It’s important to get close to death now and again and replant the goalposts of life where they’re supposed to be. Putting yourself in a situation where you have such tactile and immediate control over your ultimate fate is something everyone should experience at least once, and the journey you go through on these little adventures inside your mind as you’re clinging onto some rusty ladder 400 feet above the cold hard ground does wonders at putting a few things nicely into perspective.
NB: I say at least once, although we now seem to be embarking on these little journeys with ever increasing frequency
While a high proportion of my peer group and work mates are busy sleeping, watching telly or knocking back the beers out on the town, I find myself driving over the twists and turns of the Snake Pass with Gone, Millhouse, sho, being followed through the darkness by Over and Bigjobs in 2 car convoy. Unlike our afford mentioned peers, our destination is not the pub or some god awful trendfest nightclub , but the massive Lafarge Cement works in the Hope Vally near Buxton.
Lafarge are the UKs busiest makers of building ‘stuff’ and its here that they make cement in quantities nothing short of epic: around 1.3 million tonnes a year. The plant lies at the low point of the beautiful Hope valley, and it is this fact that gives rise to the vital statistics of its star attraction. In order to get the fumes exhausted from the cement production process away from the surrounding houses, above the tops of the valley and beyond the noses of the nice middle class hikers who roam the hills weekend after weekend Larfarge had to build a bloody massive chimney. 132.5 meters, which is about 434 feet. To put this into perspective, its 80-odd foot taller than the landmark City Tower in Manchester. Tonight, we are intending to get to the top of it.
132 meters is massive, but oddly enough, as we approach the fence, it doesn’t look *that* big.
This is probably due to the fact that, unlike the City Tower which us surrounded by things much less massive that itself, there is nothing familiar around to compare it to.The stars are out in force tonight and the chimney, flanked by its blade-runner-esque support buildings casts a stark concrete coloured stroke against the dreamy backdrop.
Yet crouched in the shadows under a set of low hanging trees with my partners in crime, flowery poetics are not at the top of my mind. Ready?… Go!
Over the fence and belting across no-mans-land to the nearest open door we can see, crossing our fingers we don’t encounter a confused day-glo worker dude who’ll radio us in to the security (who most definitely won’t be supportive of out intended goal). We move in to the facility, passed conveyors, crushers and giant mixing and baking machinery, up dusty gantries, always on the look out for the sleepy staff crewing the Hope night shift.
It is in these moments, the dusty grimy mechanised workplaces of engineers and skilled labourers become new problem spaces, our imagination egged on by a lifetime exposure to james bond and sci-fi movies transforming what most perceive to be a dusty factory into a real life video game with the sole intention to see what we can get away with if we just try our luck..
Unlike the workers at this plant, our goal in this space is not making sure some flow rate valve is behaving as expected but the simple act of getting from A (the outside) to B (the base of the smoke stack), and we obtain it with surprising ease.
After pausing for a brief rest on the roof of the building surrounding the chimney, we find our selves skulking in the darkness in a small enclosure by the start of the ladder. The chimney now looks nothing short of fucking huge. Even with the roof we were standing on giving us a welcome 5 storey boost up (cutting back around 80 foot off the climb itself) I wasn’t really sure what to expect to have to tackle before I got the its base. What I hadn’t really bargained for was over 300 feet of the bare steel cageless ladder, towering up 100m from my feet to the scaff at the top. Even though a cage probably wouldn’t do anything in the event of a fall, the psychological hug it provides does wonders.
Shit thats high..
As I pace up and down wondering if this is just way to far down the stupid idea scale, and to just head off with Gone to check the trains out, Over is already on the first rung. “See you at the top!”
Fucking hell.. Sho has his harness on now and another gust of freezing wind blasts my face. Uruughh…
Bigjobs has taken to the ladder and is climbing, followed shortly after by Millhouse.
While the ladder has no cage and I no fall arrester, I do have some sort of hope if everything goes south.. A harness and attached quickdraw should serve as an emergency clamp if I need a rest or my arms get tired, although fiddling around with it 100s of feet above the ground isn’t really ideal (NB, buy scaff hook).
Right, sho is on the ladder chasing millhouse, big jobs and Over, who is now almost 100 foot above me. Fred Dibnah used to climb shit with no gear on ALL THE TIME. It’ll be fine.
I say my farewell to Gone and step on the first rung, and it doesn’t take me long to establish a decent rhythm.
If anything, I’m starting to enjoy this little accent. For around 150/200 foot we’re making good progress, although the breeze is gradually getting sterner and sterner.
…fuck that was a serious gust of wind, (and its not getting any better). Everyone has stopped, and I’m hugging the ladder with my tired arms locked through the fall arrest bar that runs down the centre of the ladder as the massive structure sways in the wind. This break has levelled things a bit. After the sprinting start my arms are starting to get a bit fucked. The cramp from winter air and cold steel, even through my gloves is starting to take hold, and grip is becoming more and more of an issue. The further we ascend, the more frequent the stops become. It must be easy 350 feet by now and the wind is paralysing. Again, I lock into my arms around the rungs, staring forward, the swaying concrete face staring back at me, with the fall arrester bar in soft focus immediately in front of my eyes. I’m starting to get a bit worried now, these frequent stops are really fucking me up as I know I only have a finite amount of time I can hang onto this ladder. I have still not used the quickdraw I promised myself for resting. By now, I could probably use my stiff hands to get the crab over the rung, but getting the thing off would be a whole new problem entirely, so I just grip on, trying to use mussels not essential for hauling my body, tripod and bag of camera equipment up the last 100 feet of this ladder, and it looks like a very long 100 foot indeed.
This hellish end zone horrendous. The swaying of the chimney and my diminishing energy are starting to make me trip out and I get the feeling I’m approaching some kind of threshold..
I’m going slowly now, taking each rung at a time as I get within 20 feet of the scaffolding platform.
…And what the fuck is this?
Here, the steel ladder I had been clutching onto for the last 15 minutes terminates and in place of what would be its last 20 or so feet is a steeple jacks ladder in a similar form to an old school TV ariel. It hangs by a load of ropes from the platform above. I move carefully.
One hand on the first spoke, second hand on. Three points of contact. Another hellish gust of wind now rips through the ladder and I grip on. Thankfully, this is a bit nicer to lock your arms round than the regular ladder that has been my companion for the last however many hundreds of feet. As I near the top I hear a shout from Over.
“Mate, once you’ve climbed up near enough I’ll clip you in to this line.”
The hatch, being on the inside of the ladder and chimney, requires a bit of manoeuvring to access, stepping out and around the ladder to be in a position to go through. This is going to be a fucking nightmare with this rucksack. I reach the top of the steeplejacks ladder, the platform inches from my head and unclip the quick draw currently attaching to my bag. I pass this up and round and just wait for that click.
It’s amazing what the promise of safety can do. No sooner had I heard that crab hitting the safety line and Overs “Right you are mate” I was skimming round that ladder, as if I was 2 feet above a bed of pillows and not on a wobbly stick 450 feet above the ground.
You’d think there would be a feeling of elation upon reaching the summit, but the mood was far more matter of fact than this. Sure, there were big smiles, but it was fucking freezing up there and the movement of the platform in the crazy wind put a pretty strong impetus on resting, getting the shots, and the getting the fuck down.
The view of the site from the roof was pretty cool, and I bet its beltin’ in the day time, but we were sure as hell not going to be sticking around till dawn. We’d all got our shots, and the cold was setting in so I make a quick call to Gone whos hiding under a coal hopper in the rail yard down below, squinting to see us. I let him know its very high, very windy and we’re very coming down right now.
Sho clipped in for the manoeuvre around the steeple jacks ladder and began his decent. i followed shortly after, opting for a similar tactic. The downward climb isn’t that bad. Once I’m off that treacherous tv ariel I soon get into a rhythm and I’m down in no time, with only once pause, trying to remain motionless against the ladder while a security van drives around the site down below. Can’t let them see us up here, we’d get fucking bollocked for this one…
The last 30 feet are basically jumped down. My feet are on the floor and I can now be happy. One by one, Millhouse, Bigjobs and Over land. Feeling rather pleased with ourselves, its time to get the fuck out of this place.
We work our way over the roof and through the access door, retracing our step past the conveyors and crushers on our exit into the forest. A one, two three and we’re charging back accross that open field, and throwing ourselves in the tree line.
No soon had I got to the tree line when I heard a piecing whistle…”
Fuck.. Everyone dives into the ditch like a bunch of tardy soldiers, and over the brow of said ditch comes a bobble hat.
“The fuck are yous doin there?”….. Its Gone. We are idiots.
The Chimney is enough for Over, jobs and Millhouse, who head back to the cars in search of warmth while Gone takes me and tommy back to check the trains out.
Might as well while I”m here eh?
LB Deyo writing about climbing the Washington Bridge back in 2001:
“Irrelevancies, abstractions the past and the future blur to the edges. At the centre remains the moment in its essential data of survival; the immediate environment, my state of readiness, the threat, available means of escape. These details, normally overlooked, burn into my brain.
If urban exploration is worth anything, this is why. In the diamond clarity of fear we find the difference between speculation and experience, between philosophy and science. Its the difference between reading about the George Washington Bridge and climbing it”
Here is what happened in video form…. http://youtu.be/v19Ud6rLQXo