Tower of Power

April 2, 2008

Perched 216 metres above the corner of Thurlow and Georgia is a tiny "office" with a $17.6-million view of the city. To see what goes on in Vancouver's tallest perch-soon to be the city's loftiest, and most expensive, penthouse-I do something that only about a dozen people have done before: climb up a thin steel ladder anchored atop the Living Shangri-La hotel and residences. There's no safety line, only platforms at each of the crane ladder's five switchbacks. The ladder's mast sways. The building does, too.

The first stage isn't too bad. The Shangri-La is "topped off" at this 61st-floor rooftop patio, and the crane's mast is positioned at one corner of the building. But eventually I have to switch to the next set of rungs, facing west. There's six metres of concrete and rebar between the building's edge and my steel-toed boots (two sizes too big), but my frontal lobes have been hijacked by my reptile brain, specifically the hair-raising region. So this is how imminent death feels.

"No problem," coaxes my guardian angel Karen McRae, Ledcor's safety coordinator, as I reach the third platform. "You can do it," she adds, as if to reassure us both. The last thing she wants to do is call in the fire department and shut down a site that eats up a quarter-million dollars a day.

I persevere and we reach the top platform and crane operator John Nault's cab. The vibe is welcoming. Pink Floyd plays low on the CD player, and there's green tea brewing in a small coffeemaker and du Maurier cigarettes on offer. Weirdly, hanging on a thin stalk in the window is a juicy-looking red tomato. Nault says the plant sprouted out of the cab's dirt-dusted steel floor last summer. "I had no clue what it was at first," says the 47-year-old Ottawa native, who fed it green tea until fruit appeared. Its existence seems to challenge the idea that being up so high is unnatural.

"I love it up here. Just me and the birds," says Nault, who ventured off at 19 to work in the Alberta oil fields before ending up in Vancouver

as a rigger (industryspeak for "crane operator"). "I was one of those kids that loved to climb trees. I'm no daredevil who's not afraid of heights; I respect heights. This is all I've known for 20 years."

This 2.2-square-metre cab, suspended above what is now officially Vancouver's tallest building, has been Nault's office since the completion of the core in October 2005. Even though it resembles the cage of an amusement-park ride, it's filled with personal mementos: two crosses dangling from the ceiling, a postcard of black bears cuddling, a cozy fleece seat cover, and, of course, binoculars. "You see a lot of things up here, m'dear," he says with a chuckle. "In one office, around 4, an elderly gentleman and his secretary get up to some interesting office work. He does it up right with wine first. And he doesn't perform too bad for an old guy."

Nault enjoys other displays of wildlife, and there's a good show this blue-sky day. "This morning I saw two male eagles fighting over territory," he says. "They were locked together for a while, spiralling downward. Pretty amazing. But the sunrises and sunsets are the best part of this job. Unfortunately, we didn't get many of those this winter. Every other day, I've been up in the clouds. Sometimes I have to use markers on my boom to navigate. But wind is always your worst enemy." His cab's anemometer has measured gusts as high as 105 kilometres per hour. "We don't work in conditions like that," he says. "I have to shut the crane down at about 70, but I've only had to do that four or five times."

Up here, deadlines take a back seat to safety, but Nault is proud that the job's on schedule-the Shangri-La has gone up by about a floor per week, thanks in part to his 60-hour-plus weeks. Nault, the father of a 16-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son who live in Ottawa, won't say exactly how much he earns, but the median hourly wage for Vancouver tower crane operators is $32. "In this business, most of the glory goes to the foremen. But with overtime, I make a comfortable living." For the Shangri-La job, he and his wife relocated from their permanent residence (a boat on the Fraser) to a downtown apartment. "Swing left!" comes the com­mand over the radio from Nault's rigger partner, Pavel Bit­leov. Bitleov is literally Nault's eyes on the street below, since the load line isn't actually visible from the cab. "It's called blind lift, and it's very challenging," Nault says. "Pavel is a rookie, but luckily he's a fast learner. He's one of the best riggers I've ever worked with."

As the structure rose, the crane had to be jacked up several times, and reshored each time through 14 floors. "If someone drops something on any of the slabs below, I can feel it. It's kind of like sitting on the tip of a fishing rod," he says. Given the dangers of the work, it's surprising that Nault, like many of the province's 5,000 crane operators, has no formal training. Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba require certification for riggers, yet prior to June 2007, Worksafe BC had no policy in place.

And with over 10,000 applicants, the policy has been set back until at least mid-2008-a situation made contentious with the January death of a 22-year-old Canada Line rigger. "You have to be in this seat to understand this job. Otherwise there's really not too much to learn," says Nault, lighting another cigarette. "But certification will at least weed out the bad apples. Most crane operators are good guys, but we're all crazy wackos. To be able to sit in a box all day and watch people flailing their hands around, it helps to be kind of insane in the first place."

Nault staves off cabin fever by taking photos and doing plein air painting. By the time this project wraps, sometime this summer, he'll have at least a dozen depictions of the spectacular view. Then he'll take time off on a boat he recently inherited. "This is my summer to sail," he says. "I'm not into high-rise city life."

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