By Daniel Jackson
At night, the water storage tank hangs like a moon over the skyline. From almost any point on the hill, you can look up and see the structure on the northwest edge of campus.
This is apparent when you look at photos taken from the top of the tower. The campus and the city of Dayton open up below. But climbing that tower? Over 100 feet without any safety equipment?
At least two students have climbed the tower in the last academic school year. It took them several attempts, but on Oct. 28 after 10 minutes on the tower, they descended with photos of campus.
I accompanied two students—one climbed the tower in October, the other never made it to the top—when they made an attempt. It was after dinner sometime in November. The sky had darkened and the streetlights burned yellow when we met in the woods behind the soccer fields. Our boots felt the uneven ground in the dark and we spoke in whispers as we followed a trail that led to the tower.
Up close, the white tower seemed to grow as we exited the woods and walked around the barbed wire fence that surrounded it. By that time, the climbers already found a system for getting past the fence: using the padlock on the gate as a foot-hold up over the fence.
I watched from outside the fence as one of them shimmied up a small pipe that ran up. For the first 20 feet or so, the ladder was obstructed to discourage climbing.
The student’s black boots squeaked on the white metal as he finally wormed his way to the first rung of the ladder. But he decided that the rest of the climb wasn’t worth it. His hands were numb from the metal and he didn’t trust them to hold him the rest of the way.
We walked back.
The man who climbed to the top, The Climber, said cold weather was the reason why he did not succeed when he tried “once or twice” before.
The night of Oct. 28 a full moon illuminated the water tower. The Climber stuffed a backpack with a camera, water bottle, tripod, “toboggan” and, of course, a knife. He brought a friend.
They made it past the fence. They made it past the pipe and they were on the first few rungs of the ladder.
“At this point, we were the furthest we have ever been,” The Climber said.
So they started climbing. The Climber was in the lead. Halfway up, he looked down. The view looked as high as the whole tower looked from the ground.
“We thought, hell, if we fall now, we’re dead,” he said.
They disregarded safety and started climbing up and up. For most of the way, about 100 to 150 feet, the ladder is almost vertical and then for the last 10 feet, it straightens out. By that time, he was gripping the ladder for so long that his forearms grew exhausted. Those last few feet felt like the ladder started to bend up back behind the Climber, he said.
On that night, it was about 40 degrees, and a wind was blowing, swaying the tower, making camera shots blurry.
The Climber and his friend saw a man come out onto his back porch and they quickly moved to the other side of the tower. They stayed there for 10 minutes, taking shots of the campus and of the City of Dayton. When they were done, they climbed down. It took them 45 minutes from the time they left their dorm to the time they returned.
The Climber knew of no one else who had climbed the tower, although he knew of plenty of people who wanted to make the ascent. He climbed, “just really for the thrill of it.”
He described himself as an adrenaline junkie, but this was the first ambitiously crazy thing that he had done.
“Small towns don’t offer too much, as far as that goes,” he said.
He has read websites such as nopromiseofsafety.com, a site run by urban explorer Joseph Carbonale, who climbed the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Climber thought about the legal risks before he climbed. While he doesn’t know the exact penalties for climbing a water tower, he thought he would get a slap on the wrist and a $500 fine.
If he was caught during an ascent, he figured no one would call the water company, since it was late at night. If the police department was called, he and his friend would conceal themselves for half-hour to 45 minutes until the police would get a call and move along.
Triangle tried to contact the Dayton Police Department for comment for this story. However, Chief of Police Chris Sneed was not available to talk about the penalties associated with climbing a water tower at the time this story went to press.
During all the years Director of the Physical Plant Doug Schott has worked at Bryan College, he has never heard of anyone who has climbed the water tower. When Triangle called to talk about Bryan’s polices about tower-climbers, Schott was skeptical. It did not help that I called him April 1.
Schott said the tower is owned by the City of Dayton.
If he ever needed to deal with a student who was on the tower, Schott said he would “focus on their safety and try to get them down safely.”
He would call for them to come down and if they did not climb down, he would call law enforcement.
“My policy is very simple: treat people like adults and hope that they use good judgment,” he said.
The Climber is not the only student to climb the tower. In the spring of 2011, a senior sneaked out of the dorms around 3 a.m. with his friend and made the ascent.
“I did it because my friend was having girl troubles,” he said.
It was cold and windy, but they had a great view of the campus. They watched as fellow students, curfew breakers, attempted to sneak back into the dorms.
He knew of about seven other people who climbed the tower before him.
Like the Climber, the Graduate, too, shared the feeling that comes with flirting with law and life by hanging onto a white ladder in the dark.
“Of course, we didn’t want to get caught,” he said, but there was a more tangible fear: “I was worried about dying.”