Lauren James is a 24-year-old trad climber from North Carolina (her outgoing voicemail message says, “hey y’all”) who has turned her passion for sending rock into a career as a cell tower technician. Imagine climbing 500-feet of vertical steel carrying 30-pounds of gear. Now imagine doing that every day for a month straight while traveling the country. Technicians call themselves “tower dogs,” an apt nickname for such a demanding job.
What exactly does a cell tower technician do?
James: We climb cell towers looking for any bent steel, loose bolts, or irregularities in the structure or carrier’s equipment. We are basically the eyes of the tower owners.
Are there many women in the industry?
James: No. Out of 9,000 cell tower technicians, less than 15 of them are females. There’s really no reason for that. Yes, it’s physically demanding, but it is such a rewarding job with excellent benefits and compensation. It gets a bad rap, too: it is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in America, but like anything, it’s as safe as you make it.
How did you get into it?
James: Since I was a kid, I’ve always been intrigued by welding. When I got into rock climbing and after taking an intro to welding class in college, I decided I wanted to combine the two loves. My stepdad and uncle were ex-tower climbers, so I looked up tower technician jobs in North Carolina.
Does being a climber give you an advantage?
James: Both mentally and physically. The more you understand and feel comfortable with the equipment you’re using, the more comfortable you are with the heights. I already had the stamina and endurance needed for climbing cell towers. I enjoy pushing myself on towers just like I do on rocks. But rock is definitely more diverse and more appealing.
How physically demanding is the job?
James: Some towers feel like you are doing pull-ups the entire height of the tower. On a 500-foot tower, that’s a heck of a lot of pull-ups—not to mention our tower climbing harnesses weigh 30 pounds—excellent training weight. A trad rack feels light now.
How much do you travel for your work?
James: I travel three to four weeks a month and then I’m home on break for a week. That equals almost 252 days a year spent on the road working. That’s a lot of hotels, a lot of gas station coffee. We work seven days a week, so I rarely get time to do anything besides work, but I’ve experienced some beautiful scenery and done some cool things. So far I’ve climbed in 35 states, seen the Adirondacks from a tower, had my first bowl of clam chowder in Massachusetts, took my first ferry in New York, and saw Las Vegas from a tower.
When you’re home, where do you climb?
James: I’m a trad climber so my favorite crag in North Carolina is Linville Gorge. I love the remoteness there. New River Gorge will always be close to my heart too. It’s where I climbed for the first time. I love the community involved in rock climbing. There’s an abundance of positive vibes, passion, and like-minded individuals. For me it’s a very spiritual thing as well. There’s no other place I feel closer to God than when I am enveloped in his beautiful creation.