Lessons Learned: Tower Climbing During Extreme Cold Conditions

By: The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) 

The 2014 new year began with subzero temperatures across much of the United States. Meteorologists attributed the surge to the polar vortex, an area of low pressure in the upper atmosphere that typically centers around Canada’s Baffin Island and over northeast Siberia. The week of January 9, a large piece of the vortex broke off and a southward dip in the jet stream forced the Arctic blast into the United States. Throughout the week, temperatures in the Midwest and North plunged to record lows. Minnesota recorded temperatures as low as -36F with wind chills ranging from -40F to -60F.  To put this in perspective, NASA’s rover “Curiosity” sent a reading of -32.8F while on Mars on Jan. 2.

The freezing temperatures create havoc as driving conditions are unsafe, car batteries are frozen, water lines break or freeze and other utilities such as electric and cell service are compromised. While utility workers face the arctic cold conditions, wireless ISPs (WISPs) need to send tower climbers to fix Internet outages. These workers face a number of factors that are compounded by the frigid temperatures, which include contact with metal surfaces, temperatures decreasing and wind increasing as they climb 60 to 300+ feet above the ground. In addition, cables get stiff, sealants don’t work, plastic tabs that are supposed to flex break instead and vinyl siding on houses gets brittle and tends to crack or shatter.

The conditions at the top of towers are similar to mountain climbing, skiing, dog sledding and parachuting, just to name a few. Frostbite can occur quickly and easily if precautions are not taken before the climb. Some of the common areas susceptible to frostbite are hands, feet, ears, nose and even eyes.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) asked its members for advice on how their tower crews remain warm and safe while fixing towers in extreme cold conditions. The following are some good tips:

Keeping Warm

  • For the hands – Chemical glove warmer inserts can be used inside gloves on top of hand. There are several battery-operated and rechargeable gloves made by manufacturers like Gerbing, Volt and Venture. The price tag is steep but worth the investment.
  • For the feet – Wear boots that are insulated and waterproof such as military issue boots. Some WISPA members use Bunny boots, which they indicate are good on the ground or roof but not as good for long climbs. Others use the Sorel brand. Like the chemical glove warmers, some stores sell chemical toe warmers that you insert into a boot and lasts about 5-8 hours. Another option is battery-operated electric socks.
  • For the head and nose – As 40 percent of body heat is lost through the head, In addition to a warm hat, wear a facemask that covers the entire head, nose, mouth and neck. There are many extreme sport manufacturers that sell quality facemasks for extreme conditions.
  • For the eyes – Eyes can even get frostbite. Although tears cause the surface of the eye to remain warm, the high altitude decreases tear flow and high winds dry the eyes. When this happens, the chances of getting cornea frostbite increases. To prevent frostbite of the eyes, wear fog-free goggles and bring eye drops that are kept warm to keep eyes moist at all times.
  • For the body – Put pocket heater in tool backpack. Wear long johns and double clothing but avoid cotton clothing because it can absorb moisture make you colder in the long run. Military over pants help to keep the legs warm. Some WISPs use ice fishing snow suits such as the Clam Outdoors Ice Armor Extreme-Weather Suit that is rugged but not too bulky for climbing towers.

Climbing Preparedness

  • Have a paper mask in case exertion and/or altitude causes fast breathing.
  • Take extra CAT5 cables that are kept warm because the ones on switches and/or routers on towers may snap.
  • Place carabineers that are big enough to manipulate with cold fingers on all zipper cords of tool backpacks.
  • Keep a heat gun handy to warm up items that become too stiff or prone to crack in the cold.
  • Check the National Weather Service for wind speed and temperatures to understand the time it takes for frostbite to set in before climbing towers or buildings. Weather.com has a helpful wind chill and temperature chart.

The advice based on lessons learned by several of WISPAs members during the extreme weather conditions in January includes having an emergency plan in place, especially for areas such as the South that does not experience extreme low temperatures. Also, set limits on working conditions. Make repairs and installs during mid-day or early afternoon, as the temperatures tend to rise a little during these times of the day. One WISP indicated that it has a safety policy which includes no climbing for any reason during ice, snow, lightning or even rain; dark climbing only on specific types of towers such as those that have an enclosed ladder system and use of a head lamp. It’s even considering placing a wind speed limit on tower climbing.

WISPs should also add an emergency box at every tower to include all the extra items needed for different weather conditions.

And during extreme cold weather, stay off membrane roofs if possible. These roofs are flat, commercial or high-rise buildings and older roofs have less flexibility in extreme cold conditions, which can lead to damage and/or injury.

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