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Human spider biog scales heights of fear

Some time ago, while staggering through late night TV, I hit upon a great documentary about the climber, Alain Robert, aka 'the human spider'.

Watching him scale the sides of skyscrapers as security services waited patiently at the top to nab him, I immediately dismissed him as something of a nutter with one of those conditions that compel people to take up activities that really belong in the animal and not the human kingdom.

I'd rather snorkel than dive, look up at the mountains from below rather than stare down from the peaks. So I do enjoy the odd cackle watching those home videos of people tumbling from skateboards, hang gliders, kites and other contraptions with which we were not designed to cope.

But told in his own words, the story of Alain Robert's lifelong urge to do nothing but climb (With Bare Hands -- the Story of the Human Spider, Maverick Press, €19.99) is an absorbing and very charming one.


This is the type of hair-raising book you tend to grip tightly at the edges while reading, in much the same way Robert describes his hold on some of the world's tallest buildings while scaling them. You know it makes no sense, yet you admire the drive and resolve that the man possesses.

The mystery behind his obsession, though, remains ultimately unsolved for the reader, but that's possibly the beauty of the book, since there is no comprehending the feats of human endurance that this man undertakes. He is a man who will never refuse a challenge and as a consequence is never satisfied.


It's an irony that seems pretty pointless, and begs the question of the demons against which he must be battling.

At the base level of his challenges lies the vertigo, to which even Robert admits to succumbing in the worst possible of moments, but is equipped with enough resolve to overcome those dizzy periods of panic.

Nowhere is this more evident than in what is the highlight of the book, the climbing of Chicago's Sears Towers in conditions that steadily deteriorated and made for a knife-edge climb that he clinched with only seconds to spare.

Somewhere in all of us lies an obsession of course, but most keep the lid on. Robert allowed his to blow off spectacularly. And as a result his body is cobbled together with nuts and bolts and the full extension of his arms impossible after three near-fatal falls. But he still climbs.


"Have you ever heard the sound of a falling body?" asks Robert. "It is unbelievable, a paroxysmal violence. It is absolutely incredible that a human being can overcome such trauma.

"I must admit that I never heard any of my own falls. I only remember an endlessly long plunge -- and then darkness."