In conversation with a Greenpeace Spider-woman

Victoria Henry on scaling a London landmark, Arctic drilling and getting arrested for a cause

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Richard Cannon / Getty Images

Richard Cannon / Getty Images

On July 12, Victoria Henry, a 32-year-old native of Burnaby, B.C., was part of a six-woman team that scaled the tallest building in Europe: the Shard. Dubbed the “Greenpeace spider women,” the climbers spent 15 hours on the steep, glass surface of the 310-m London landmark. The climb was meant to publicize Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign—an effort to ban oil and gas development and industrial fishing in the North. They hung a banner at the top of the building with a “Save the Arctic” message directed at the nearby windows of Shell’s corporate offices. They were arrested, posted bail and now face a hearing on Aug. 15 and possible charges of aggravated trespassing.

Q: What did you do to plan the ascent?

A: It took months and months. It began with reconnaissance. We all went to the building to try to get some pictures and measurements. There’s facial-recognition software used [by authorities checking CCTV cameras] around that area, so people were nervous about spending too much time looking at it. I went by myself, about a week before. I took some video, which I watched a few times before going on the climb. There was a lot of discussion happening at the same time: Is this something we can do safely? Is this going to be too difficult? There was the training aspect of getting onto the building, perfecting systems of buddy checks and equipment checks. We were prepared for a series of abseils in the case of having to come down at 200 m, or something. The actual Shard has these horizontal and vertical lines that form the windows, so we had this replica. It was five feet high, and then we had a bunch of strings in different colours to represent the different ropes. We had little figurines representing each of us, with two monkeys for the top climbers.

Q: Were you scared before the climb?

A: I wasn’t able to tell anyone about doing this, not my close friends, not my family, not my partner, not anyone. I thought about this ascent almost every waking moment. When sleeping, I was dreaming about it. You can’t miss the Shard, when you’re in London. I would see it and just be struck by the enormity of the building, and there’s a huge connection there to a goal as big as saving the Arctic. There were months where I thought, “This is crazy, this is impossible.” One of my personal motivations is that very deep emotional connection that comes from childhood, of just loving nature and loving animals, and as you grow into an adult, you see natural habitats destroyed. You feel so powerless, don’t you? I don’t think I’m alone in that. And this was my one chance to do something really big.

Q: How did the day start?

A: We woke up at 2 a.m. and piled into a van. We had about 10 other people to assist us in getting onto the building, and who were there to prevent security people from dragging us away. The Shard is right next to London Bridge station. There was a hole in the top of the van, and a huge unfoldable ladder—about eight metres long or so—that, once we mounted the curb, was thrown up onto the building, the roof of the train station. We got up onto that. We used a drawbridge over a long gap to get onto the roof-like structure at the bottom of the Shard. We had several tall people with extendable poles that had ropes. We got those ropes onto the building and then quickly ascended onto those ropes, and from there, began the ascent.

Q: The building is imposing. How do you even climb that?

A: You can only really bring 50 m of rope with you. So the lead climber goes first, and when she arrived at 50 m, she would set up a series of slings and ropes around the structure that you could clip into. We could take our hands off the building, sit back, relax, have something to eat. The lead climber and I used the structure to get ourselves up, which was challenging but not impossible. There are red bars at regular [1.5-metre] intervals. My training is bouldering, which is a rope-less, very powerful kind of climbing. I was able to use the bars running down the structure to lean back really far to lift my foot up just above waist height, and use my strength to pull my body upward and inward. I know it sounds freaky. We’re experienced climbers, and for us, this was not particularly physically challenging. We put a lot into safety and security. There’s something about the building; it’s very protecting, very big, very solid. Though I had a lot of nerves before beginning, during the actual climb, I didn’t feel fear. It was quite magical, actually.

Q: At any point did you want to quit?

A: No, absolutely not. The first [50-m] pitch took us three hours, when it should have taken an hour and a half, due to some rope-management problems, and we got calls from people on the ground saying, “Listen, do one more pitch and we’re going to call whether you should keep going or not.” We said we must keep going. You don’t throw away that training. We weren’t doing it for fun.

Q: You say it wasn’t that difficult of an ascent. If I were a climber, would I think, “Big deal, you climbed the Shard”?

A: I don’t mean to say it wasn’t physically challenging, but the pictures are scarier than actually being up there. Now, when I go back and look at them, my palms sweat. But this is what we train for. Possibly because we’re women, I’m not sure why, people might think that it was a huge physical challenge for us.

Q: What did it feel like and look like from up there?

A: At that height, it seems a little bit unreal. There were points during the climb where we noticed that there weren’t any birds anymore. You could look down and see seagulls, tiny specs down below us. We were above a train station and at one point, I tweeted how they looked like little electric worms wiggling their way around. And the airplanes above us, being really close, that shocked me, as well. It was absolutely beautiful.

Q: What about eating, drinking, going to the bathroom? It was 15 hours.

A: The the day started with three bananas and some Imodium. That was a real low moment. Everyone packed what they thought would be appropriate for them: energy gels, caffeine gels, power bars. Stereotype time: vegan beef jerky. We were getting ready the day before in the warehouse, and I asked one woman, “What food are you bringing?” And she said, “I made sandwiches.” She brings this massive bag of sandwiches and I thought, “You crazy lady.” In terms of going to the bathroom, most of us used Shewee. It’s a funnel-like product that allows women to go standing up. People use them at festivals, and hikers and so on will use them. [We] cut a couple flaps in the crotches of our outfits and Velcro’d them back together, so we were able to slip [the Shewees] in and go [into containers]. You can’t take off your harness, so you have to think of a way around it.

Q: Were there people inside the Shard?

A: Most of it is still unoccupied; almost all the floors just had builders inside. The first couple of times, I was nervous that they would be aggressive or do something to put me off. But I realized they had this real admiration for what we were doing. Every floor, they were gathering with their cameras, asking if we could pose for pictures and giving us the thumbs up. They were pressing phones against the glass to show us the media coverage. One climber on the other side of the building said they were trying to give her their phone numbers. Like, sorry mate, I don’t exactly have a pen on me.

Q: And through all this, you were doing interviews and tweeting?

A: The main problem was mobile-phone coverage. There was a lot at the beginning, and a little bit at the end, but otherwise, the interviews I gave were one-liners. Half of what I tweeted made it out.

Q: What happened when you reached the top?

A: We lowered onto the viewing platform, which is on the 72nd floor. The first people to greet us were ambulance workers. They handed me a bottle of water and said to drink it right away. There was a big group. There were the police. They were really quite kind, people were making sure I was okay. Then they sort of went, “Well, of course, you’re under arrest.” We weren’t handcuffed. There was no takedown. They took us down in the elevator.

Q: You must have been expecting to be arrested.

A: We have quite an experienced legal team [at Greenpeace], as I’m sure you can imagine. We knew there would be consequences. I personally haven’t been arrested before, but I thought it was important enough for me to do this. I don’t want to jinx it, but we’ve been told by experts it’s unlikely we’ll be looking at jail time. No one was injured and the building wasn’t damaged. It feels like a big thing, but in the eyes of the law, it’s not considered a serious crime.

Q: What do you think the lasting impact is going to be of those 15 hours?

A: This is probably one of the biggest actions Greenpeace has ever taken. We’re blown away by the media coverage. People were talking about us in the U.S., Singapore, Australia, and I really don’t think the impact can be overestimated. If you look back at the record Greenpeace has, especially with Antarctica, you’ll see why I have this utter confidence that we will be successful.