Atop a 300-Foot Ladder: A Swaying Tower and a Dose of Empathy

Source: By John Schwartz, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2019

John Schwartz, a science writer for The Times, atop a wind tower near Stanton, Tex. The grueling 300-foot ascent took about 40 minutes.Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

My forearms felt like they were on fire. My legs were shaking.

I was climbing a ladder, but not to clean the leaves out of my gutters. This ladder was 300 feet tall. And even though I’m in decent shape, it was excruciating. And, I’ll admit, frightening.

I had come to Stanton, Tex., for a story that published last week — a feature, with arresting photos from Brandon Thibodeaux, about people from around the United States who came from families that worked in the fossil fuel industry, but who chose their own career paths in renewable energy.

Jake Thompson manages a wind farm near Stanton, which sits in the middle of the Permian Basin, the second richest oil field in the nation. The basin is also part of the Texas wind boom that has made the Lone Star State the nation’s biggest producer of wind energy. A good place, then, to see wind turbines turning high above pump jacks and drilling rigs. What’s more, the company that owns the wind farm, Invenergy, was willing to let me climb to the top of one of their towers after a safety briefing. And I dearly wanted to have that experience and to take in the view from the top. As I like to say, I always ride the rides, whether that means getting zapped with a million volts of electricity (safely), strapping myself into a jet pack or flying with someone who herds cattle from a helicopter.

Riding the rides isn’t always fun, and I’m no thrill seeker in my day-to-day life. I avoid roller coasters, even though my kids love them. But when it comes to writing stories, putting myself in an uncomfortable situation tends to makes my stories better. It helps me understand the people I’m writing about.

Brandon and I got to the wind farm early in the morning and took the safety training. Mr. Thompson and his crew then strapped us into heavy harnesses that would clip us to a cable on the ladder and stop us if we fell. Then we drove out to the tower; they opened the door and we walked in. The ladder ran the length of the inside of the tower, close to the curving wall. Brandon and I looked up.


A 300-foot tower is about 28 stories tall. There are “climb assist” systems that can help pull you up, but using them would have required additional training. It would be our hands and feet getting us to the top.

[Read: They Grew Up Around Fossil Fuels. Now, Their Jobs Are in Renewables.]

I was wearing the heavy boots I bring to work sites, so I was bearing extra weight. But the real problem was, simply, pulling myself up the ladder. There are four internal platforms spaced from base to top, but that still meant up to 80 feet of straight climbing to do in between rest stops, in a semi-lit, echoing space that somehow felt both claustrophobic and endless.

At first I tried climbing as I do on ladders at home, grabbing the rungs and skipping a rung with each step. Soon tired, I had to put both feet on a rung, stop, put one foot on the next rung and bring the other foot up to meet it. It was slow. I was sweaty and my breath was ragged; my heart was pounding. It would take a couple of minutes to get my breathing and heart rate back to normal on each platform.

“When you first-time, everybody breathes hard. Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Thompson told me, generously. The two other first timers, Brandon and Mary Ryan, a publicist for the company, seemed to be doing fine. But then, I’m 20 years older than them.

The wind tower workers, who have the shoulders of bodybuilders (I now know why), told me that first timers grip the ladder for dear life. They advised loosening my grip, letting my hands ride the sides and letting my legs do the work. It helped.

After about 40 minutes, we were in the little room at the top of the tower, the nacelle, that contains the rotor and the generating works and electronics. Up there, we could feel the wind causing the tower to sway back and forth, discomfitingly.

Mr. Thompson popped a hatch and stepped out. The roof is fiberglass; it bowed slightly under his feet. We climbed out, attached the tethers on our rigs to bars on the structure, and took in the view.

Jake Thompson atop the wind tower. Mr. Thompson manages a wind farm in the middle of the Permian Basin, the second richest oil field in the nation.Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

Jake Thompson atop the wind tower. Mr. Thompson manages a wind farm in the middle of the Permian Basin, the second richest oil field in the nation.Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

West Texas spread out on all sides, a landscape dotted with turbines and oil-field equipment, natural gas flares from atop wells — and, over it all, the vast Texas sky. Winds gusted to about 35 miles per hour. I was grateful for the tether.

We could have climbed overtop and into the nose of the rotor, to look into the hollow blades where they attached to the turbine. That would have involved taking a ladder out over the nose. While I’m sure it could be done safely, the curve of the front of the structure made it look as if I’d be climbing out into open space. This, I decided, was a part of the ride I could skip.

The workers warned me that the way down could be harder than the way up. “On the way up, you feel it in your arms. On the way down, you’ll feel it in your legs,” one guy said, and then clarified: “cheeks,” he said, and tapped his behind. But Mr. Thompson let me in on a trick of the trade: I could rest my back against the wall of the structure and slide down, with no effort from my arms and much of the weight off my legs. The descent went smoothly, and soon my boots were touching dirt again.

In an interview, Mr. Thompson told me that he was afraid of heights, but looked into wind energy at his father’s suggestion. On his first climb, he recalled, “I looked out at the top, and decided that was going to be my career.” Now I understood how he felt. And I was ready to write.

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