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Interview: Mike Robertson on His Eiffel Tower Protest Solo
Posted on: December 19, 2007
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 20x20 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!