The Amateur Amateur: The Man on the High Tower

By guest author Chris Hoffman, K1KC
July 2019

radio tower, long shot
radio tower, closeup
Hightower street sign

Note: Back in 2014 I was looking for fresh ideas for my column. I asked my brother Chris to describe what it was like climbing around on towers. What he sent me was worthy of publishing all by itself, and I was hesitant to put my mark on it. Over time I forgot about it. I only recently rediscovered Chris's tower essay, and decided that I would publish it as-it, with only a few minor edits. Here it is. - Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H

Sure. Any professional climber will tell you that if you do not have a natural fear, or at least a very healthy respect for your occupation, you will suffer for it. To that end, you must do certain things. There is a slogan in the climbing industry now and it is: 100% tie-off, 100% of the time. It just means that at NO TIME should you ever free climb. Free climbing is climbing without any fall protection.

There are other rules like the three point rule which states that you should always have three points of contact. Like two legs and one arm, or two arms and one leg. And the visual confirmation rule: visually confirm that you are locked in (your hooks or carabiners, etc) are locked in. Do not go by the 'click' you think you heard. I have a rule that says you should use the same movements always. That would be like: clip your fall arrest in, unclip your waist lanyard, step up with your right foot, step up with your left foot, clip in your waist lanyard, then move your fall arrest up. This way you do not throw your habits out of kilter and forget something. When unclipping my waist lanyard, I always unclip the right side. It's a great habit!

Another rule is related to aviation: Don't get 'Get Home-itis'. Or, don't get in a rush, it may be detrimental to your health! Take your time, survey your situation. Breath. Plan. You'll get down safely this way. My first flight instructor told me the most important rule I ever learned: It's a whole lot better to be down here wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were down here. I never forgot that.

Here's a very printable sentiment: The best thing about getting on a tower is, getting off. I am always happy to reach terra firma. I suppose the most surprising thing about climbing is that being on the tower is a whole other world. Hard to believe that being only 100 or 200 feet away could have that effect, but it does. Even different places on the tower have different aura. Some of it is related to being above the trees. Since the trees around here are 80-120 feet tall, you are a pretty good way up when you climb over them. Suddenly your radio hears things it never heard, the wind blows harder than it does on the ground and you need a good ground crew really badly!

In fact, a good ground crew is an absolute must. A bad ground crew can kill you. The man on the tower is in charge, no matter what. His rear-end is on the line. Yelling down to the ground crew may not work. A radio is required at decent height. When on the tower years ago, the wind blew hard enough to prevent the guy 25' above me from communicating without radios.

It should be a no-brainer, but lots of safety equipment in good condition is in order. Never climb alone (that is, without a ground crew of at least one person). Don't climb when you have any doubts. A ground crew can help you deal with the inevitable foul-ups that will occur. You will forget hardware, tools and all sorts of things. The ground guy can go get it and haul it up to you. The ground crew is responsible for all the hauling (pulling on ropes). The guy on the tower gives the orders. The guy on the tower cannot always answer the ground crew immediately. I now have an HT with a hearty audio section and a shoulder speaker-mic (like the cops). VOX is not a bad idea but your cursing will be transmitted all over creation too.

You have to be in shape. Regular boots and shoes don't cut it. Tennis shoes? Forget it. Gloves, sunglasses, hardhat, long pants and long sleeves, water....the list goes on. You learn as you go. One of my rules is: I do not allow anything stronger than a man to pull on any lines. A winch or a vehicle could pull the tower over in the blink of an eye. I have seen it.

Follow the manufacturer's recommendations. I won't say I never rigged things poorly, but I kept learning and improving. I use a transit to align my towers and a tensiometer to adjust the guys. Things that remain outside in the weather will go to pot faster than you can say 'crap'. You MUST weatherize your work. I also learned the value of commercial gear. Amateur grade gear just does not measure up.

I had an antenna on the top of one tower that required attention. It was SO difficult to get to, since other antennas were stacked below, it did not get looked at for years. It was not worth the trouble. It was better to make it redundant at that time. The point is, whatever work you do now, it better be good!

Since I am a VHF+ guy, I have learned the true value of height. It is nearly EVERYTHING. Second is feedline, and I am not talking about 'good quality coax'. I am talking HARDLINE. The radio, well, one radio is much the same as another. If you have line of sight, or something close to it, lots of power is just not necessary. Many people think they will 'power' their way out of the trees. Wrong! It is primarily the tree trunks that absorb RF, not so much the leaves. But, in the summer around my home, on a wet or humid day, RF disappears somewhere.

We once went after a free tower. It was 40 or 50'. I could not get the sections to come apart. When I banged on it, I could hear rust falling inside the legs. I got down and went home. A free tower is not worth life or limb.

Everybody wants a tower. Nobody wants to climb them. Putting a tower up is a major undertaking, but the reward is great.

I like heights, as long as I feel safe. For instance, at the World Trade Center, I quite enjoyed the view, right at the edge of the glass. I was a half-inch from oblivion, yet I felt safe. Climbing towers is a bit different. I had to learn some of the tricks.

One trick is to focus only upon what your tasks are. Looking down to see how far it is may not be useful, BUT, if you are looking down to communicate with your ground crew, it can be totally different. You are focused on a task.

I used to be freaked out by high winds or shaking of the tower, and to some extent, I still am. Once I learned though, that most towers have some shake, I eased up a bit. I do know that if you don't climb for a long time, you will be nervous when you go back up again. Some nervousness is a good thing though and it keeps you on your toes. You DO NOT want to become complacent in this endeavor.

One thing I have learned is that things look VERY different from on top than they do from down below. It's amazing!

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