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No time to be afraid of heights

No time to be afraid of heights for window washer: It’s a beautiful summer morning, and from atop the Calgary Tower you can take in a fantastic view of the city as it comes to life. Inside the circular observation deck, 160 metres above ground, about a dozen patrons have taken the first elevator of the morning up the tower. Within minutes, these strangers have all gathered at one spot, not to look at the ribbons of asphalt or antlike pedestrians below, but the man calmly standing outside the window, cheerily cleaning the glass with a squeegee. They’re looking at Chuck Zemp, who for the better part of 30 years has been polishing one of the best views of Calgary.

“It’s a great place, really enjoyable,” the 65-year-old says. “And the best part for me is coming inside after and talking to all the people. It’s surprising the number of people who come up the elevator petrified who you can talk into standing on the glass floor. “Simply because, if you’re stupid enough to be on the outside, then surely it’s gotta be safe on the inside!” Zemp might hold the distinction of having the bravest job in Calgary, a title he’s held for decades. When the tower was erected in 1967, Zemp’s older brother, Alan, a local window-cleaner, put in a bid to clean its uppermost windows. He won. “I don’t think anyone really thought of the significance of the tower. Back then it was just another job,” Zemp says. “From then on, whenever the tower was due, the two of us would do it. And it was great, there’s always that comfort factor in being out there with someone you know. We just went out, it would take two hours, and we’d do what had to be done.”

Alan retired two years ago, leaving Chuck alone to assume the business. Because it’s a two-man job, he takes up hired help every two months or so to clear off dust, bugs, spider webs and even the occasional stray bird. “Not too many helpers come back,” he says. “The height scares a lot of people.” In a small room below the observation deck, we strap on safety harnesses and fill a bucket with water. Zemp swings open a heavy steel door and outside it’s a cloud’s view of Calgary. We strap the harnesses onto the hanging steel platform and step on to it, 50 storeys off the ground. Zemp, who’s done this hundreds of times, is as cool as the morning air.

“If something goes wrong,” he says, “it’s just five seconds to the ground. Then it’s someone else’s problem.” Zemp wasn’t always this confident. In his 20s, when he first began, he was terrified of heights. “I was working with my brother at the time and I had couple of accidents that just took my nerve for heights away,” he says. “It was just regular window-cleaning stuff, I almost fell off a ledge, and then a week later, had a swingstage hook rip loose off a building on me. It caused . . . a little bit of terror in me. I couldn’t do it.” He never went back out on a swingstage. It took him a while to work up the nerve to get back up a ladder, but he did. And about 20 years ago, he convinced his brother to let him back out on the platform outside the Calgary Tower so he could face his fear.

These days he doesn’t even think about it, calmly making his way around the tower to the sound of the street below him, completely at peace, as wide-jawed tourists inside snap away with their cameras. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Zemp says, but he loves it. Especially in the warm summer months. “The cold, bitter weather can be awful,” he says. “You come around that corner and the wind gets a hold of you and, phew! Right to the bone! But on a summer day like this, you couldn’t ask for better.” Another Calgary Tower story here.

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