Engineers began rappelling down the sides of the Washington Monument today as part of an inspection team looking over possible damage to the structure. When the weather forecast turned to possible lightning and thunderstorms in the area, the Associated Press reports the first-of-its-kind operation had to be put on hold.
The obelisk was damaged when a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck central Virginia in late August 2011. The shaking was felt in Washington and numerous cracks formed on the outer facade of the monument. Although the entire structure is sound and the monument isn't going to collapse, the National Park Service has closed the tourist attraction indefinitely until repairs can be made.
Rain from late summer storms and from Hurricane Irene seeped into the structure through the cracks. The reason for the rappelling team is to ascertain how many cracks are up and down the 555 foot-tall structure. After the initial inspection, teams will begin filling in cracks with caulk to weather proof the building once again. The largest crack is four feet long and an inch wide. Daylight can be seen through some cracks.
Rappelling in less-than-ideal weather conditions can be dangerous. Lightning is a factor because there are lightning rods on the Washington Monument. Even rain can be hazardous as the engineers may slip on the slick marble that is on the outside of the obelisk.
Even dressing appropriately for the weather is also a must. If it gets too cold while a climber is unable to move very quickly, he or she can suffer from hypothermia. Although it won't be as big of deal in warmer months, hypothermia can become a factor if temperatures cool suddenly.
Overly windy conditions may also spell trouble for climbers. Although the ropes are secured at the very top of the Washington Monument, winds can make it difficult for the climbers to stay still and do their work. If they are halfway down the tall structure it may be awhile before they can ascend into the hatch from which they came. The other option is to descend to the bottom to safety on the ground.
Rappelling down the Washington Monument is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will likely not happen again for another 150 years if at all. All precautions will have to be taken in weird weather so the climbers are safe while they do their jobs.
If all goes well, the Washington Monument will reopen in mid-October.