Notes from a Tower Climber Newbie

After guidance at the last JSCARC meeting from Ken, K5RG, and reading on-line comments, I successfully completed my first climb of Mount Gilruth (aka the 80’ W5RRR tower). Actually, I only climbed up a bit beyond the rotator, so the actual summit measure was more like 70’.

A few comments posted here, which may aid future, ham trekkers. Some comments are reinforcing messages from Ken, and some are my own lesson’s learned.

Here goes:

  1. My forearms were straining as time wore on. Why? Because, as Ken advised, get a very short positioning lanyard as possible. The positioning lanyard, which comes in a variety of lengths, ties your body to the tower and allows one to lean back a small amount, and redistributing your upper boday weight from your forearms to the lanyard cord. My mistake: I bought a medium length positioning lanyard- I thought it was good enough, but for it to work effectively, I would have to really lean uncomfortably backwards for the cord became stretched out enough to share my weight. Yes, I could have used it but as a newbie, there was no way I was going to lean waaay back from the tower to exploit it’s weight distribution property. I elected instead to completely not use it (even though still clipped in) and instead relied on my forearms to assume the bear hug position to keep me safe. Buy as short a positioning lanyard as you can.


  1. Stiff soled shoes. I wore my old hiking boots. Yep, they worked fine, but over time, my 170’ body started to concentrate it’s mass thru the shoes and directly onto the narrow 1” horizontal crossbars. Yes, my soles started to hurt and I’m sure a firmer or steel shanked shoe would be helped immensely. It would have been agonizing to do this with tennis shoes. Note: my climb was 1 hour in duration- that’s a lot of concentrated force on a small area one the bottom of one’s feet.


  1. Gloves. I wore a pair of leather gloves as recommended in many online articles. The primary benefit is to offer thermal isolation between one’s hands and the extreme cold temperature of the metal. We’ll, its summer in Houston, and there was none of that cold metal thing. I suppose the gloves also provide protection from metal burrs etc, but overall they were useless and hampered my ability to use tools, and to take photos. I ended up droping them down unceremoniously to Keith before the half way mark. A further bit of humbleness and admiration how crew use tools in their EMU suits.


  1. Hard hat. Ken shared a compelling anecdote why a helmet is important- it saved his life. I get it. I acquired a helmet with a 1-2” lip along the edge. During the climb, Keith and I were manipulating 2-3 cords, which were used to hoist items and to finalize the pulley system. On occasion, the lip on the hat seemed to catch the cords surrounding me. Lesson learned: the lipless helmet (like the one Ken brought in to the meeting) is much preferred.


  1. Miz en Plat. Ah that great French word for “having everything in place, and within reach”. Usually applied to restaurant cooks, one can envision perfectly placed utensils, ingredients, pots, pans, and cookware all concentrated within reach of a line cook operating at frenetic robotic fast-order restaurant. I’m going to use this term for having all your hooks, tools, and supplies within easy access while on the climb. For example, I built a tool pouch with a carabiner hook specifically for my climb. I clipped it onto an unsed lower ring of my body harness.. but it took an innocent yet small stretch to easily reach into the pouch bottom. Of course it worked great on the ground, but while in the air and while bear hugging for my life ontop of the tower, I struggled mightily whenever I had to grab the camera, the wrench, the cutters, and the materials. If I only clipped it onto another ring that rested higher on my harness! This was clearly out of place and added great inefficiency to get the job done.


  1. The fall arrest harness. These are the two limp dangly cords that hook to your back ring. You climb with at least one of the two hooks clipped in at all times, so if you fall, you’ll have an arrest cord to capture your fall. During the club meeting, I specifically asked Ken, “how do you position and manage the hanging cords while climbing?” His answer was unexpected, “ they will always get in the way”. Well Ken was correct. Actually, I managed very well during the climb up. On the way down, it was a PITA as it kept on getting tangled in the stupid tool pouch that I clipped onto one of my body harness loops (see above). In two cases, I had to ascend upwards a few feet during my decent in order to untangle them.


  1. Where to clamp your hooks. I never read this anywhere, but here’s a pearl of wisdom from Ken. When climbing, clamp your safety lanyards onto the main vertical legs, not the horizontal nor diagonal braces. The vertical legs which are larger and more structurally robust, will be you lifeline holding up your weight if there’s an accident. The smaller diameter braces should NOT be used for any lanyard attach points. Thanks Ken- I never would have considered this without your warning.


  1. Having great ground crew is so comforting. Keith was my anchor. Having him down blow almost reading my mind was awesome. We discussed the climb plan together in advance and the execution went great even though we had a few unplanned issues.


  1. Having a camera is essential. Especially when trying to inspect and troubleshoot, having a camera is essential. Focusing and accessing the device takes technique and practice. I feared droping my small Canon and I only partically captured photos that were properly in focus. Much included having to swith to macro vs full view modes- a rather difficult maneuver with one hand.


  1. Working on the tower is hard. Can’t tie knots with full strength. Can’t work tools with full efficiency. Can hold multiple things without the great risk of dropping them. Perhaps if I had a shorter lanyard, I could have freed up my hands to do these things. But overall, I’ll continue to bear hug that tower until I can find a good very short positioning lanyard. And climbing is definitely a learned skill along with learned techniques. Much of the techniques rely on one handedness.


  1. Conditioning. By design, the week before I climbed Utah Zion’s Angel’s Landing which included 22+ steep switchbacks up 1500 feet. I preconditioned my out of shape body and especially my legs. This was extremely helpful and climbing a tower requires strong legs when climbing up vertically. Likewise, strong upper body strength is required to holding on and lifting your body upwards. It’s a balanced body technique- you don’t want to fully lift with your legs or fully hoist up with pulling arms. The balanced approach (and condition) makes so much sense in case any of the metal braces would break. Its all about maintaining balance and retaining control and stability.

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