burj Khalifa took six hours - two hours more than his second-longest climb. Winds at the top of the 828-metre tower blustered around him at 55kph. For traction, Alain had chalk-covered hands and climbing shoes. He carried a banner of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and the Ruler of Dubai, to unfurl at the top.
But Alain says the Burj Khalifa was nowhere near his most challenging climb because the authorities made him wear a harness before they gave him permission.
"There was no risk," he says.
Permission is a problem that has dogged him in many countries, especially at the start of his career.
In his first major urban climb, the Sears Tower in Chicago, two dozen police officers met him at the top and cuffed him. About two-thirds of the time he climbs without approval.
"I was climbing, I was getting arrested, I was going to jail, I was going to court, I was doing community service," Alain says.
Fellow inmates were often friendly but the jails could be unbearable, with cockroaches and mosquitoes.
Alain began climbing towers in Abu Dhabi in 2003, as a guest of the Education Without Borders (EWB) international student conference.
That year he scaled the National Bank of Abu Dhabi building; then in 2005, the Etisalat building; and in 2007, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority building.
In 2009, his plan to climb Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai was cancelled because of rain.
Alain began eyeing the Burj Khalifa as its opening approached in 2010, but the developer Emaar said no. He pressed but got nowhere.
Then the idea won the backing of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology, which is affiliated with the EWB conference.
Soon afterwards, Alain was given the green light. While in Dubai this week to speak at a conference on facilities management, he will discuss the possibility of climbing the Burj Al Arab hotel and the Princess Tower in the Marina, the world's tallest residential building.
He is also scheduled to scale four buildings in three countries in the next few weeks.
Alain suffers from vertigo and cannot rotate his wrists after a fall when he was 19 that put him in a coma. That was one of the few climbs in which he used a rope. Despite six other serious accidents, he prefers to take his chances. "We are all going the same way," Alain says. "I have seen so many people dying around me, having bad diseases or car accidents.
"I don't want to think that, OK, by not climbing I am going to protect myself or I am going to have a long, long life. Because at the end of the day it doesn't mean anything.
"I prefer to enjoy my life the way I want to enjoy it.
"And by climbing, for me, if one day I fall, this is OK."
Updated: March 13, 2012 04:00 AM