Dizzy heights: Industrial climbing is not for the faint-hearted

Tees Business Digital Media Pack

The Business Buzz… with award-winning writer Harry Pearson…

Watching film of Wilton Engineering’s towering 340-tonne transition pieces being towed down the Tees stirred misty memories of a freezing morning nearly half a century ago when the cold black river witnessed the passage of another of Teesside’s great engineering feats.

I was about 12. It was 7am on a freezing Sunday and I was standing at Port Clarence steelworks watching the modules for the North Sea Oil platforms – built by Cleveland Bridge – being towed out to sea by a fleet of tugs.

The recollection of that day sends a shiver down my spine, not because of the icy wind that seems a permanent feature of the waterway that shaped our region, but at the memory of visiting those same modules with my father a few weeks earlier.

My dad had worked in the structural steel business all his life. When he first started out at Cargo Fleet back in the 1950s, one of his jobs was checking and servicing the blast furnaces that lined the Tees.

At least once a week he’d climb 220 feet up what furnacemen called ‘the stick’ – a straight steel pole with rungs sticking out left-and-right alternately at one foot intervals.

When he got to the top, he’d put out his fag and step across a six-foot gap onto the steel plates at the top of the furnace. Just typing that sentence has made me feel dizzy, but my dad was so unfazed by this escapade he’d sometimes take his sandwich and a KitKat with him in his pocket and eat his lunch while he was up there, his feet dangling over the side (now I really do feel dizzy).

If anyone asked my father if he was ever nervous clambering about up there, he waved the idea aside. “Nobody is afraid of heights,” he was fond of saying, “They just aren’t used to them.” Unfortunately, on the day we went to see the oil platform modules, he had forgotten that one of the people who wasn’t used to heights was me.

The modules were huge things, as tall as a block of flats. On our visit my dad merrily led me upwards through a series of ladders, chatting breezily all the while. Halfway up the module we came to a gap you had to cross by walking a couple of yards across an 18-inch steel beam. There was a drop of about 75 feet beneath it, straight down, onto the cold, hard ground. “I can’t walk across that,” I squeaked, “What if I fall off?”

My dad snorted, “It’s as wide as a pavement,” he said, “You wouldn’t fall off a pavement, would you?”

I knew what my father was saying was correct, but it made no difference. My feet wouldn’t move no matter how much I willed them to. Eventually we gave up and came back down again.

“The height makes no difference,” my dad said when we were back on the ground drinking syrupy-sweet steel erector’s tea from tin mugs. “You jump three feet across a beck, or three feet over a thousand foot deep chasm, it’s the same action, isn’t it? How high you are doesn’t affect anything, unless you let it.”

This, of course, was true. There was nothing rational about it. You can walk across a plank that’s on the floor no problem at all, but lift it four feet in the air and try and walk across it and your legs suddenly won’t do what you want anymore. It’s fear that makes you fall – as with heights, so with life.

Wilton Engineering’s gigantic pieces are going out to the Hornsea Project wind farm.

The wind turbines are very tall. Somebody will have to erect and maintain them.

I have huge admiration for those that do, but I’m very glad I’m not one of them.


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