By Ken Speake
MINNEAPOLIS, MN -- "It's a mental game. It plays with you a little bit."
Joe Guentzel was talking about 1,400-foot tall television antenna tower he was about to climb so he could change a warning light.
"I always tell people it's roughly twice as high as the IDS [Center] for good reference," he says.
His tool belt/climbing harness jingle-jangled as Joe Guentzel climbed into it.
"You always gotta have a little fear, otherwise that's not a good thing either."
Joe Guentzel has been doing tower service work since he graduated from high school in 1981. He says he can do it because he doesn't fear heights but that doesn't mean he's not nervous. He says he always loses sleep the night before he climbs a big tower.
And this tower, the south tower at Telefarm in Shoreview, was one of the three tallest towers in Minnesota.
"Headin' up! Goin up!" he hollered.
An elevator lifted Guentzel to near the top of the tower. He had fifteen minutes to fortify himself for the climb.
"At least it's a nice day out!"
Joe Guentzel remembers climbing in 20 degree below zero temperatures, this was better.
Five television stations and at least two radio stations broadcast from Telefarm.
"We turn off the transmitters when they get up there," said Craig Wolfe, transmitter operator for KARE-11 TV, "to keep them from getting [injured]."
"Injured" is not the word Craig Wolfe used, but that's what he meant. Television and radio signals are microwaves... the same kind of radiation we use to cook food in microwave ovens. And when a person is close to a transmitting antenna, that high intensity radiation can burn.
Guentzel remembers times when he accidentally stepped into a microwave field.
"It gets warm real quick," he says.
This day, Joe was carrying a newly designed longer- lasting light emitting diode (LED) array, intended to lessen the number of trips anybody would have to make to change warning lights.
His first challenge came at the top of the tower, before he started to climb the 130 feet of antennas. A tower service crew had failed to replace an access ladder which meant Guentzel would have to cover a distance of 10 feet without it, "Idiots!" he editorialized.
Now the hard work began. Guentzel had ridden to a point nearly a quarter mile above the ground, and he had to climb another 130 feet wearing a heavy safety harness, carrying tools, and the bulky LED array slung over his shoulder.
He straddled a 16 inch wide antenna mast and he climbed and he began puffing.
"Working up a little sweat, I am," he remarked.
At 30 feet, about 1,430 feet off the ground, he rested.
From the ground, he looked like a spot near the top of the south tower.
He climbed again and rested again, a scenario he repeated three more times before he arrived at the top.
"Well... looks like I made it up here, anyways. Whew!"
Joe Guentzel says working at the top of a tall tower, a really tall tower, requires concentration. A dropped tool is not only unavailable for the job, it becomes a potentially lethal missile on its way down.
And with concentration and planning, the work frequently goes quickly. This warning light went quickly anyway.
He picked up his radio.
"You wanna go ahead and power up the lights?" he asked.
The LED began blinking red.
"Oh, let there be light! What a wonderful light!" he exclaimed.
The radio asked, "Is it blinking up there? "The top one's blinkin'," said Joe.
"Sweet," said the radio.
And Joe Guentzel started down placing his feet slowly and accurately, removing one safety strap only after the second had been placed as he concentrated on his descent.
Then came the fifteen minute long elevator ride back to the ground.
"Something like this gets you pumped up a little bit. You start climbing a 130-foot tall mast on top of a 1,400 foot tower... that'd get you a little excited," he said.
"It's good to be back off there, though."
Joe Guentzel says he's not afraid of heights. That's why he can do tower service work. But he says it's always good to be off the tower with solid ground beneath his feet again.
Joe is paid $600 a day for the days he climbs these towers.