31 October 2006

Heights, old and new

Chimneys aren't what they used to be, or what I imagined they used to be. No longer do small children get lowered in with brushes to sweep them clean from the inside, and Santa has more than blazing fires to be concerned about with the proliferation of narrow flues. Not so narrow as to prevent the occasional flying squirrel that glides to our roof Batman-style from finding its way into our basement, however.

Really, I'm not a fan of the rodent family, particularly when something wild finds its way indoors only to knock things over and chew through stuff in an effort to get back outside. As soon as I learned about chimney caps, small covers which go on top of flues, I volunteered to climb to the roof to install them. That was back in the summer when the weather was warm and fair. Needing to borrow a ladder from a neighbor was enough of an excuse for my dad to keep postponing the task. There was always other more pressing stuff to do, and it was clear it was not something he really felt like doing; as gungho as I was, I would require his help.

Last week, I brought it up again because we'd soon have ice and then it would have to wait until next year. He was game and put in a call for the ladder, a lightweight extension model made of aluminum. The first thing I would have to do is climb up and measure the three flues so we could buy the proper sized chimney caps. Heights have never bothered me much so I didn't consider it as we raised the ladder's extension.

Growing up, I regularly climbed trees as high as the branches would allow, 90 feet give or take. It was peaceful up there, looking down on roofs and people reduced to model train sized figures. I'd pack a napsack with some biscuits and juice for an aerial snack. I never feared falling: there were a lot of branches, and I was both careful and a good judge of which ones could hold my weight; falling was never an issue, I trusted myself.

Today, however, I felt like a pussy just climbing a ladder to the top of a chimney on a two-storey house. In a word, the ladder was springy. It felt like if I moved too energetically up or down the rungs, the whole thing would spring away from the house like some violent cartoon where the ladder would crush me into the ground like a hammer. If I hadn't just watched my dad climb up a few rungs and jiggle the top away from the roof to straighten the ladder, this might not've come to mind so vividly.

Also, to keep it lightweight, the rungs were narrow, so for stability I felt more comfortable holding the sides than the rungs, which is fine but only until you're falling. When I reached the portion where the two ladder lengths overlapped, I was paranoid about kicking the ratcheting mechanism- that we'd used to extend the ladder- loose, prompting the upper section to clatter down, inevitably pushing me off. In a moment of reason, I thought to myself: If that were actually possible, this would be a really poor ladder design. I cleared the overlap section and then the ladder became springier. The wind picked up, so I paused for a moment before continuing my vertical wedding march: step, together, step, together; except without alternating legs.
I'd used the same step pattern when I started walking across a burnt out train bridge over the Hudson River to shoot my film partner's documentary in college. The first 30 or so railroad ties were charred and uneven from the fire that closed the bridge in 1974. My partner had been out there before with a guide, so he walked with confidence. I took them slowly, one tie at a time.

The railroad ties were 9 inches wide and about a foot apart, but there was nothing beneath them, just the river 212 feet below. We were careful not to drop any of our equipment. Every thirty feet, there was a metal girder about two feet wide which provided a break from the stress of traversing the wood ties that were inches shorter than my shoes.

Once we were well past the burnt section, I became more accustomed to the ties and started walking normally across them. A severe ropes course, I suppose, but with no harnesses. It still took a long time to walk even halfway across the bridge, so we had our snack break out there, sitting on adjacent metal girders, yelling back and forth to be heard over the wind. When I saw his cut of the footage, his music choice sounded incongruous to me: smooth jazz drained the imagery of peril and completely disconnected the film from my adrenaline-saturated experience shooting it.
Near the top of the ladder, I read the notice by the rung above which one should not stand for the very balance issue the springiness had made me concerned about. Even when you obey that notice, the catch is that you run out of ladder to hang onto as you finish your ascent. I could reach the top of the chimney, but there was no lip to grasp, it was a flat ledge. My loose-from-use work gloves made my grip feel even more tenuous. Stepping to the next rung, I could feel the top of one of the flues which gave me more to hang onto, but when I reached the top, I saw that the flues were made of tile and wouldn't hold my weight for long if I lost my footing.

Once I was there, leaning against the chimney, I felt fine. I pulled a piece of paper from my back pocket, and a pencil and tape measure from my jacket. Images of the tape measure falling down one of the flues kept crossing my mind, but I reassured myself that that was better than dropping it down the side of the house where my dad was steadying the ladder (not that it felt like his efforts were making any difference).

Climbing down, I took the same slow care with each rung. I feel like I'm becoming more of a wuss as I get older. Hopefully it'll be a little less windy and a little warmer tomorrow.

When I got out of bed the next morning, I was reminded that climbing ladders is more strenuous than it appears; the moment I bent my right leg, my quadriceps burned with strain. The weather had cooperated with a sunny, calm day, and Dad had purchased the three chimney caps we needed, so we forged ahead.

Climbing up was less stressful because this time the ladder was nestled in beside the chimney which gave it a bit more stability. About three quarters of the way up, I had to switch the bucket of tools that was hanging from the crook of my right elbow to my left because the chimney was in the way. I leaned into the ladder and let go of it, so I could pass the bucket behind me. Once I reached the top, I surveyed the slope of the roof, the position of the ladder and chimney, and concluded that I would have to step off the ladder to the downward side of the roof. I laid my right arm on top of the chimney for balance and was about to shift to the roof when Dad yelled something.

I froze and yelled, "What?!"

I looked down over my shoulder and he repeated his direction, "Hang the bucket off the ladder."

To keep the bucket from getting in my way as I stepped to the roof, I would have to hang it from the right side which meant changing hands again. This time, I was able to swap the bucket in front of the ladder, but the angle was awkward for hanging it. "The handle's not long enough!"

"Sorry!" he called from below.

I set the bucket gingerly on the roof, and when it didn't slide, I resumed the position I'd had before Dad yelled and stepped onto the roof. With two strides, I was safely straddling the peak and able to hang the bucket on the ladder. It was angled out quite a bit, but from this position, I could see that it wasn't going to spill its contents.

Dad brought up our modified chimney caps and between the two of us, me on the roof and him on the ladder, we got them attached to the flues. I offered to climb over and clean off the gutter diverters above the doors, but Dad recommended moving the ladder to them instead, so I wouldn't have to walk across the roof. He climbed down with the bucket while I admired the view. Our yard seemed much more open from my roof vantage.

"OK!" he yelled up.

It was my turn to come down. Again, I surveyed my surroundings, but this time I was facing the yard, aka the drop. Stepping off the roof onto the ladder was a pure don't think too much lesson: believe in myself, trust my body not to step off into nothingness to fall 35 feet.

I trusted myself more back in the days when I was climbing trees than I do now climbing ladders.

One year ago at TTaT: tip of the week- Medium, Spawn of the ladybug, blargh- or was that blog?
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