As published in The Kincardine News – August 30, 2011
By Jennifer Schleich
Smooth towering white giants speckle the Lake Huron landscape. Strange and looming mechanical creatures; they conjure thoughts of Don Quixote and his fantastical journeys. Not once, as I have driven under the shadows of their swooping blades, have I thought about actual people milling about inside them.
Wind turbines are massive and often alienating structures. That is, until you are given a rare opportunity to take a tour into the mysterious innards of a wind turbine, as I was this past week.
We all know wind turbines are a hot topic, so I’m not writing this to tell you interesting facts one way or another about them. I want to tell you about something else, the people who take care of them, who work in them and who are very brave about heights.
And they certainly are scary heights!
When the editor of the newspaper I worked for asked me if I wanted to go up a wind turbine I jumped up in excitement and said, “YES!” This was surely going to be a great adventure (the likes of Don Quixote). He informed me there were service lifts, like elevators, which take you quickly and safely to the top.
To my horror and shock, he was wrong.
As one of the technicians, Bill, told me halfway up my climb, Vestas doesn’t make turbines without service lifts anymore, but I was lucky enough to be on an older site where there weren’t any.
That’s right, I hope you caught that, “my climb”. Now some people out there may be thinking, “I could climb a wind turbine no problem.” Well, good for you.
So I arrived, bright and early, at the Vestas shop north-east of Tiverton on Friday morning, only to find myself signing wavers, completing safety quizzes, and learning about harnesses – because I was going to be wearing one very shortly.
I nodded in disbelief as Service Technician Fred Wiggerman told me how safe I was going to be, wearing this harness. He went over every detail, demonstrating that it was in excellent condition.
Now, 300ft. doesn’t sound that much. But it is. Especially when you are standing at the foot of a 300ft. verticle structure and craning your head back to see the top from under your hard hat. Well, if 300ft. didn’t seem like much from the base, it certainly did as I entered the turbine and looked up the ladder. I smiled and said, I’ll be fine. We used to have cherry trees, I’ve climbed lots of ladders. Another thing I was wrong about – climbing a tree isn’t a comparison at all. Thankfully there are handy platforms where you can rest on the way up, or I might have fallen all the way back down.
If I had ever thought about the job of maintaining a wind turbine, and I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have thought it was a physical job. I can’t express how exhausted I was after I climbed 300ft. into the air and 300ft. back to the ground. When I stepped out into the cool afternoon air, my first thought was, “I’m never doing that again!” My second thought was, “I really need a cheeseburger.”
It was fun. It was exhilarating. It was a fantastic experience, and don’t let me forget to tell you about the view, but it was hard.
It takes a lot of dedication to start that climb, because once you get up there you have to come back down again. As Bill said, it doesn’t matter if you’re tired or you’re having a bad day, you still have to make that climb. It doesn’t matter if it’s 50°C in the middle of July or if you are wearing a heavy jacket in December. Oh and I did I mention, apparently it never gets easier, but it’s ok because you get faster. Bill raced ahead of us with a loping grace, almost running up the ladder.
I can’t imagine ever voluntarily climbing one of these structures again and he has climbed seven in one day. It really makes me appreciate my desk job.
But the view! If every time you climb to the top you get to see that view, maybe it makes it worth it. I’ve reached the best part, where they let me stand on the outside top of the turbine! I could see all the way to the Chantry Island lighthouse.
So what if my legs were a little wobbly for the rest of the day, I’ll never forget my climb up a wind turbine, or that hard working people might be inside the next one I drive by.