Video: This is what it’s like to stand on top of the Gateway Arch

Jun 11, 2015

What’s it like to perch atop the Gateway Arch, 630 feet above the city of St. Louis?

The National Park Service has been releasing stunning videos of technicians from the Wiss, Janney, Elstner  engineering firm roping down the north leg to collect samples of the discoloration on the monument’s stainless steel exterior.

For St. Louisans, who watched in awe as the workers hung onto the shiny icon last October, the videos are must-see: The footage was captured with GoPro cameras mounted on the helmets of the Arch-walkers, and it’s … dizzying.

See for yourself:

Jennifer Clark, archivist with the Jefferson National Parks Association, says the videos have been popular on the Arch’s Facebook page. This week, they added a YouTube channel and have posted  more eye-popping segments.

The rope work was part of several extensive studies that deemed the structure sound. The final report attributed the discoloration to blemishes caused during the monument's construction. 

The Arch work was heavily publicized, though the climbers were too busy to talk to the press at the time. After watching the videos, we requested an interview with the man who roped down to about the 500-foot mark to collect the samples.

His name is Dave Megerle, and he’s been doing this kind of work for about 30 years.

Dave Megerle at work.
Credit Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates and National Park Service

Megerle, 56, is a certified rope access technician who learned rock climbing while living in Boulder, Colo.    He earned money for his climbs by washing windows on high-rises. 

Megerle would later help develop the engineering firm’s Difficult Access Team that inspects facades on bridges, high-rises and monuments.

“There was a structural engineer in Denver that worked for Wiss, Janney, and he saw me cleaning the windows at a high-rise building that he was trying to inspect,'' Megerle said. "He had an epiphany. He’s like, 'Wow. This guy’s out there, and he’s got two ropes and this little chair and he’s zooming down the side of this building and that’s exactly what I need to do.’ ”

Megerle, who worked on the Washington Monument a few years ago, says the Arch was the most challenging project he’s dealt with due to the geometry of the landmark. It's constructed of stainless steel triangles.

“Those triangles become difficult to get to because they’re not plumb. And when you hang off the edge of the Arch that structure just falls away from you,’’ he said. “There’s nothing to grab on the Arch.''

Megerle volunteered for the job of collecting stain samples  from the intrados -- the inner curve of the arch -- which is the toughest part of the Arch to access.

“Because I’m kind of getting toward the end of my career, I threw my hat in there and I said, ‘I’m all over this.' ’’ 

Megerle says the view is, indeed,  incredible, but he didn’t have time to admire the panorama. It was windy -- and noisy -- up there. Storms and strong winds prevented the team from working some days.

“The wind was relentless,’’ he said. “We were there for eleven days; we had anticipated the project to take five days.’’

And the stainless steel structure makes quite a racket in the wind. The arch’s legs are filled with concrete to about the 300-foot level, while the upper sections are hollow.

“It had this noise, like this DONK, DONK -- kind of like a very hollow-like oil can sound to it,’’ he said.

Megerle says the team took pains not to damage the surface of the Arch with their equipment.

In this photo from December 1965, a worker washes the stainless steel skin of the Gateway Arch. A team of 16 ironworkers, laborers and crane operators performed the task on the just-completed monument to get rid of grease marks caused by cables and scaffolding and scuff marks from the workers’ shoes. The workers were perched atop two huge scaffolds which were lowered slowly by creeping cranes.
Credit Photo by Gary Clermont St. Louis Globe-Democrat, courtesy St. Louis Mercantile Library

“It’s an amazing structure -- the craftsmanship and skill that went into it,’’ he said.

Megerle admires the ironworkers who constructed the monument, which celebrates its 50th birthday this fall. He read Arch histories and watched the documentary “Monument to the Dream” as part of his preparation.

“Some of the shots in there give me the heebie-jeebies. These guys are bear hugging the steel and they’re welding, hanging out over that 500-foot precipice. It gave me the sweaty palms looking at some of that stuff.’’

Megerle's most memorable moment on the Arch was a personal one: As he was making his way  to the intrados his phone rang, and it was his daughter. He spoke to her just long enough to wish her a happy birthday.

And, here’s a tidbit for people who have a fear of heights: Megerle has a phobia about public speaking. Turns out, he’d rather dangle from a rope on a 630-foot tall arch than record a radio interview over the phone.

“I was a little nervous,’’ he confided afterward. “I had the butterflies.’’