While on our St. Louis vacation, we returned to the Armour meat packing plant to climb the smokestack, which ended up being a HUGE mistake.
Disclaimer: Do not climb the smokestack after me, or YOU WILL DIE! Seriously!
We met up with memory_machine in the city that morning, then headed across the river into East St. Louis. He led us around to where Armour Meat was, since I didn't know the way there myself, then we parked and started loading up our gear. We had more gear than normal, because we were planning on doing some fancy rappelling stuff off of the smokestack.
We went inside and made our way through the building. We went up a few flights up stairs and came out onto the roof. From there, we went over to the base of one of the smokestacks, which extended about eighty feet or so up from the roof.
Believe it or not, I actually had a pretty good plan for climbing the smokestack safely. It involved a sturdy rappelling rope, a good harness, and a few carabiners. Unfortunately, I made a few errors in my plans. For one, my carabiners were too small to go easily over the ladder rungs embedded in the smokestack. For another, I had underestimated just how hard it would be to futz with the carabiners while perched precariously on a ladder. So, it looked like my plan for doing it safely wasn't going to work.
And right here was where I made a really stupid decision. I let the fact that I've wanted to climb a smokestack for years and that I'd been semi-obsessed with coming back and climbing this one seriously cloud my judgement. So, since the rungs felt pretty sturdy, I decided to just give it a go and climb up, then have memory_machine follow once I was at the top. Then we'd attach the rope to whatever we could up there and rappell back down.
At least, that was the plan.
I started climbing up the ladder, and everything went splendid. The rungs were strong and secure, and it seemed like it was going to be okay. It was a little scary the higher I got, but that was to be expected. Climbing great heights like that was always a little unnerving.
Around the last ten rungs, things went VERY wrong. For whatever reason, those last ten rungs, and only those last ten rungs, were extremely rusted and worn. Unfortunately, since I was focused on just climbing and not falling, I hadn't noticed just how badly--until the rung I was currently standing on STARTED TO BREAK!
People have asked me afterwards why I went up at that point instead of down. Honestly, there wasn't time to think about it. It was basically a moment of mind-numbing sheer terror. I just went for what instintively seemed safest, and that was to try and go up to the next rung and grab the top of the smokestack, which was just a couple feet out of my reach. Trying to go down, while I was already standing on a rung that was cracking like glass underneath me, just hadn't been what my panic-stricken body told me to do.
As I hurried up the last few rungs, all of which were cracking and bending underneath me, I ended up with another problem. One of the rungs at the top was missing, which forced me to put both feet on one rung to reach the top. That was something I'd been avoiding, and I'd actually made sure the whole way to be in constant contact with at least three rungs. When I put my full weight on the rung, it cracked and bent quickly, but I was able to step up and grab for the top.
When I grabbed ahold of the top of the smokestack, I ended up with another terrifying surprise. The bricks CAME OFF IN MY HANDS! I jerked away the top few bricks as quick as I could until I reached ones that held, and then jerked myself up onto the top of the smokestack. I'd been expecting the top of the smokestack to be fairly thick, but it was actually only like two bricks wide, so I ended up having to straddle it.
It sounds longer in my description, but only a few seconds passed from the time the rungs started breaking to when I pulled myself up onto the the top. And let me just say, because it's absolutely the truth, that I have NEVER been that scared in my life, not even close. When those rungs started breaking underneath me, I experienced a panic that I have never felt in my life.
However, sitting at the top was almost worse. After almost dying, I was now trapped eighty feet up with two rows of bricks underneath my crotch to keep me from going down. And if I fell, I'd go straight through a skylight below, then three stories down into a room full of rusty machinery. To make matters worse, there was nothing up there to attach the rope to, so there was no chance of rappelling down. I ended up just taking the rope out of my backpack and throwing it down so I wouldn't have to carry it again.
I yelled right away to memory_machine to not climb up, then I sat there for about ten minutes freaking out. I had no idea what I was going to do. I would've done anything, ANYTHING, to keep from having to go back down that ladder. If I'd thought there was some way the fire department could've come out and gotten to me, I would've just sat my ass there all day until they came and rescued me. I was honestly that scared, and I'm not someone who scares easily. However, the smokestack came out of the roof of a pretty wide industrial building. Short of them getting a rescue helicopter, there was no way to get me down. Personally, the idea of sitting up there for hours waiting on a helicopter was almost as sickening as the idea of climbing down.
Finally, I decided I didn't have much choice. I'd just have to go back down and be really quick and careful about it. I started clearing away all the loose bricks around the top, chucking them down inside the smokestack. I wanted to make sure I had a secure edge to hold onto this time.
When I built up my nerve, I swung my legs over in front of the ladder and lowered myself down the front of it. Only when I had to, I grabbed onto the rungs over the ladder, being careful to grab them near the base of them where they connected to the smokestack to put the least amount of pressure on them possible. I started making my way down the ladder as quick as I could, and the rungs again cracked and bent underneath me, just a hair away from breaking altogether.
As I went down this time, I was able to see that those last ten rungs, for whatever reason, had rusted where they connected to the smokestack until they were just rusty knotty pieces of metal not even as thick as a pencil. If I'd seen it going up before I climbed up on those rungs, I would've stopped and gone the other way. As it was, once I finally got back down past those rungs, I had left some of them bent down at forty-five degree angles. It was a miracle they hadn't given way underneath me.
The rest of the ladder went as smoothly as before, although my legs were shaking violently once I got past the bad part. When I finally reached the ground, I was pale and felt like I was going to throw up. I'm no chicken, but that was way too close of a brush with death for me. I just collapsed on the ground and lay there for about five minutes.
We might've stayed there at the base of the smokestack for five more minutes or an hour. As screwed up as I was, I have no idea how much time passed. But I know it took me a while just to get where I felt like my legs weren't going to fall out from underneath me. My little near-death experience had left me pretty shaken up, and I'm usually pretty unflappable. I was determined to keep exploring the rest of the day anyway, but I really just wanted to go back to our room and lie down.
When I finally felt somewhat like myself again, we started getting our stuff together. Before we actually left the roof, though, we saw someone walking down inside the building through the skylight. It was a man that memory_machine recognized as the caretaker, and he had a woman with him that he also knew. She was a professor that had been working on a large canvas painting of the inside of the plant.
We went down below and admired the professor's painting for a while. It was of the large room below the smokestack with huge machinery it, and it definitely captured the coolness of the decaying plant. As we were heading out, she was just coming into the room, and we chatted with her a bit. She said that even though we loved her painting, most people weren't into it. We told her that if she ever had an exhibition of abandoned places in art, we knew plenty of people that would come see it. We talked with her a little bit after that, and Memory_machine and her made some plans to meet up another time, then we said our goodbyes.
With that, we headed back to our cars and started on toward our next destination for the day.
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