Sky Tower - view from the top

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2012
FAIRFAX MEDIA

As the Sky Tower celebrates its 15th Anniversary, Fairfax Media is given the rare opportunity to scale 328 metres to the tower's highest point.

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Paul Novella got over his fear of heights the easy way - he was pushed. Twenty five years ago in South Africa, a large set mining boss named Justice thought it best to send his newest recruit out on a ledge overlooking a sharp vertical drop.

Novella was to retrieve a faulty trolley using the most basic of safety equipment - a single clip hooked onto a chain. In those days, falling to your death was not high on the occupational health and safety hazard list. Novella admits he was scared (he uses more colourful language to describe the feeling.) But after he successfully got the trolley, the feeling was relief. Then he looked down to find he had pissed himself.

"Never looked back though, after that."

Now, as the head of Sky Tower's rigging operations, Novella was responsible for something mildly more worthy than a malfunctioning bucket on wheels. He was responsible for my life.

There is a new perspective to be had when driving along State Highway 1 looking up at the concrete shaft of the Southern Hemisphere's tallest structure. Let your eye follow its point, past the bulging observation deck and where people jump off for kicks. Let it follow further toward the next bump - the Sky Deck at and let it run up the mast where almost all of New Zealand's telecommunication systems fires through and onwards to the very tip. At night that tip flashes red to alert incoming aircraft that there is a tower in the way. Right there, at the end, at 328 metres into the air, where there is only 30 centimetres of railing to stand on, a handful of areas to grip and where it sways in a medium wind, was where we were going.

"How are you with heights?" Novella asked on Tuesday.

Videographer Lyle McMahon and I shrugged in unison. We were unsure.

"Well, we will find out."

While most members of the public are satisfied checking out the Auckland isthmus from the Sky Deck, Novella was adamant that the only real way to experience the tower was from the top. The Sky Deck is the highest most people will ever come to being in Auckland without being seated in a metal flying tube with wings. Novella, on the other hand, regularly abseils down. He has had to put a traffic cone on the tip, fasten a Mercedes to the tower's concrete shaft and turn down the hopes of King Kong movie promoters to position an inflatable gorilla on the mast. He won't, however, bungy jump, sky dive or launch himself off the Sky Tower's, Sky Jump. 

"I am not an adrenaline junky," he said, "I have to be in charge of my own riggings."

There are 71 levels to the tower. It takes 45 seconds for the elevator to travel up the first 60. The final 11 took about half an hour.

Jared Holt called the climb his commute. The drive into work in the morning would not take long. But each day as he stood at the bottom of the structure and looked up, he knew there was a more ominous task at hand. 

Last year, Holt had gotten tired of talking. Up until then he was a social worker. Then he just asked Novella for a job as a rigger.

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"The irony is, I used to write the psychometric tests. To get this job I had to sit one."

He needn't have worried though. On top of assessing his ability to work in stressful environments, he was asked what he was like with heights, whether he minded wind, and what his attitude was to rain.

Holt shrugged. Fine on all counts.

And lucky for the pair of reporters armed jointly with a mild sense of vertigo. The weather too, was looking fine.

The climb from the 61st floor begins with the opening of a hatch, a clip and a rung. There are few times in one's life when there will be so many rungs. You are told to use your legs rather than your arms but the higher you climb the bigger the feeling becomes that you are clinging on for your life. 

The black cabling throughout the inside of the mast is immense. As the largest FM transmitter in the world, the radiation in certain parts of the tower is such that there is a fine line between life and having your water molecules roasted. I asked Novella if he had ever been tempted to put his hand in the no-go zone.

"There wouldn't be much left after that."

Onwards then, and upwards. Arms to close to the side. Inside, you could convince yourself that you were not 200-odd metres up a tower climbing in a service shaft. You could be anywhere - just climbing for a good old time. Then the mast begins to narrow. Soon, it was time to head outside.

The digital weather chart situated on one of the levels was reading no wind speed and a pretty healthy temperature. In fact, we could be on a glorious summer day. Then we stepped outside. Grey clouds were closing in. A bitter wind was cutting across the metal deck. The weather chart was broken.

Then Novella said, somewhat ominously: "It's starting to sway."

Sure enough, the tower was jogging back and forth in the wind. It took some time to become acclimatised to the view and to the morbid fact that, if you were so inclined, a few clips  unhooked and you would be free to fall down at terminal velocity on unsuspecting casino punters below. I found comfort, less in that thought, than on concentrating on the bolts in front of my face. I became intimately acquainted with the branding of the ladder clips. I must send a note to thank the manufacturers. 

There have not been many film crews working from the mast. The last that Novella could remember was when they attached some cameras for the Amazing Race so they could watch Americans huff up the ladder while trying to contain their disdain for their designated partner. For our exercise, Lyle would go first armed with only an iPhone pretty much stuck to his hand with insulation tape. 

When we reached the top however, it took him several attempts to muster the courage to let go of the railing with one hand, swipe the screen face and tentatively tap in his password. It was a long way down, there was no denying it. I gripped on with two and tried not to contort my face to give away the fact that I really needed to pee. Looking over the footage, it seemed I failed. We stayed up there for some time. It was quite bizarre when you thought about it. Countless times I had looked up to the very end of the Sky Tower. Now I was on top of it - a tiny orange helmeted speck wincing in wind. It could have been a mildly reflective time. No doubt Holt's previous employment experience would have come in handy if I was in need of some advice. But somehow it didn't seem appropriate. Then it started to rain.

After a slow climb down and back inside the warmth of the tower it was hard not to swagger. And for the record, my pants remained dry.

- Auckland Now

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