You have heard of bouldering, but perhaps not buildering, in
which climbing enthusiasts scale skyscrapers and other
steel-and-glass Everests, often with nothing more than their bare
hands. You are surely familiar with the world's most famous
builderer, the superhero Spider-Man. That is also the nickname
bestowed upon me by the U.S. media shortly after I climbed my
first skyscraper, in 1994.
I buildered for the first time at age 11, when I forgot the keys
to my family's apartment in Valence, in Southern France. Rather
than wait for my parents to come home, I scaled the building and
entered through the window, seven stories up. Because the
structure was made of stone, the trip was not unlike a rock
climb, with finger and foot holds that enabled me to move fairly
freely from one windowsill or balcony to the next. That was 27
years ago. I've been in love with climbing ever since.
As a teenager I climbed cliffs, but in 1994 a sponsor asked if
I'd be interested in scaling the Citicorp Citibank Center in
Chicago, a 40-story climb. I was, and so began a career in
buildering. It's a full-time living, in which I earn just enough
(about $25,000 last year, largely from sponsorship deals) to
support my wife, Nicole, and three children. Nicole grudgingly
accepts my career choice. When we first met, in the early '80s, I
had just had a body cast removed, the result of a cliff fall. She
knew what she was getting into.
To this day I have yet to fall during any of my building ascents,
which include Chicago's 1,450-foot Sears Tower. My only climbing
aids are a bag of talcum powder for my hands and rubber-soled
climbing slippers for my feet, which are small enough to fit
between the scaffolding grooves of tall edifices. Crowds
typically gather at the base of a building to witness my climbs,
which are made in broad daylight. The spectators at the top of a
building, however, are usually cops, waiting to slap the
handcuffs on me. I've been arrested between 50 and 60 times
(usually charged with trespassing) and have served numerous jail
sentences, though none have been for more than 10 days.
Do I feel fear before my climbs? Absolutely. Before ascents I
come down with terrible stomachaches, but the adrenaline rush I
get from heights is simply too powerful. Everest will always be
the planet's tallest mountain, so once you've reached its summit,
you can't go any higher. With these urban mountains, however,
there is always a new one being built that's higher than the last
one. I will keep climbing.
This fall, Robert is planning to climb New York City's 68-story
Trump Tower. He does not have a permit.
COLOR PHOTO: GIBOUX-ORAND/GAMMA LIAISON