Mike Robertson free soloing the Eiffel Tower (324m) on November 12, 2007. He climbed the lower 219 meters to raise awareness about Total, a French company that refuses to suspend or cease their operations in Burma that critics say are funding an oppressive regime and furthering human rights abuses. [Photo] Pete Lash / Courtesy of www.ukclimbing.com
Editor’s Note: Climbers have long made protests on visible public structures. Ed Drummond made one of the first sociopolitically charged climbs–using aid–of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, London, in 1979, for the Anti-Apartheid Movement. In 1995, Johnny Dawes free climbed Nelson’s Column at E6 6b 5a with Noel Craine, Jerry Moffat and Simon Nadin. The protest that time was on behalf of Survival International, publicizing the plight of Canada’s Inuit people. In 2004 Alain Roberts, known in the media as Spider Man, climbed the 614-foot headquarters of French oil company Total–wearing a Spider-Man costume–to protest against the invasion of Iraq.
On November 12, 2007, famed British deep water soloist, photographer and recent Banff award winner for Deep Water, Mike Robertson soloed the lower 219 meters of one of France’s most recognized icons, the Eiffel Tower. He climbed the monument wearing a t-shirt painted with a “Free Burma” slogan and tied a red scarf–symbolizing the dress of Buddhist monks at the forefront of human rights violations in the area–to a stanchion high on the tower. Upon his arrest, he stated that the climb was designed to raise awareness of the plight of the Burmese, and to protest Total’s continued involvement in the country.
The political and human rights situation in Burma–or Myanmar, the nomenclature offered by the current ruling party–is a complex one. Total, despite many outcries from other governments, shareholders, human rights advocates and the democratically elected leader of the country–who is currently held under house arrest by the ruling party–refuses to suspend or cease their operations in Burma that critics say are funding the oppressive regime–and continuing the human rights abuses in the country.
Links to websites covering the controversy can be found at the end of this article.
Alpinist was able to sit down, albeit over email, not coffee, and talk with Robertson about his highly visible solo, his reasons, and the aftermath.
What’s the deal with Burma, from your perspective?
I’ve never visited Burma, but I researched a climbing/DWS [Deep Water Soloing] trip some 4 years ago. I began the research by looking at the islands but ended up spending ages looking at the human rights situation there. It’s appalling. I’ve followed it ever since. It fell out of the news here in the UK; I wrote to Total about their involvement. They wrote back, and I disliked the reply, so I went to Paris…
How is climbing a man-made structure a sign of protest to you? Was it simply a way to draw media attention to the Burma situation? Or was the climbing itself somehow a form of protest for you? What were your motivations in choosing these actions?
The Eiffel Tower is so very French, and very public–and Total is a huge French company based in Paris. So I perceived climbing it as a way to get Burma back into the news. We had a double page spread in the Guardian on Saturday [November 17, 2007 –Ed.], the picture about 20×20 inches! Fantastic to see it brought back into the news again–that’s basically why I did it. But if you want to think of it as more broad–yep, we all get angry about the little guy getting pushed around. I’m on the little guy’s side. That’s me, it’s the Monks in Burma, it’s the folk suffering in Nigeria… the list is endless.
A few folk have suggested that I take a banner next time. Much as I respect the sentiment, I’m a solo-climber first and a rope access man second. I solo; that’s what I do. So if I can raise public awareness again by soloing a building, I will.
Please describe the actual climbing of the structure.
I started at about 1 p.m., Monday, November 12th. I was arrested about seventy minutes after I started. Fifty minutes of this was the climbing, the remainder was in “hiding”!
I climbed the south-east leg of the Tower. We painted up the shirt on a park bench some 80 yards away from the tower, and watched the routines of the six soldiers with rifles that were patrolling the base of the structure. I nipped into a two-minute gap, put my rock shoes and chalk bag on next to the public loo at the base (sort of in the trees), and traversed a sloping “pigeon ledge” to gain the structure proper. The video will show the start point.
I took a red scarf with me, which I tied to the tower at around 220ft; this signified the Burma Monks’ colors.
I climbed the first overhang–reported at around 5.10a/b, about right–using a flimsy riveted-on feature, then up the suicide mesh and up the second level, to the second overhang. There were lots of folk starting to show up (twenty minutes into the climb now), so I dived into the interior of the structure to lose them. The interior of the structure is MASSIVE; there are hundreds of places you could hide. I crossed through the lift-shaft area, hid for some fifteen minutes, then managed to get back to the public walkway on the northwest tower, via the roof of an internal office block (some strange looks there!). This finally got me up to the upper section, which up until that point was looking increasingly unlikely!
The upper trellis sections I followed for some time, until I realized there were a number of people above me, where a series of internal walkways meet the outer face. I decided to come quietly at that point, rather than risk someone else’s life, or resist arrest–the tower has a possible five-year jail sentence!
Robertson, arrested after seventy minutes of climbing and hiding on the Eiffel Tower. [Photo] Pete Lash / Courtesy of www.ukclimbing.com
Alpinist shared a second set of emails with Robertson a few weeks after the event.
I was curious if you had any thoughts on the Eiffel Tower climb now, a few weeks later?
I’ve been knocked off my feet by the level of support. It does seem that even folk who don’t usually support such actions are, in this case, taking a look at the Burma/Total situation, and being very supportive of what I did. I’ve been delighted to see plenty of press coverage over here, including a double-page center-spread in The Guardian. I wanted to put Burma back into the news, and I think I achieved that. Futuristically, I have a few more potential plans on the Burma situation, but I can’t talk about them here! And I have a further goal–to get more involved in human rights photography abroad–that’s something I’m currently working on.
Have there been any legal repercussions in the intervening weeks?
There are no repercussions that I’m aware of… I’m not banned from visiting France. But the director of the Tower is not so happy with me! I think I lost him money when he shut down the lift for a while; I did apologize before I left…
You’ve got a new project right now, isn’t that correct?
The Sony project is one that I’ve been working on for some six months now. Climbing buildings “legally” takes a massive amount of setting up! I’m promoting their new Alpha 700 DSLR camera. It’s an exciting project to take pictures of fresh, unseen images of iconic buildings and their surroundings, and is taking place in the UK right now. We’re using lead climbing skills on most of the buildings, with the exception of a Midlands skyscraper next week–that one’s a top rope, and probably a 230ft, 5.12b.
Can I just say that I’m very grateful to Sony for their understanding over the Paris protest–I gave them no warning before I did it, and I probably should have.
Though there are a multitude of reasons that we climb–more often than not summarized by the media in pithy, sound-bite phrases like Mallory’s “Because it’s there”–Mike Roberts gave a more concrete reason in a forum post on UKClimbing.com:
Burma does seem to have once more been left hanging by the newspapers… and that’s the reason I did it.
There might be plenty of arguments for either side (some folk might even be on Total’s side, God forbid), but we all have to do what we feel we need to do. I wrote a letter to Total and got an unfavorable response, and my answer was to drive to Paris. I can’t explain it any better than that.
The man you need to talk to is one Jean-Francois Lassalle. He’s the Vice President for Total Public Affairs, and you can write to him at 2 place de La Coupole, La Defense 6, 92078 Paris. So go and hound him.
In response to the negative reactions – I don’t give a shit. I risked a jail term to do what I believed in. Maybe we should all do that more often.
Resources for further study: