Climbers scale Ohio building for full inspection

STEVE WARTENBERG The Columbus Dispatch Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Whenever she tells people that she makes a living climbing up and down buildings, doing inspections, Kelly Streeter gets one of three responses.

"Some people ask if I'm scared, others say there's no way they would ever do that, and some people say it sounds like the best job ever," she said of her career as an industrial rope-access technician.

Recently, Streeter and a small, well-trained team of safety-conscious climbers from Vertical Access were Spider-manning their way up and down the 555-foot-6-inch-tall LeVeque Tower.

In exhausting six-hour shifts, they rappelled down 600-foot ropes, toting 30 to 40 pounds of equipment that includes a self-braking descender with an anti-panic function to prevent free falls, a tablet computer to digitally log all the cracks and crumbles they spot -- and snacks.

"I usually pack gum, one energy bar and a banana," Streeter said. "And my cellphone."

The cell reception, she said, is surprisingly bad atop the LeVeque.

The crew was buffeted by winds, and dodged a thunderstorm. Team members saw a man fall off the nearby Broad Street bridge; he was rescued by police. And they say they enjoyed the spectacular views of Downtown and the surrounding area.

"I had no idea Columbus was so beautiful," Streeter said of her bird's-eye view. "We have an amazing view of the river ... and everything around here is so flat."

"The public spaces are really nice," added fellow climber Mike Gilbert. "It seems pretty, clean and comfortable."

Vertical Access is an Ithaca, N.Y.-based company that specializes in the inspection of historic buildings. The company was hired as part of the ongoing renovation of the LeVeque, projected to cost $20 million to $22 million. The tower was completed in 1927 with an outer shell of terra cotta, a beautiful but brittle building material.

"They're surveying the terra cotta, piece by piece, so we can develop a long-range plan to restore and maintain the LeVeque," said Robert Loversidge, the architect in charge of the renovation.

The initial news was good. "It's in excellent shape for a building this old," Streeter said.

Streeter, 37, earned a degree in structural engineering at Cornell University, in Ithaca, and also was a rock-climbing teacher.

She was approached in 1996 by Kent Diebolt, who had founded Vertical Access four years earlier, while she was still in college.

"I didn't know this even existed," she said of the company -- and her eventual career path. "Someone suggested I meet with Kent, and that was it."

Streeter is married to a software engineer, and they have three children, ages 8, 6 and 4.

"They're just starting to understand what I do for a living," she said, adding that the job is a lot safer than it looks. "We've never had a fall, and the only accident I can remember was when Mike (Gilbert) cut his arm on a piece of flashing."

The company's seven climbers, five of whom were in Columbus on the LeVeque, have varied backgrounds. Some were engineers or in the construction business, some were climbers, and some -- such as Streeter -- had both backgrounds.

"I studied historic preservation and then learned rope by necessity," said Evan Kopelson, 39.

"You were confident right away on the rope," said Gilbert, 56, who is the company's most-experienced climber.

As Gilbert has gotten older, he has learned a few tricks to preserve his body. The biggest issue, he said, is the stress and strain of sitting in the harness and safety seat for as long as six hours.

"It's like you're constantly in the last three-quarters of a sit-up," Gilbert said. "I try not to use any muscle set longer than it can stand, and shift around the muscle groups I use."

Streeter added that this position is especially tough on the hip flexors.

"By the end of the week, everyone's limping," she said. "Last night, I went back to the hotel, ordered a cheeseburger and fell asleep watching 'The Biggest Loser.'"

The mental strain of inspecting every inch of the outside of a building, especially one as large as the LeVeque, and then logging what they see into the computer, can be as difficult as the physical requirements.

"It takes a lot of energy to pay attention for so many hours," Streeter said.

Streeter and Gilbert say the 1,047-foot-tall Chrysler Building in Manhattan is atop their list of the favorite buildings they've inspected. It's also the tallest.

"It's iconic and so audacious in design, the pinnacle of art deco," Gilbert said.

"You could see forever; you could see the horizon," Streeter said.

Kopelson's favorite projects were the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

"I love the history and realizing how many interventions there have been before up there and seeing what was done to restore them," he said.

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com