On arrival I disembark to the news that we have only ten days to scout locations. I would have liked to have gotten over my jet lag, but to make good use of the day I head downtown to get a more precise idea of what we are looking at.
Once I get to downtown Chicago and walk the streets I am shocked. The profile of the buildings is quite a contrast to the modest heights of French cities. French cities have been around a lot longer and therefore tended to spread outwards over the centuries, rather than rocketing upwards as they have in countries where economies have exploded. Sure, there are tall buildings in France, but we have nothing like this. Here high rise blocks spring from the street, shooting up so far that they give the impression of overhanging the asphalt; they’re incredible.
I walk the sidewalks with my chin pointing skywards, almost overwhelmed by the scale of it all. I remember having felt the same shudder, the same sensation of immoderate, gigantic size, the first time I discovered the Verdon Canyon in southern France. The famed gorge is the second largest in the world, and one of the most spectacular on the planet. Looking up at these glass cliffs I feel that same sense of awe. It is a long process, this adjustment, this experience of being tamed by a new universe and redefining your objectivity. The prospect of scaling these walls chills me. Even with ropes it looks immensely difficult or even impossible, and of course there remains the substantial risk. What was I thinking?
Right now I cannot imagine that I seriously intended to get my hands on a license and rope my way up this building armed only with the blessing of a priest. It would make more sense to cycle up Mount Everest. In the shadow of Chicago’s cityscape, it occurs to me that I have probably agreed to one of the most stupid proposals that has ever been made.
But it is necessary to believe in oneself, to believe in the impossible, and not to give in to appearances. Naturally that’s very easy to say. It’s easy to laugh off a challenge, to dismiss it as a boyish prank, but when one is confronted directly by the challenge, suddenly there is nowhere to hide. Looking up at these monoliths I really start wondering what I have got myself into.
Then the Italian director really brings me down by giving me details about the hard tarmac below. The security services of these buildings are akin to George Orwell’s Big Brother, with alert eyes and ears embedded in the concrete. Watching … eavesdropping … spying … They will be on the lookout for troublemakers like me.
The director reminds me that the type of people found in the security industry are by nature physically aggressive, and some of them are drawn to an occupation that gives them the perfect excuse to assault people, especially here in “kick ass” loving America. I dart a worried glance at him, surprised to hear there could be a problem – I thought he had it all covered.
Cautiously we scout the city, visiting numerous sites each day, some higher than others. But there’s no chance for me to set foot on any of them yet, as I am still waiting for official permission from any of the building managers the team has canvassed. A select few of these high rise buildings seem effectively “climbable”, on the premise of being able to use the rope every now and then to grab a little bit of respite to regain my energy. It’s all looking and sounding very different to what I heard on the phone in France. And now here we are, at the launch pad, and the director drops a bombshell. He suggests it would be preferable if I were to climb a building without ropes. I wonder if he is joking or not. It doesn’t look like it.
Answers to our questions don’t come, so we fly on to Dallas and then at my suggestion, to Houston, the city where Jibé managed to get permission. The same dramatic vertical topography exists here too. Skyscrapers, thousands of shiny glazed windows. But still there is this shitty uncertainty about permits. It appears that no one will entertain such a notion, that is, if they are even taking us seriously. It is hardly surprising really, given that very little is in it for them. Why would they want someone to dangle off their nice shiny building if he is not the window cleaner?
Another day passes and the whole project is still on hold, pushing up costs and mounting the pressure on the director. Then, for unexpected technical reasons, the shooting date is rescheduled to mid July. Apparently there is nothing I can do here any more, for now at least. So I head back to France, and an extra month of indecision passes by. In Valence, I try to climb some buildings to find the beginning of an answer, but it is impossible to compare a modest three-storey house with a fifty-eight floor skyscraper. It’s rather like climbing a big pebble before facing the vast cliffs of Verdon. But anyway, I need to start somewhere, so I start climbing houses. As I climb a few of my friends’ houses I notice that the French stone is cut, worked, sculpted, with any sheer verticality broken by ledges and mouldings. Such surfaces have absolutely nothing in common with 250 smooth metres of a North American glass wall. My bewildered friends watch on from their back gardens as I keep trying. I find a tennis ball but I get no closer to a solution to my dilemma.
A little before mid July, the documentary people call me with glum news. It will be impossible to obtain licenses … but the company has already spent a lot of money on the production and locations ... and it’s too late to stop the project. The company informs me that they will be shooting a base jump soon in the USA, and we shall therefore take advantage of the timing to shoot images of my rock escalation in Utah. But as for my proposed city climb, nothing is confirmed. If this mess of wretched permit papers arrives along the way, so much the better. If not, we shall just have to see what happens, Insha’Allah.
This disarray is what I face on my return to the New World, the wide open country of dreams and dreamlike landscapes. I am set to leave France with mixed emotions, possessing both a light heart and a heavy spirit. For me, climbing a pillar in Utah is a bewitching prospect while climbing a building is a bedevilling one. But regardless of the unfolding quandary I’m going to the United States to at least attempt the climb. In a twist of fate the planned departure date is Quatorze Juillet, or the 14th of July, the French national holiday to celebrate the storming of the Bastille. I find the date quite fitting. As the French national anthem goes, The day of glory has arrived.
The first week in the United States is difficult but magical. I make my first trip to Utah, a most beautiful corner of the world. The state is a predominantly empty region of stark plains and purple sunsets. The whole day long I enjoy this wonderland, scrambling cliff sides in the abundant light of the brilliant sun above. I clamber up the rocks and survey the surroundings. Utah offers some truly impressive scenery. And some high temperatures: it is 43 degrees Celsius in the shade or, as our American cousins prefer to say, 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The cliff absorbs and emits heat like cast iron, but I keep fighting, sweat percolating from all the pores of my body. The climbing equipment can take it but the heat is so intense that I have to protect my hands with bandages to avoid sunburn. On the side of a rock I soon understand why the Native Americans have suntanned skin as strong and durable as leather.
The sweltering film crew, however, obviously cannot understand why we came here to climb in the scorching heat of the summer. Hey, this wasn’t my idea, people. I am not complaining – I’m in my element. But it’s not a time or place you would enjoy for long if you weren’t a rock climber.
Cameras roll as I climb sheer cliff faces with ropes and climbing equipment. Safe rock climbing involves belaying, pairs or groups of climbers with equipment controlling the feeding of a rope to each other, so that any slippage means your companion does not fall very far. Being by myself I have to secure my own ropes. But I can also climb free solo – alone and without ropes, climbing with my bare hands with nothing to support me, nothing to save me should anything go wrong.
After shooting me abseiling down a cliff the director asks if I can climb this giant rock face solo. Of course he knows the answer to that question. The entire crew know that I live for free solo. I give them a little smile then up I go, doing what I am known for.
I ascend the rocks with nothing but my hands and climbing shoes, clutching at small irregularities in the rock face, inserting my feet into small cracks and grooves wherever I can find them, pushing ever upwards. As I pull myself further up the vertical cliff, the film crew shrink into the vast surroundings. There is no safety net, no rope. If I were to fall then it would all be over. Kaput. Violins. Some of the guys beneath me dwell on this and are obviously quite nervous. But I am not worried at all, as I have done this countless times before upon the French cliffs.
Not everyone can do it. It must be said that in most cases, climbers who have only climbed solo indoors in leisure centres find places like Verdon or Utah a good cure for constipation. This is also quite true for many observers. But for me it has always been exhilarating. I thrive in this environment. The rocks of Utah are cooperative and supportive, offering me plenty of grips and routes up their steep sides, plenty of options and variety. With this type of rock there’s lots of resistance and very little chance of the grips crumbling away or, with the arid conditions, of me slipping. My hands and feet easily find grips and footholds and my audience below are stunned by my little party trick. The cameras zoom in with hushed excitement as I ascend higher and higher, pulling off increasingly difficult moves.
Being totally alone up here is the sweetest solitude, a blissful and tranquil escape. There is risk, of course, so it is not a relaxing type of solitude. But I find holding onto my life by my fingertips to be a sublime experience, an elating kick. Many might find the two emotions incompatible, but I would counter that it is quite easy if you place yourself in the right setting with the right attitude. Allsorts of sharp emotions invade me up there. It is difficult for me to explain the mix of wonderful feelings I experience when climbing solo in the mountains.
The film crew beneath me enjoy the show but as the days pass they soon become weary and the heat begins to wilt them. It is clear they’d much rather be filming somewhere with a bar nearby, somewhere serving ice-cold beers. I peer down every now and then to see them fanning their beetroot skin and wheezing, panting, swooning. Despite the uncompromising weather we get some superb images and the week is both a real success and a memorable diversion.
Our time in Utah concludes very nicely as far as the natural shots are concerned. But as we expected, or rather as we dreaded, no licence materialises for the urban shots. A crew member announces that we are up a certain creek without a particular piece of paddling equipment. What next? Am I going to have to climb on a mock-up on a film set, surrounded by green screens and technicians? Alas, the budget dictates no opportunity for this kind of whim.
Options limited, someone asks if I would agree to take the risk of climbing alone … with the possibility of being arrested. The director seems most ill-at-ease with this request. He does his best to hold my gaze, like a poker player risking everything on a bluff. Big beads of sweat pearl on his forehead. His eyes try to hide his flustered thoughts but fail. Does he hold a flush or a pair of sevens? Naturally I want to learn more, so it’s back to Chicago. If I feel okay, then I shall play my trump cards, on his behalf. But if I feel my luck is starting to turn then I will have to fold rather than lose my entire stake.
The director nods keenly and we fly to Chicago to hunt down a suitable building. He doesn’t care which building it is, so long as it looks dramatic on film. I, however, need something that is possible to climb, something with ledges or protrusions that I can hold onto. And the search for such a structure is not easy. Skyscrapers are designed to suspend people hundreds of metres high on the inside, not on the outside. Soon I start having the same thoughts as I did when I first got here – it seems insane to attempt such a thing.
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