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January 24, 2005

Low Pay at High Altitude: The Life of a 'Chain Monkey'


That was the headline for a story Charlie LeDuff wrote for the January 11 New York Times about "chain monkeys" - men licensed by the state of California to install snow chains on tires along a stretch of California highway near the ski resort of Mammoth Lakes.

Doing tough work at altitude in the cold and snow is no picnic, I'm sure.

My first real job, when I was 16, was at a full-service filling station in Milwaukee, where I grew up.

I started the week before Christmas.

I worked the midnight-7 a.m. shift, all by my lonesome.

Even though it was then one of the few gas stations in Milwaukee open 24 hours, there wasn't an awful lot of business during my shift.

So the station's owner had a number of assignments for me that took up the bulk of my time.

First and foremost, my job was to get down on my hands and knees with a bucket of hot, soapy water and scrub the islands, which were painted white.

There were, as best I can recall, five islands, each with three pumps.

That's a lot of scrubbing, especially when it's below zero and the wind is blowing and you're exhausted and you're working for minimum wage.

But hey, it was a job.

So I scrubbed those babies till they shone.

I also had other chores which I don't recall - the islands were my nemeses, my white whales, as it were, so they're all I really recall.


LeDuff's article has disappeared into the Times archives (they keep them available for a week following publication, rather an annoyance but hey, what can you do?), but it was also published by the International Herald Tribune on January 15.

Here's the Herald Tribune story.

    Low Pay at High Altitude: The Life of a 'Chain Monkey'

    Somewhere in Los Angeles, an accountant is sitting snug by his fire, glass of vermouth in hand, enjoying the sound of the rains that are swallowing California.

    At least that is how Steve Miesel imagines the scene as he slithers around on his stomach in the snow and salt and diesel near Bishop, California, installing chains on people's cars in the High Sierra, a mountainous region 250 miles, or 400 kilometers, north of Hollywood.

    "If I'd channeled my energies into accounting or even stuck to a trade, I wouldn't be here," said Miesel, 44, a rugged man with holes in his gloves.

    "I should have studied harder."

    Miesel is a "chain monkey," one of 25 men licensed by the State Department of Transportation to install snow chains on tires along the stretch of Highway 395 and Route 14 that runs from the town of Mojave to Mammoth Lakes in the Sierra.

    The job prerequisites are simple, he said: "You just have to know how to put chains on a tire."


    California law requires that all vehicles carry chains during the winter, and that a three-tier level of chain use be followed, depending on the amount of snow and the type of vehicle.

    When snow buries the mountain passes, the use of chains is enforced by the California Highway Patrol.

    Lowlanders, having little experience with snow, see the chains as an inscrutable nuisance, something akin to itemizing deductions on an income tax form.

    "People feel they're a victim of the law," Miesel said.

    "They take it out on us. It's not good."

    The job is a dying one, Miesel laments, because sport utility vehicles, equipped with automatic four-wheel drives and snow tires, must still carry chains but often are not required to use them, and are thus eliminating the need for this labor.

    But with the ski resorts of Mammoth Mountain expecting 9 feet, or 2.7 meters, of snow this past week, these days are as much a boon for the chain monkeys of the Sierra as for roofers and tow-truck drivers across the state.

    "People in Southern California don't have experience driving in the snow," said Wendy Hahn, a spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol.

    "That makes it exceedingly dangerous."

    That lack of experience creates the demand for chain monkeys, another of the odd jobs Americans do to make ends meet.

    During the storms, the chain monkeys live along the highway in trailers with coffeepots, dry socks, wrenches and generators for artificial light.

    On a drive up the Sierra range they can be seen lying on the shoulder of a slippery pass underneath a vehicle, perilously close to the road.

    It is said to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.

    For example, one chain monkey, Sean Plunkett, was in his trailer when it was hit by a truck last year, Miesel said.

    Plunkett survived; his trailer did not.

    Then there is the frostbite, the smashed fingers, the slicing winds.

    All this for $30 a car, a rate set by the market.

    Miesel said that with four good storms a year, a chain monkey could earn $5,000.

    He expected this year to be exceptional.

    He earned $500 in one evening alone last week.

    Tips are appreciated.

    His biggest was $70, from an accountant type.

    Miesel, in his yellow rain slicker and thick glasses, works as a contractor when work can be found in the depressed mountain communities where he lives.

    He said there were philosophical points to his second career.

    "Women love you, they just love you," he said.

    "You're like their hero, and that gives you a good feeling."

    He finds modern men, on the other hand, a disappointing lot.

    They have become so sedate, so inept and so removed from the ability to fend for themselves, Miesel said, that they must pay another man to put chains on their tires.

    It is unlikely any ballad will ever be written about the job, he figures.

    "As far as chain monkeys go, there aren't no hero chain monkeys," he said.

    "It's a hard buck, but it's an honest buck."

January 24, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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The first picture in this article shows INCORRECTLY installed chains. The cross chain hooks into the side chain with a squeezed together closed loop - like squeezing the loop in the letter "j" closed. The open side of this loop should face OUT away from the sidewall of the tire so as not to wear through the sidewall. This is a particular problem with newer radial tires which are both thinner and more flexible. The second picture shows chains correctly installed.

Back in 1971, when the going rate for installation was around 7 or 8 dollars down on the Big Bear Lake road (Cal Hwy 330?), I made $1200 one three day weekend. I used the money to buy an Apple ][ computer and within 6 months had completely changed my career track and was managing a computer store.

I don't know how I would explain this to a group of high school kids on career day in a way that would be pertinent to their future!

Sign me: An Ex-Chain Monkey

Posted by: Jeff LaBarre | Mar 20, 2006 7:46:35 PM

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