Tim Olson’s office is unusually tough to reach. And yet, the 37-year Mortenson construction veteran works right across the street from me. In fact, from my window, I can see Olson’s window—Hi, Tim!
The challenge lies not in the distance between Tim’s desk and mine, but in the vertical drop. That’s because Tim Olson’s butt spends most of every weekday on a seat 235 feet above street level in a soaring yellow tower crane.
Ever since last March, when Mortenson erected the 250-foot-plus yellow crane at the rear of the new Public Service Building construction site, we’ve watched its herculean mass move literal mountains—of debris, beams, construction workers (in secure tram buckets, of course), etc. Sometimes when we should have been working, we instead watched Olson work, slack-jawed at both the speed and precision he used to control the boom. No less jaw-slackening is the fact that every day, he scales up there to conduct this construction orchestra. We needed to meet him.
Fast-forward to a snowy, single-digit Monday in early December. I’m on the phone with Olson during his lunch break. He’s in the crane—he’ll go on to tell me that he stays up there all day—above the site, which is kitty-corner from City Hall. I’m in Mortenson’s site office a block away.
Before this, I was on my way to meet Olson in the crane. That’s what I first pitched to Mortenson. And, flabbergastingly, that’s what the company agreed to let me do.
I show up eager to make the climb. Dave Foley, a Mortenson exec, barely even glances at my signed safety waiver as he hands me a yellow vest, hard hat, and safety goggles.
There is no “How to Climb a Tower Crane” video. There is also no safety tether besides the one that connects my helmet to my jacket. Good news: My helmet will only fall if I go with it.
Foley walks me into the site, opens a plywood door near the back (labeled Door), and drops me off in the bottom of the crane. Now, all I have to do is what Tim Olson has done most every workday since I was playing with Tonka trucks.
“The crane operator called in sick,” he says of the day in the early 1980s that he first made the climb. It was another Minneapolis office building, but he can’t recall which—there have been a lot. “The supervisor came up and said, ‘Well, there’s the ladder. Tell me how it goes.’”
There’s the ladder. Tell me how it goes. I set about climbing the vertical steel ladder—akin to an old fire escape—one 40-foot expanse at a time. At the end of each segment lies a small, level platform. Before he made his quick exit from the crane chamber, Foley did relay Olson’s one bit of climbing advice: Use the rungs and take plenty of breaks. If I do that, I’m told, it will take me 30 minutes to arrive at the cab.
“I can get down in five minutes,” Olson says. “I’ve climbed it in seven.”
It takes me—a relatively fit guy 30 years Olson’s junior—that much time to scale just one segment.
Olson assures me later it’s really not about speed. “A guy told me years ago, ‘You don’t want to climb that crane so hard and so fast that you get up there and have a heart attack,’” he says. “You’re not going to do any good to anybody then.”
When Olson does make it up to the office, he doesn’t reward himself by relaxing with a coffee and enjoying the view. (He does count the latter as a perk of the gig.) No, Olson’s first job each day is performing a maintenance check. That includes walking a plank back to the fuse boxes out on the rear end and climbing another ladder up to a crow’s nest 20-plus feet above the cab.
Olson doesn’t romanticize any of this. He describes the crane simply as “just a tool to make everybody’s jobs faster and safer.”
I, on the other hand, am still climbing. When you’re in the rigging of the crane, it’s impossible to judge relative distance. The ground keeps getting farther away, while the cab doesn’t seem to get any closer. After 20 minutes, I arrive at a section of decking for a break. The rungs hold a thin sheen of snow, making my gloves wet and my hands numb. The wind whips through the scaffolding. Olson, meanwhile, swings loads around above me so the tower twists and groans.
I’m parallel with the steel skeleton of the seventh floor. Everything up here arrived via Olson. And now that what he’s built obstructs his views, he relies on radio directions from the ground to move the loads. That and a sixth sense, honed over decades.
He even moves the porta potties. The main tip here: “Make sure that when they hook onto them there’s nobody inside.”
I look up at the next 40-foot expanse of ladder, then down, and finally acknowledge what I’d secretly known since I grabbed the first rung: Not happening. I call Foley and begin my descent.
Twenty-five minutes later, I’m back at that plywood door, where Foley smirks. Ten minutes after that, I’m on the phone with Olson, who informs me that the crane I just failed to climb isn’t even tall.
“When we built the Wells Fargo Center—back then it was Norwest—that one, I think, was like 600 feet,” he says. “You really don’t notice it because you’re only like, what, 150 feet off the building. It just takes you longer to get the hook to the ground.”