How To Climb a Cell Tower
I initially wrote this as a humorous how-to essay for a class assignment. I sent a copy to my employer, and it's since circulated the company.
How to Climb a Cell Phone Tower
Cell phone towers are almost invisible until you know what they are. Then they’re everywhere. I remember the first time I noticed one. When I was little, my dad told me someone got paid to climb up there and change the light bulbs, and I thought that was the coolest job ever. Little did I know, years later, it’d be my job. I was complaining about working for a vet one day – getting paid eight dollars an hour to get bitten by dogs – and my friend Charlie told me I should come work with him on the towers. I looked at him incredulously. “You really think I can do that?” He replied, “Sure, it’s not that hard.” He was right.
I’m about to tell you how to climb towers, but I’m going to tell you how to do it right. There’s a lot of prep and safety. So – if you think I’m wasting your time, and you can just go out in the middle of the night and free climb, remember: it’s a class A misdemeanor, and there’s a good chance you’ll die.
If you’re thinking about climbing, the first thing you have to know is that you’re not afraid of heights. Or in my case, be pretty sure you’re not. I wasn’t really sure until I got to the top and looked around.
The second thing you have to do is find a reputable tower crew. I don’t mean a crew full of macho young men who race each other to the top. That’s not safe. And it’s definitely not where you want to start. Find a crew that’s mostly fat old men. Persnickety, safety-first, by-the-book, do-it-right, old men. Men who are old enough to have seen and done lots of things and most importantly, old enough not to foolishly show off.
Getting on the crew isn’t too hard - they’re usually happy to have fresh blood on the crew, as long as you’re willing to work. Did I mention, tower work is work. You’ll probably never have a harder job in your life. But you’ll probably also never have as much fun. Tower work isn’t rocket science. You should know instinctively which way to turn a wrench and how to operate a hand-held DeWalt drill, but a degree in mechanical engineering isn’t necessary. You also don’t have to be super buff. Being in good shape is a plus. At the very least, you should be able to walk across a parking lot without any trouble.
Once you get on the crew, you’ll work on the ground for a little while before they send you up. You’ll learn important things like how to handle ropes and how to use radios to talk to whoever is on top. When the climbers give you a hard time, don’t take it personally. Climbers are notorious for saying things like, “Complaint department is on the top floor,” or “Come to my office and let’s talk about it.” You’ll also learn the difference between corrugated and smooth-wall cable, and you’ll learn to cuss every time you have to deal with Commscope.
After a few weeks, it’s your big day. Boss says you’re going up. First, harness. Before you ever put it on, examine it closely. You’ll be putting your life in this harness, so everything has to be right. No nicks, cuts, or frayed straps. Now inspect the dee rings for cracks or rust. These are the metal pieces that hold you when you’re dangling two hundred feet off the ground. Kind of important. Check the back ring and the chest ring again. Check under the nylon straps. Check the back side and check the front side again. And again. And again. If you ever fall, those are what will catch you, so they have to be perfect. Now, check your lifelines. We call them “hundred percents.” They’re hanging from your back dee ring and look like a pair of oversized bungee cords inside two red socks, with big metal hooks on the free ends. Examine the hooks for rust or scratches. Open and close them a few times and make sure they operate smoothly, and that they close securely. Run your hands over the nylon coverings and make sure there are no cuts or frayed spots. Remember, if you ever fall, that red bungee cord might be the only thing between you and the ground, so when you’re satisfied that they’re okay, check them again.
Now, putting it on. You’ll be wearing it for a while, and you’ll move in ways you didn’t know you could, so it should be comfortable. A properly fitted harness is like your favorite pair of shoes. Only it’s more complicated than putting on rollerblades, so ask an experienced climber to help you get it on right. Slide your arms through the shoulder straps and let the weight of the harness hang off your shoulders. It feels pretty light. Buckle the belt as tight as you comfortably can. Reach through your legs and grab a leg strap. Buckle it into the buckle at your hip and tighten it dog-collar tight. Now do the same on the other side. Clip the free ends of your hundred percents into the big dee rings at your hips, one on each side. They’ll hang down in loops almost to your knees, but you’ll hardly know they’re there. Right now, that harness feels pretty good.
Now, you need gear. Clip a couple extra carabiners to the small dee rings on the back of your belt. There’s no telling what for, but you’ll probably need them. Call them “beeners,” because everyone will look at you funny if you keep calling them carabiners. Ask for a spreader bar and have your buddy show you where the rings for your boatswain’s seat are, because the spreader bar is great as long as it’s attached to the right rings. Better yet, say “chair” instead of “boatswain’s seat.” That way, everyone will know what you mean.
Grab another beener and clip it through the hole in the middle of your spreader bar. While you’re grabbing, get a 3-foot positioning rope. It’s a short piece of one-inch diameter white rope with elongated flat clips on each end. These ropes take a lot of abuse, so check them carefully for cuts and frays, and check the metal clips for rust or cracks. Open and close the clips a few times to make sure they work. When you’re satisfied, clip one end into the beener on your spreader bar and the other into one of your side dee rings. Get another 3-foot or a 4-foot positioning rope and after you’ve checked it, clip both ends to one of your back dee rings. You never know when you’ll need it. Now, use another beener to attach a lad-safe to your chest ring. That harness is starting to get heavy. Don’t worry. You’re not done.
Tools. That’s right – you’ve been so focused on getting ready to go up that you completely forgot that you have to do stuff while you’re up there. Again, have your climber buddy help you get everything you’ll need for the job at hand. Make sure you have a tower wrench, a pair of small channel locks, two small crescent wrenches, a box-cutter type knife, a flat-head screwdriver, half a paper towel, and a roll each of skinny tape and fat tape. That will do for most jobs, and if you need anything else, the ground crew will send it up on the rope. Tuck all these tools securely into your tool pouches. Make sure they’re secure. The last thing you want to do is drop anything off the top of a tower. A screwdriver falling from 200 feet can break a windshield. Puncture a roof. Someone’s head. So pay attention and don’t miss your pocket.
Speaking of rope, the lead climber should carry the rope. Tonight, that’s not you. You’ll have an experienced climber going up with you to teach you what you need to know, and he or she will probably carry the rope and snatch block.
Even without the rope and snatch block, your harness now weighs about 60 pounds. It’s well-distributed, but you definitely feel the weight. Slip your hands into a pair of weight-lifting gloves. It sounds strange, but they’re perfect. The leather palms and half-fingers protect your hands from the galvanized surface of the tower. The wrist wraps support your wrists while you climb and the cut off fingers gives you the dexterity you need to open connections.
Don your helmet and tuck a bottle of water into the top of your right-hand tool pouch. It’s time to climb. Walk up to the ladder. If you’re feeling at all nervous, don’t look up. There’s a cable running up the middle of the entire ladder. That’s called a safety climb. Your lad-safe will attach your chest dee ring to that cable so if you fall, you aren’t going to hit the ground. Get your climber buddy to show you how to put the lad-safe on it. Practice taking it off and putting it on. Make sure it rolls smoothly up the cable, cause you’ll be dragging it up all the way.
Now, practice resting. Of course it sounds stupid. Trust me, this is one of those things you’re going to want to know. Remember the positioning rope that’s hanging off your spreader bar? Unclip the end from your side dee ring. Wrap that rope one time around the ladder rung at chest level. Clip the free end back into the spreader bar. Now, lean back into the rope. You’ll feel your chair pressing against the back of your legs just like the seat of swing. Sit down into it. Go ahead and trust that the harness will hold you. If you don’t believe that by now, quit.
The most important thing about climbing is that you trust your equipment. As long as you know your harness will catch you, there’s no reason to be afraid. Oh, sure, you can get hurt. But you won’t die. Not from hitting the ground anyway.
You have your helmet. Gloves. Water. Tools. Positioning ropes. Extra beeners. More extra beeners. Put your foot on the first rung and start up. Use your legs to propel your body upward. Just use your hands to hold yourself to the ladder. If you try to climb with your arms, you’ll be half dead before you’re half up.
So, you’re climbing. For the first little bit, just pay attention to each step. When your arms get tired, it’s time to rest. Hold onto the ladder with one hand and use the other to tie your positioning rope to the ladder. Lean backward against the rope and sit in your chair. Harder to do than it was when you were standing on the ground. Stare at your hands and make your fingers let go of the ladder. Stretch your arms. Now, you can look around. Treetops. Rooftops. Buzzards flying. Below you. When you’re ready, stand back up, unclip one end of the rope, unwrap it, and keep on climbing.
When you get to the top of the ladder, you’re going to have to get off the safety climb so you can go do whatever it is you’re up there to do. Secure yourself with your positioning rope like you were going to rest. Look around you and find something really sturdy. Something you could hang a car off of. Unhook one hundred percent from your hip and hook it to that strong something. Now look at it and make sure it’s secure. Look again. You are now “tied off.” If you fall, that hundred percent is going to catch you 9 feet straight down. Time for new pants but you’re alive. So look again and make sure. Look down at the ground. Long way down. Now look at that hundred percent again. Once you’re really sure, unfasten your lad-safe. It can be done with one hand, but you’re welcome to use both. You are now free to move about the tower. Move around, get stuff done – but before you unlatch one hundred percent, make completely sure the other one is secure. When you get done, reattach your lad-safe, hook your hundred percents back to your hip rings and climb down. That’s usually harder than going up. You’re tired. Gravity is pulling you. You have to use your arms more. And your lad-safe will get stuck at least twelve times. Climb up a rung and pull it down to you. When you finally reach the ground, your legs are shaking. You’re tired. And relieved. And giddy. And excited. And already looking forward to the next climb.