Tower Climbers

Climbing 2,000-foot broadcast towers is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. One man who does it daily is grateful for the extraordinary view.

By W.F. StrongOctober 17, 2018 10:00 am| ,

The highest natural point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8,751 feet. The tallest building is the JPMorgan Chase Tower at 1,002 feet. But that is not the tallest manmade structure in Texas. In fact, it’s only half as tall as the tallest structure in Texas, the Liberman Broadcast Tower in Era, which is 2,000 feet – one third of a mile high; 200 stories. And there are brave workers who climb such towers as part of their daily work: Imagine how hard it is to walk up 200 flights of stairs. Now imagine climbing a ladder – straight up, in oppressive heat and strong winds.

One such man who climbs these towers is Jesús, last name omitted at his request. I met Jesús at random this summer. I just fell into a conversation with him and became fascinated by his stories about climbing the tallest structures in Texas. They could be even taller, but the FAA limits them to 2,000 feet for the safety of airplanes.

Jesús told me that the 2,000-foot towers, of which there are several in Texas, are called “two-screamers” because you can get in two long screams before arriving at your destination. Gallows humor seems common among “tower dogs,” as some climbers refer to themselves, just as it is among other dangerous professions like test pilots and bomb squads. In fact, in 2012 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that tower-climbing was the most dangerous profession in America – 10 times more dangerous than construction jobs.

I asked Jesús if the towers swayed at the top. He said some have a minor sway of maybe 2 to 3 feet or so, but on the whole, they’re quite stable. I said that “minor” sway he referred to would be a major problem for me if I were up there.

He said, “You know what I feel when I’m up a tower like that?”

I said, “An urgent need to get down?”

“No,” he said. “I feel privileged. If I’m on a tower on top of a Houston skyscraper, I think about how privileged I am to see Houston as few people ever will. When I’ve been on the Liverpool radio tower overlooking Chocolate Bayou and the Gulf beyond, I’ve thought about seeing Texas as only a privileged few ever have. And once on a tower near San Jacinto, I was higher than the monument but could see it against the backdrop of the bay, and I felt privileged to see it that way.”

I was moved by Jesús’ unexpected perspective. I expected comments about excitement and thrills and the love of an outdoor life. I didn’t expect reverence.

I said, “Well, I guess people do see those sights from planes sometimes.”

He said, “Not the same. They’re moving. I’m still and it’s quiet, except for wind.”

He later sent me something he wrote in his journal after climbing the Liverpool tower, south of Houston:

“The morning sun, mild and languid, hovered a full eight fingers above the horizon. A large bird – an osprey – dove into the molten sphere effortlessly and emerged on the other side where the cool blue sky rounded the edges of the Texas sun. To the southeast, the waters of Chocolate Bay spilled inland from the horizon. The Gulf winds buffeted me on the tower, though the woods nearly 1,200 feet below – an amalgam of oaks, cedars and other coastal brush – remained largely unaffected. The air felt moist and heavy upon my skin. It rushed in from the Gulf tinged with a subtle saltiness, weary from its long journey across the open waters to reach the Texas shore. But perhaps the saltiness was just the sweat on my lips.”

I’ve found that those people who live close to the soil and within the earth’s elements have the greatest connection to its beauties. The cowboys, the tower- climbers, the fishermen, the miners – they often see and feel deeply what we office-dwellers miss.

Jesús told me that climbing the towers is only part of the danger; there are also huge yellow jackets and bees’ nests. One must quietly pass by them; nowhere to run, after all. And then the bird poop that accumulates on the ladder, when wet, is slippery as ice, and when dry, kicks up a disgusting dust. Angry mama birds will dive bomb you. You also have to watch out for your fellow climbers accidentally dropping tools. A hammer dropped 200 feet above you moves at well over 100 miles an hour – hard hats are a must. And then there’s lightning.

“If you hear thunder,” he said, “get off the tower.”

I asked him what question he was most asked and he said, “Like astronauts, we’re asked most often about how we go to the bathroom. Believe it or not, OSHA has a procedure for that. We refer to it as a ‘golden shower from the tower.’ You must warn others below to shelter in place.”

I’m glad Jesús and his buddies are up on those towers keeping people like me on the air. If it weren’t for him and the thousands of courageous souls like him, you wouldn’t be hearing these words right now. Gracias por todo, Jesús. Mucho cuidado. Be careful up there.