This story is by Wade Flaming and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I need you back here to replace the top light,” the central Kansas radio tower owner told Arnold. “The one you put in three weeks ago is out.”
Disgusted that his vacation in Colorado was over so soon, Arnold said he’d be there the next morning.
Replacing the top bulb on the 1,500 foot tower required four hours and four minutes. A two-hour ascent, followed by a two-hour descent, interrupted by four minutes to change the failed bulb.
I should zipline a guy wire. That’d speed things up.
Unbidden, the thought came to him. The guy wire attachment points were like those on the zipline the previous day. The zipline had been fast, but nothing as exciting as it would be to hurtle down a guy wire.
Plus, it would be a different excitement than the descent where he’d gotten the hiccups. Those muscle spasms had jerked his entire body. He’d almost lost grip on the ladder and hoped to God that never happened again.
To zipline the guy wire he’d have to bring a trolley and secure it to the guy wire while standing on the edge of the tower frame, 1,500 feet up. Tricky, but not impossible. A normal zipline trolley wouldn’t work though. The guy wires were huge, three inches across.
Arnold was staying with a friend who worked where he had ziplined. He told him of his idea and his problem. “Is there a trolley with pulleys large enough for that size of cable?”
His friend laughed, shook his head, and said, “Not around here. I have the parts you need, though. You could build one yourself.”
So Arnold constructed his own trolley, even building in a friction brake to slow his descent. On the guy wire’s forty-five degree downslope, his speed would reach over a hundred miles per hour.
But there was a problem. His creation was too heavy and ungainly to carry with him on his climb up the tower. It would need to be transported up the guy wire from the ground below. But how?
Would a kite work?
He remembered how tightly he’d gripped the lines on the kites he’d flown as a kid. But was that enough force to pull a trolley up a guy wire? Doubtful, and the kite might get tangled in the tower. And there might not be a strong enough wind. He rejected the kite idea.
Attaching enough helium-filled balloons would do it. Several hundred should easily haul his trolley up the guy wire. Arnold rigged a clasping device to his trolley. When clamping to the tower, it would also free the balloons.
When he arrived at the tower the following morning, he encountered the tower owner.
“Let me show you what I plan to do,” said Arnold, revealing his trolley, harness, and helium tanks.
The owner wrinkled his forehead and looked at the gear, “What does that have to do with the light?”
“I plan to zipline down the guy wire.”
The response was predictable.
“Are you crazy? The simple fact you even want to do it makes you crazy.”
Being called crazy was nothing new to Arnold. Most people, when learning he climbed towers for a living, thought he was crazy. Some even asked how much he drank in order to gather up the nerve to do it.
“No,” said Arnold to the tower owner. “I’m not crazy. Plus, it would be a faster way down.”
The owner stared at him, “A faster way to die, too. And, they’ll hold me liable. But, if you sign a release of liability agreement, I won’t stop you. You’d be own your own.”
Arnold signed the agreement.
The owner pocketed the agreement and sped away, wanting nothing to do with what he knew would be a catastrophe.
Arnold used four-hundred-fifty helium-filled balloons to slide his trolley up the guy wire. As the trolley rose, Arnold fidgeted, worried about his auto-clamping device, wishing he’d brought binoculars. When the balloons suddenly shot upwards past the top of the tower, he relaxed. It had worked. All was ready.
Back at the base of the tower, Arnold began climbing. Using safety lines made the climb safer than his detractors thought. The most dangerous part was the free climb at the very top, where he couldn’t use his safety lines.
When Arnold reached the point where the tower frame ended, the free climb began. He detached his safety strap and scaled the bars welded into the sides of the pole. At the top, he once again attached his safety line, this time to a portion of the railing surrounding the light. Even though reality argued for his safety, his mind struggled with the apparent frailty of the railing.
Trusting the security of his safety line, Arnold leaned back against his harness strap, much as a telephone lineman would do, to use both hands to open the housing of the non-functioning light. As he removed and turned over the old bulb, he saw the manufacturing defect that – HICUPP!
The savage, unexpected hiccup wracked his body, causing the burnt out bulb to slither from his fingers. Desperately, he lunged to catch it, a split second later realizing his mistake as his feet slipped from their supports. Horror thrilled through him as he fell.
His safety line jolted him, slamming him against the side of the tower. The entire world revolved about his head as he spun, suspended by the safety strap. His sweaty hands flailed, searching for a purchase.
A single horizontal bar grazed his cheek. He grabbed, caught, and clung to the bar as he regained his footing. His body was numb. This was the first time his safety gear had literally saved his life.
His nerves were singing as he struggled to compose himself. Observing the open light housing, he remembered that replacing the light was the reason he was up there. He inserted the replacement bulb and watched as it illuminated. Mission accomplished. Now to go back down.
His entire being recoiled at the idea. In order to make the sixty-five foot free descent, he would have to forego the very safety gear that had just saved his life. His sweaty hands now had company. His feet were sweating too. The rigid horizontal bars he’d have to use as handholds and footholds were like melting icicles.
He had no choice. Distant thunder revealed he was also out of time. Before climbing, he’d seen the storm in the west, but judged he’d be off the tower before it arrived. It had sped up. And if he was still up there on the tip of the tower when the storm hit? Goodbye Arnold.
Covered in a cold sweat, he inched his way down the pole, then to the guy wire attachment points. The zipline was his fastest route to safety. The thunder was much louder now, the storm nearly upon him. Time to go.
After hooking into his homemade trolley, he detached from the tower and felt the adrenaline rush of zipping down the guy wire. It was like he was surfing the air. He relaxed as he listened to the sound of his pulleys doing their job. So high off the ground, only the air rushing past his ears revealed how fast he was going.
The sudden screech jerked him to a stop. He swore. What now?
As he swung under the trolley, he saw a loose strand of guy wire cable had wrapped itself around the front pulley bearing. He had a wire cutter, but snipping the guy wire strand would do no good. The binding still jammed the pulley. No way would it turn.
He felt the wind gusting and the drop in air temperature. Thunder was all around him, occurring only a second after the flashes of lightning, flashes ever brighter with the sun blocked by the dark storm clouds.
He knew lightning would strike the tower. The terrifying fact was lightning would strike him as well. The metal in his harness and trolley would attract it. It was like he had a death wish.
Might the pulley slide instead of roll?
If he cut the strand still holding the trolley in place, his own one-hundred-ninety-five pounds hanging from the trolley might make the jammed pulley slide. It would be slow, but much better than dangling stationary, tempting the lightning. He snipped the strand.
It worked! He was moving again. Slowly.
The crash of thunder was deafening as lightning hit the tower. In one tick of the clock he’d seen a flash, heard a pop, then felt the razor edged crack of noise followed by the roar of thunder rolling away from him.
He smelled zinc. Electricity was in the air. Ears ringing, he continued to slide towards the ground, reaching it just as the heavens opened. Rain pounded.
He fell to his hands and knees.
Right now, nothing else mattered.