We all have our bug bears. For the past 5 years, on and off, Bigjobs has been trying to get himself on to the top of a cooling tower. Not those lemon-squeasy disabled access laddered affairs you tend to find on the continent, but a proper UK style NO LADDERS AT ALL circa 100m jobby.
I don’t know what the builders of the UKs power generating facilities had in mind when they were building these epic constructions, maybe they thought stairs and ladders would ruin the perfect brutalist curvature or maybe they thought they were just a bit pointless? I don’t suppose you really need to inspect a cooling tower that much do you, so maybe ladders are a waste of money.
Someone probably knows, but for our intents and purpose, it didn’t matter. The juicy technical challenge of figuring out the best way to get to the top of such an iconic object was all the excuse we needed to give us the push to crack on and get it done.
I love coal fired power stations, and I love their cooling towers. From almost every hill in Yorkshire you can see these beautiful structures poking up from plains of England, getting down to the business of cloud making and keeping the cogs of the modernised world smoothly ticking over.
Their curvaceous, stark, otherworldly form stand as a monument to the concept of Input and Work, the place it all starts, the thing that makes your kettle boil, the internet work, the lights stay on; and even though their days are sadly but rightfully numbered, I am going to miss them dearly. As we advance into the new age of energy technology, we’re rapidly ridding our skylines of the great hulking utilitarian shells of the gas holders, chimneys and power stations, and replacing them with poncy white windmills.
Anyhow, I digress.
The power station that the cooling towers at Willington used to belong to has long since been demolished, which makes the whole affair of climbing them relatively stress free. I wouldn’t have been opposed to trying this on a live one in principle, but an ascent of a live cooling tower would have presented a few uncomfortable factors. It would have to be done in the hours of darkness, which meant it would have been horrible and cold, we couldn’t really have sat over the edge without being turbo-sauna’d off it, and had we have been caught, we’d have had to waste a great deal of time locked in rooms against our will talking to men with little or no sense of humour.
Jobs had tried to get up some similar sized ones at Thorpe Marsh a few years ago using the old helium trick to get a line over the thing, but with the length of rope you’d need to get over it, the stretch would have been momentous, not something you want if you’re ascending rope is over an extremely rough edge. There aren’t any shortcuts really. If you want it, you’ve got to get the quick draws out and haul yourself up. Jobs had already had one false start at this, but had basically got the method of ascent down, and when he put the shout out for anyone to come and second him up for another try, I bit straight away, and then pleaded like a child to let me lead the first half..
We’d picked the perfect day for it, not too hot, a bit of sun and no rain forecast, and within an hour or so of turning up I was on the tower leading up the first pitch to the first aircraft warning light, 50m up. We had gone for duel statics for upward progression and a third safety belay dynamic incase any of the bolts we were relying on to take out weight failed or we fucked something up. My initial fear was that it was going to turn into a tangled spaghetti fest, but a little but of organising and thought as you were swopping around meant things stayed nice and tidy.
After a bit, we’d gotten into a decent rhythm, and were making pretty quick progress.
Once we’d gotten to the light fitting, I offered to let Jobs take over for the rest of it, but the arrangement we had seemed to be working quite well, so he was happy to let me carry on up to the door.
The exposure up here is pretty severe, but the anchors are bomber so there wasn’t much to worry about.
Once you’re at the door, you have to swop sides so you avoid the overhang of the tower. It’s all plain sailing for here, although the very last part is a little tricky. The bolts stop about 3m away from the top, so the only thing you can really do is try to chuck some other bit of rope through the aircraft warning light at the top and pull it through… Pretty faffy, but if anyone fancies a go at it (and is happy lending their weight to a piece of retired 9mm that has been hanging there for over a year / death wish), we left that red rope so you can pull yourself up on it should you make it to the door.
Finally pulling up on to the top was bloody marvellous, and once Jobs joined me up there, we tucked into the highest picnic in Willington.
The decent was pretty straight forward.. Quick abseil to the door then a whopping 75m down to the floor.
Thanks to Gone, Jess and Paradox for hanging about for us taking photos and paying out the descent rope.
Thanks to Jobs, as always.