Climb To The Sky


The timbers are thick inside, the space is tight, dark, still he climbs until he becomes stuck, wedged in. He drills a vent hole large enough to push through his rope, the rope that will allow him to attach his rigging.

Dave Knox is a steeplejack; the man behind Advanced Construction & Steeple Jack Corp. of Red Hook. Be it smokestack, steeple or building, if it's tall he can climb it and has for the past 20 years. On this particular day the job takes Dave to the top of the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church in Hudson to install the weather vane replica and restored finial. In order to put up the necessary scaffold, Dave first has to get to the top. Once the rigging is secure the climb begins. A steeplejack needs great upper body strength and, like a boxer, solid legs. Using the rigging, he climbs as far as the vent hole he cut from inside the steeple, 13 feet from the top. Now, 13 feet doesn't seem like much, maybe the length of your living room, but nearly 180 feet up, with nothing to grab onto but slick stainless steel flashing and slate, it can be miles. Using a sling strap wrapped around the steeple, Dave advances a foot, then slides back down 6 inches. He pulls himself up another foot and slides back 6 inches. Three hours later, an exhausted Dave Knox reaches the top. Tough commute, huh. Then the hard work begins, building the scaffold. The set up and tear down part of every job is the most dangerous.

Dave started in construction and masonry. The company he worked for began taking on higher jobs, so Dave just learned to be a steeplejack and no, heights don't bother him. I didn't ask if he's superstitious, seemed like a stupid question. Steeplejacks may have superstitions but I suspect they're private or practical like test pilots never using the word crash, or race drivers quietly walking the track the night before a race.

Steeple jacking is teamwork. Each member of Dave's four-man team has a specific job. Dave Knox, son Luke Knox, Bob Monsell and John Herpel sit down prior to every climb and meticulously work out the day's plan. They choreograph their moves, planning five steps ahead; there is no room for error in the steeplejack business.

Bob Monsell, who's been steeple jacking for 8 years, tells me he always climbed. As a kid if he saw a tree, he climbed it. Bob loves the work because it's always a different challenge. "There's one thing not to do," he points out. "Don't ever go right to the edge and look down; it'll pull you over." The possibility of a sudden storm blowing up is always a danger.

"What do you do then?"

"Hang on tight to anything solid, until you can get down, otherwise you'll be a flag waving out at the end of your rope." Not a fun place to be.

The day arrives to install the finial and weather vane. Dave is at the top on the scaffold, Bob is in the boatswain's chair just below the top, John and Luke are on the church roof. I'm on the street with the gathering crowd, looking up. Heads are tilted back, necks crane, eyes shaded, "Glad that's not me up there," someone ponders aloud, "I don't know how they do it." One woman walks past head down, "I can't even look," she grimaces.

Everything is ready for installation. Then a glitch arises. They discover the finial is now 17 inches taller and the weather vane is 50 pounds heaver than the original, big problems 180 feet in the air.

On the ground Dave is quiet and calm, but not happy. I watch Dave's steel blue Paul Newman eyes. He's the image of an Indy 500 driver forced out by a bad bearing after 195 laps. One solution becomes apparent; the pieces will have to be re-worked. The job goes on hold until then. It's lunch time, then on to the next job; the next chance to climb to the sky.

We'll talk next time From The Road.

Addendum:

Just before 3:00 on June 10, 2000, Dave Knox slipped the new weather vane into place, high atop the 1st Presbyterian Church steeple.

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