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Fri Dec 19 22:58:57 SAST 2014

Daring skyscraper climber eyes iconic Havana hotel

Sapa-AP | 02 February, 2013 12:55
French climber Alain Robert, also known as "Spiderman", climbs on a stained glass window of the Abbey during a climb in St-Maurice. File photo
Image by: DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS

The daredevil climber nicknamed "Spider-Man" is famous for scaling some of the world's tallest skyscrapers without a safety line. Now Alain Robert has his sights set on a slightly less imposing edifice that nonetheless offers its own challenges - and plenty of symbolism.

The 50-year-old Frenchman is in Havana on a mission to conquer the 27-story former Hilton Hotel that was taken over after the 1959 Cuban Revolution and redubbed the Habana Libre, or Free Havana. Fidel Castro briefly set up his personal offices here after his triumphant march into the capital.

"This hotel has great meaning for me. It's impressive not for its height, which is not great, but because it's a building that symbolizes the Cuban Revolution," Robert told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Friday.

"I consider this hotel to have been a challenge for Castro," he added, "and I love the idea that now it's my turn to attempt the challenge."

At 126 meters high, a fall from the Habana Libre would still be deadly. But the building is dwarfed by other giants Robert has climbed unaided: Chicago's Willis (nee Sears) Tower, New York's Empire State Building, Taiwan's Taipei 101 and Malaysia's Petronas Towers - all of which were the tallest in the world at some point.

"This is a different type of building with a unique structure, a little deteriorated in some places," Robert said. "That's the challenge for me, because really it's not very tall."

Robert has been sizing up the hotel in recent days and securing permission from island authorities for the climb. He's gotten the green light, and intends to make the attempt Monday.

On Friday, clad in green leather pants and a black leather jacket, he scouted out his rooftop destination and posed for photos with hotel workers.

Robert said he has been drawn to trees and buildings since childhood. Locked out of home one day at the age of 8, a budding "Spider-Boy" climbed seven stories to his parents' apartment rather than wait in the street.

"Height fascinates me. I love the purity of the vertical. I'm drawn to this game between life and death. In those moments I feel fulfilled," Robert said.

The climbing life has had its ups and downs, he acknowledged.

At 20 years old, a 15-meter fall broke multiple bones and put him in a coma for six days. Since then, Robert said he suffers from bouts of vertigo. French social security officials consider him disabled, he said.

But Robert defied doctors' predictions that his climbing career was over and has gone on to scale ever-loftier heights. Two years ago he took six hours to summit what currently is the world's tallest building, the 828 meter Burj Khalifa in Dubai, though for that ascent he used some safety equipment.

"I am afraid, of course, I am a human being like any other. But it doesn't stop me from doing what I love," Robert said. "I conquer the fear."

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