Unraveling the Mystery Behind This Puzzling Pinnacle
On nearing the Colossal Cave road turnoff by way of Interstate 10, your eyes may be drawn to an innocuous looking metal spire that looms high above the prickly pear and sandy soil of Vail.
When I first moved to our city in 2014, it was this very structure, towering above the desert, that reminded me that this was the road home. I could easily spot the girders and metallic ribs reflecting sunlight from several miles back, prompting me to merge to the right and prepare to make an exit toward my neighborhood.
With a twinge of romanticism, I thought of it as the “Eiffel Tower” of Vail. In actuality of course, it as a 200 foot “cell tower” that relays electromagnetic signals to similar towers covering all of Arizona, and indeed, the entire United States.
“Who actually climbs these things?” I thought to myself each time I passed by the solitary obelisk. “How do they decide to choose this as a vocation?” “And what the heck were they thinking?”
And just like that, in the blink of my hopelessly inquisitive eye, this story was born. All of this took place 6 months ago. And what I envisioned as a simple essay about interesting people and unusual occupations, became a very long, strangely difficult and mysterious drama with clandestine overtones and murky twists of plot.
Here’s how the CHILLING TALE OF THE PILLAR OF VAIL unfolded. I will use pseudonyms to protect the innocent.
March 2022, The mystery begins: I place a call to the Vail Chamber of Commerce asking who the owner/manager of the tower is. “No idea” is the answer. I feel that I’m off to a rough start. I do some Internet searching and discover that the structure is owned by AT&T, along with a list of all the companies who lease space on the tower. Verizon is a major participant. I send an email requesting information to each company that leases space on the tower. No responses.
April 2022, The search for evidence: I drive to the tower for possible clues about its management, and to take a few photos. I was hoping to actually catch a tower climber in action. No luck. Just some dog walkers who eye me suspiciously as I snap pictures of the barb-wired encircled structure. The signs on the fence read: CAUTION: Radio frequency fields at this site may exceed FCC rules for human exposure. As if to drive the reality of that warning a little deeper, one dog growls at me. I make a hasty exit.
May 2022, A possible lead: I post a message on our “Next door Rancho del Lago” web page asking if anyone can connect me to a tower climber in Tucson. Several people respond and a Mrs. X assures me that the son of Mrs. Y is indeed a tower maintenance employee. I manage to contact him and request an interview. He tells me he must get permission from his boss. After a week of email exchanges with possible meeting times, communication with climber goes dark. Forever.
June 2022, Another wrong turn: Sifting through countless Internet references for tower climbers I am able to dig up a company in Tucson which specifically services the microwave dishes at the top of the towers. I call the boss, Mr. Z who agrees to have his field manager contact me for an interview. I talk to the field guy who promises to call me the next day with a time for our meeting. I never hear from him again.
JULY 2002, Digging Deeper: I discover that the average salary for climbers in the United States is $50,448 a year or approximately $24.25 an hour. Interestingly, California Governor Gavin Newsom just signed a bill that could increase wages for fast food workers to up to $22 per hour in his state. With that in mind, I ponder the relative safety issues between flipping burgers and climbing towers. Hmmmmm. Some food for thought there.
AUGUST 2002, Finding more than I bargained for: I unearth a number of studies about the possible dangers of electromagnetic radiation exposure for folks living near these towers. Sounds like a whole new story to me. What ever happened to my simple, human interest article?
SEPTEMBER 2002, Persistence pays off!
I find some interesting chat from a climber on the REDDIT internet site and drop him a note. By golly, he is open and eager to talk about his work on the towers! He is 21-year-old Cullen Fulsom. Here is part of our conversation.
What got you into this business?
I actually got into welding and was thinking about doing underwater welding, but due to some issues I wasn’t able to go into it, so instead I thought, “well if I can’t go underwater why not into the air?”
What’s the best/worst part of the job?
I find the best part is the small stuff, like the views from the top or just the wild conversations we have up on the tower. The worst part to me is not being able to see family for periods of time due to jobs.
Did you ever have a fear of heights growing up?
Actually no. Ever since I can remember I was always climbing stuff, like trees, rock walls at fairs, or even the side of my childhood home to get onto the roof.
What does it feel like to be up above our busy world?
Amazing actually, it’s a feeling like no other. As a big people watcher you see funny to downright weird stuff from up there.
Do you ever sing out loud up there?
Always. Usually you’ll hear me singing like rapper “Notorious B.I.G.” or some “Boyz 2 Men”.
Despite all of the precautions you take, do you think of this as a dangerous occupation?
Yes, even with the 100% tied off and 3 points of contact rules, this job is very dangerous. You work with people’s lives at times and have to be able to trust your coworkers with your life.
Any close calls?
Yes, actually, just one though. It was in Corpus Christi, Texas. I had to climb a tower and do an inspection, and on my way up I went to go grab a horizontal rod and it crumbled from rust in my hand. The only thing that saved me from falling was my safety climb.
What, if any, are your concerns about EMF’s on the towers?
I actually don’t have any concerns. We have special suits we wear to protect us from EMF’s and RF up on the tower. Even then, most of the time the that I’ve seen, the tower is usually powered down and safe to climb.
Can you get shocked/electrocuted on a tower?
Yes, actually, if a line is cut and arcing, that will definitely do it to you. Even if lighting strikes the tower you can get electrocuted or even die from it.
And finally……What haven’t I asked that you think people would like to know about your work.
Out of all questions, the one I easily get asked the most is what do you do if you’re 1,000 feet up and have to use the bathroom?
This seems like a good place to end my story. Some parts of this dangerous but necessary job deserve to be left to our imaginations. My thanks to Cullen Fulsom for ending my months long quest, sharing his very interesting life and giving us a whole new way of looking at our own Eiffel Tower.
By Khevin Barnes