In an earlier article I discussed the importance of hiring an experienced engineering surveyor with transmission design expertise to properly perform your microwave path survey and the pitfalls of not doing so. Part of the path surveying routine includes climbing the towers at the terminal endpoints to see over nearby obstructions in order to visualize how close significant vegetation or man-made objects might be to the path. In this article, I’ll lighten things up a bit to relate some field experiences around the tower climbing segment of my work. Then I’ll get serious with some other issues facing women in this field.

Prior to entering the path surveying profession, the only climbing I ever did was as a child in the backyard pecan tree to shake limbs so that mom would have nuts for Christmas fudge. Climbing microwave towers was something that I never imagined I’d do.

However, when a potential employer asked me in an interview if I was afraid of heights, I knew that my views of life from ground level would about to change. I had no idea what was in store for me, but soon I was climbing towers and loved it! Granted, nowadays I don’t go to the tops or climb the several hundreds of feet up towers that I used to, but I still get a thrill in safety-harnessing up, mounting the pegs, climbing up a hundred feet or so for path pictures and to glass the path for potential obstructions. The only other thrill I get like that is when I’m air racing and doing 225 mph timeline flybys at 200’ off the deck (legally wavered by the FAA, of course).

tower views from above

The view from above – how Sandy St. John sees the world

Tower climbing is serious business and I don’t take it any more lightly than I do air racing. I always exercise safety first, because complacency can cause blunt force trauma every time. I never fail to wear the proper equipment, and although I’ve not been trained to climb in specific safety courses, I have been company-trained by qualified experienced personnel. I’ve been climbing for almost 26 years and have learned the proper climbing techniques, utilized the proper equipment, and always maintain a safe decision making attitude. By God’s grace, and using a keen awareness for safety, I’ve never experienced an injury on a tower. On the other hand, I’ve learned from personal experience (several times) to look out for air conditioning vent hoods when turning the corners of equipment shelters. For you pilots out there, that’s equivalent to “flap face” from a high wing aircraft.

Not to detract from the seriousness and professional attitude required for this type of work, there are some humorous stories to tell from being a woman who climbs towers. I’ve heard a range of comments from “I’ve never seen a girl climb a tower before” to “Honey, I’ll climb with you any day (snicker snicker wink wink)” or even “do you ever wear heels when you climb”…? …seriously, no kidding. Guys’ fantasies never cease to amaze me…And then there’s always the standard “aren’t you afraid of heights”…? Like, dude …really…would you ask another guy that…? Besides, if I was afraid, I wouldn’t be doing it. Heights don’t bother me as long as there’s something other than just air holding me up.

The first tower I ever climbed was a 500’ guyed tower in Georgia. I had just been hired as a microwave path surveyor and was on a training trip with a seasoned surveyor and climber. My trainer had shown me the basics such as proper harness adjustments, which muscles to efficiently use, how to strategically leverage my body while climbing without getting unnecessarily tired, how to strap on the tower, where and how to rest, etc. and then observed as I started up. He never pushed me to go higher, but only encouraged me to reach a level where I felt comfortable enough to take the path photos. However, I wanted to experience more so I started to climb higher. Every hundred feet or so I would stop, tether all my safeties to the tower and rest. And after every rest, it seems as though my energy increased until I was able to climb all the way to the top. Was I nervous? Absolutely! Was I afraid ? Absolutely not! It was the same as flying; and years later I would feel the same exhilaration as a student pilot during my first solo. I would now describe it as a supremely elevated level of an adrenaline-fueled pucker factor.

It seems like I always attract a crowd when I climb. In Florida, I had to climb a self support tower that was situated adjacent to a multi-story office building. When I was passing each story in height, apparently I was drawing a crowd inside looking out the windows. It was a hoot to have these men and women in their office suits waiting at the base of the tower to ask me questions like I had just stepped out of a spaceship…One guy even asked me if I could teach his secretary how to climb. I guess he thought it would be of major use if she ever had to get the coffee cups down off the top shelf.

On a project in the Dallas area, I was on a tower taking path photos and noticed a guy on the ground taking pictures of me. When I came back down, he asked if I wouldn’t mind the local newspaper doing a small article on me because he had “never seen a lady climb a tower before”. I politely said of course, thinking at the same time that this newspaper must really be hard up for a news story. I figured at most it would be a paragraph with a picture. The next thing I knew was that he and a journalist were following me all over south Texas on a project for two days, taking pictures and asking questions. When the article finally came out, it was a full two page spread with numerous photos. And with all the attention that the article was getting, you would have thought I was some sort of celebrity – all because I was climbing a tower. And if you don’t know me personally, fame and celebrity status ain’t me – for the main reason that I like my privacy, and I’ve been interviewed enough in air races to know that whatever they print most likely will not be what I said. I’m still trying to figure out why they thought that a woman climbing a tower was news.

Once, while strapped to the top of a tower on New Mexico’s 11,000 ft. Sandia Peak, I was finishing up my tasks and just enjoying the spectacular view when I heard “Heyyyyy…!” Thinking maybe my client was hollering at me from the ground, I yelled down to him – but he said he wasn’t calling me. Then I heard “Heyyyyyyyyy…!” again. I finally looked up and saw that it was a guy on a hang glider right above me catching mountain thermals and flirting his little heart out. I waved back at him, and then he was literally “gone with the wind”.

In Mexico, on a warehouse rooftop where I was inspecting a potential antenna location for the microwave system design for a trans-border hop, some children down on the ground were excitedly calling out to me and waving. When I waved back, they started chanting the name “Yuri”, which I later found out was a famous Mexican singer. My interpreter said that they thought I was her because of a resemblance and my long blond hair. Those children were so precious and sweet – their clothes appeared so worn and their houses indicated a level of poverty. But in order to try and brighten their day, I waved, blew them a kiss and did a couple of really uncoordinated dance moves for them. You should’ve seen their eyes light up and heard their screams of joy. That overrode any sense of embarrassment on my part seeing as how I’m about as coordinated as a rat passing through a boa constrictor. Their joy over such a little thing is a constant reminder of how blessed I am.

job site transportation

A microwave surveyor has to utilize all types of transportation to get to the job site

And I don’t need to climb a tower to get attention either. Idaho – during a time of the year where the snow was so deep we had to use helicopters and Snow Cats just to get to the tower sites. I learned real quick why you just don’t go jumping down off a Snow Cat in the wilderness after a heavy snowfall - because my big ole hairy-legged male clients had to literally hoist me straight back up by my arms onto the Snow Cat’s treads to get me out of 4 ft. deep snow. I never knew how cold my armpits could get…quite the learning process…

In the old days, I was, I guess for lack of a better term, “unique”. Very few women were climbing steel in the microwave field. People would see the blond hair, makeup, and “other equipment” going up a tower and just stare with their mouths open. And for some unfathomable reason, I got more requests for dates while in the field and on towers than when I was back home.

I personally know of no other women providing microwave path survey services to the detail and extent that I do – for that matter, I don’t know many men that do, either. While only a fraction of the people in the world who climb towers are female, the numbers are growing. And they are climbing higher, carrying more equipment, and performing more tasks than I ever did. Whether male or female, they are affectionately known as “Tower Dogs” and they are REAL tower climbers as far as I’m concerned. I’ve climbed literally thousands of towers all over the world in order to get photos and a “bird’s eye view” of a path, but I’m not a true “Tower Dog” as they are. The men and women who legitimately bear that title have my utmost respect.

Measuring antenna heights with a survey laser

Measuring antenna heights with a survey laser

Now on to the serious side with some straightforward personal opinions concerning being a woman in the field of microwave path surveying - I’m just going to tell it like I see it. Women like me shouldn’t be anomalies or even a surprise in the engineering world. It doesn’t matter if a surveyor is a woman or a man - as long as the job is done right, the data is correct, complete, and provided within budget for a fair reasonable fee. Sad to say though, even in the 21st century, I’ve experienced plenty of the “good ole boy” mindset from companies, no matter how well they hide it. Subtly, it can come in the form of not being kept in the communications loop on a project, or having to fight to be taken seriously. It blatantly comes in the form of bias in awarding work contracts - such as one particular company, who knows very well my qualifications and expertise from previous assignments, but chooses to “blacklist” me as a contractor because their services buyer has personal issues with me as a woman. This individual actually told my potential customer that if I was subcontracted for the work, they would not get the bid. It also comes in the form of companies “recognizing” me as a qualified vendor and using my woman-owned minority business status to help them get bids for work, yet never awarding me any work once they get it. Not to mention that a lot of companies nowadays appear to hand out work based on who knows who and seemingly less on qualifications and expertise. And, while I’m being direct here, I’ve lost a lot of potential work because of a strong Christian witness. Many LinkedIn connections have disconnected with me because I mention the Name of Jesus Christ in my profile or reference my faith in my postings, like I am doing here. It’s amazing that people don’t have a problem with funny pictures, math puzzles or whatnot – but the Name of the Lord is considered offensive…sad.

Suffice it to say, I am in business to succeed and so I forgive and turn the other cheek. Do I carry around a bag of sour grapes? Absolutely not – wrong or right, I’m just telling it like I see it. I don’t worry about it. All I know is that God’s in charge and I’m not, and there is an edifying reason for even the biggest obstacles that happen in my life - it’s called growing spiritually by overcoming adversity. Suffice it to say, it’s their loss. My experience, expertise and reputation for outstanding work is in the top tier and upper echelon of this field. I don’t rely on gender-related minority status in order to obtain work – I rely totally on the grace of God, a reputation for superior work and referrals from impressed and well pleased clients.

Finally, when I started performing microwave path surveys, I came out of an economically challenged civil engineering and surveying environment - work was very hard to come by. I had been involved in surveying since college and a depressed national economy didn’t appear to be getting any better, so I contemplated a career change. When interviewing for a microwave path surveyor position with one of the well-known leaders in telecommunications engineering, I thought I’d be leaving behind a field that not only had I spent time and money being educated and trained for, but also deeply loved. At the time, I didn’t even know what a microwave path was. But through all of the challenges, I began to see that indeed “the Lord does work in mysterious ways”. After accepting the interview and being hired, I now see that I stepped into a “Divine Appointment”. It had to be of a divine nature because it all fell into place too easily and it was the perfect fit for me – all of my talents, training and desires came together into one job. Today, almost 26 years later, I still feel that way and even if I won a lottery that made me filthy rich, I’d still be doing microwave path surveys. I love it just that much.

And tower climbing, …? The view is always better from the top !

About The Author

Sandy St. John is a degreed field engineer with several decades of civil engineering surveying, microwave path surveying and transmission engineering design experience. Even though their numbers are growing, she is still one of only a handful of female tower climbers in the U.S. When she is not surveying microwave paths, the licensed commercial pilot enjoys spending time racing general aviation aircraft. She exhibits high moral and ethical standards and Christian values. She operates Maranantha Microwave Path Surveys and loves discussing the unique and critical nature of her work.

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