This is the War Stories Section of
The Broadcast Archive

Maintained by:
Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer

1572 FEET!!!

by Nathan Wolfe

Of the 400+ member companies of NATE (and nonmembers that should be) that have guys climbing and working on towers, how many of those guys climb the big ones?  You know, the guyed towers that thread the sky like a needle with their incredible height.  I got that chance, but it was work that needed to be done at night during the customer’s “maintenance window”.  My adventure began at 9:00pm when I met my coworker, Mike Croix, at the shop in the San Francisco Bay Area on a midsummer night in 1999.

Madonna Mountain was where we were scheduled to do a "re-lamp" on KSBW Channel 4’s 1500 ft tower. After winding up the mountain roads through the state forest tall pines and redwood trees, we got to the site at 10:40pm.  We were to meet the site manager at 11:00pm, so I got out of the truck and walked around.  In the still darkness, the cool crisp air heightened my senses as I took it in and gazed up at the clear star speckled sky above ... an infinite display of the universe so intense that it seemed God had spilled a bag of powdered sugar in the heavens.  I could easily make out the subtle Milky Way like a backdrop enhancing the dimensions of space and time.  My feeble human eyes saw the awesome grandeur of the universe's unfathomable complexity.

At 11:05 pm, Ron arrived.  He greeted us and unlocked the gate.  We followed him in down the dusty road leading to the equipment building next to the tower.  Once inside, Ron gave us the materials to complete the job and briefed us on weather conditions.  He also explained how the transmitter would be shut down at 2:05 am so that we would be clear to climb above the 1200 ft level.  The antenna on top of the 1500 ft tower was a 72 ft "candlestick" that transmitted a television signal strong enough to vaporize a bird if it happened to fly too close to it... 

We got ready and put our insulated coveralls on to prepare for the cold air up there, and then strapped on our full-body harnesses and climbing gear.  At 11:45 pm, we began our ascent.  I went up the climbing ladder inside the tower first because I didn't want to be behind Mike.  He's 31 yrs old and in good shape, but I basically just wanted to be the first one to the top.  One of the odd things about this tower was that it had no elevator, and we'd be climbing the entire way up.  So we were about to do something that few people in this world could claim:  climbing foot for foot a nearly 1600 ft tower at night (and just to give you an idea of how tall that really is, the empire state building is only 1454 ft tall to the tip of it's antenna)… 

Climbing that tower became a real pain in the a** (and in the forearms and biceps)…  The safety-climbing device that we used kept binding up as we climbed, so I had to step up two ladder rungs and then slide up my safety collar along the sleeve, but even that was a problem when I got to a splice in the sleeve that wasn't perfectly aligned.  I ended up loosening the splice with a wrench while I held my flashlight in my mouth to see what I was doing.  It took about 30 minutes just to climb 400 ft at that rate.  Thank God there were platforms inside the tower to stand and rest on, because I was sweating my --- off inside my coveralls and wanted to take them off.  It was a perfectly calm night with no wind, which seemed unusual at that height, so I decided to take my coveralls off and cool down.  After a few minutes I was ready to keep going.  (I foolishly left my coveralls on the platform at 400 ft.  I would later regret that big time)… 

So up the tower we climbed...  and rested... and climbed...  and rested... Two steps up... slide the safety collar... two steps up... slide...  climb 20 ft…  rest a minute... climb 100 ft…  rest 5 minutes... climb... rest... loosen the safety sleeve... cuss out the tower...  (It seemed like we were never going to get to the top). 

At about 1000 ft up the tower, the wind started to pick up, but I was warm from all the climbing.  It actually felt good to feel a breeze.  The view was incredible.  The crescent moon had just come up over the horizon, a reddish-orange fingernail scratching at the edge of the earth.  The valleys below were filled with thousands of city lights, a winding river of fireflies stretching into the distance. 

At 2:45 am we reached the top of the tower and the base of the candlestick.  It had taken us exactly three hours to climb 1500 ft.  The wind was blowing steadily at 15-20 mph with the temperature in the low 40's.  I began to climb up the antenna using my "lobster claws" (double fall arrest lanyards secured to my full body harness) because there was no safety climb device.  It was a very odd feeling, like I was maneuvering slowly in outer space.  I was surrounded by billions of stars and felt like I could almost reach out and touch one.

 I got to the tip of the antenna and positioned myself so that Mike would have room to work when he joined me at the top of the world.  I opened up the beacon and we began to change out the flashtubes inside.  (Now, I know you must be thinking that it seems ridiculous to climb a tower this tall just to change a light bulb, but consider the fact that each of those flashtubes cost $1600 a piece... and that we replaced two of them... then maybe you'll understand that this was no small job.) 

Things didn't go as smooth as we had expected.  The new flashtubes didn't fit in the old sockets, so we had to replace them too, which turned a 10 minute “in and out” job into a two hour long fiasco.  I began freezing my (skinny little ---) off without those warm coveralls I left at 400 ft, while Mike was cozy as a kitten in his after enduring the hot and sweaty climb to the top with them on.  I was having a hard time near the end of our task because I was shivering convulsively and just wanted to climb down so I could begin to warm back up.  I was shaking so badly that Mike had to put in the final screws while I held the flashlight because I would have dropped them with my numb fingers (which would have screwed us big time)… 

We closed the beacon and called Ron on the cell phone so that he could test everything before we started climbing down.  The red night-lights came on and the beacon flashed.  It was so bright that we had to shield our eyes from its blinding pulses.  At almost 5:00 am with everything in working order, we began our descent.  Instead of using the safety device we used to climb up, we used our lobster claws all the way down the tower.  (It took us two hours to get to the bottom). 

Half way down the tower, the sun came up over the horizon.  Its magnificence illuminated the predawn clouds lurking over the valleys below.  I snapped some great pictures with my camera of clouds that pushed up against the mountain range, but seemed too shy to spill over the ridge into the next valley.  For a while as we climbed down, the ground seemed like it wasn't getting any closer, like something out of the twilight zone.  It was as if the base of the tower was stretching to keep us from ever getting off it!  (Maybe it was just fatigue setting in)…  By the time we did get down, I was ready to fall over.  I didn't have any strength left.  It was 7:00 am on a beautiful morning, and instead of waking up like the rest of the world after a decent night's sleep, I had spent my night climbing one of the tallest towers in the world. 

1572 ft...  What an incredible experience!  

Nate Wolfe climbs towers and does other interesting work for Western Technical Services in Orange, CA.