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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Plight of the 'Chain Monkeys'

Tough enough to work in snowstorms, the roadside installers of traction gear are falling prey to the popularity of four-wheel drive.

March 19, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Most "chain monkeys" agree that one of the biggest problems with their job is the unfortunate tendency for customers to run them over.

It happened to Chris Lotito. He was putting tire chains on a car along Interstate 80 in the snowy Sierra east of Sacramento. The vehicle suddenly lurched backward and rolled over his hand.

Lotito wrapped his bleeding fingers in a towel and began the hourlong drive in a blizzard to a hospital. "On the way there, my hand began to thaw," he recalled. "That's when it really got painful."

Besides the hazard of getting squashed by a car, the job of installing tire chains during raging snowstorms is fraught with other perils, including frostbite and hypothermia.

"Take a cold shower and get good and wet, put your clothes back on, and then go sit in a freezer for 12 hours," Lotito said of his work. "None of us are up there for our health. But I've got three kids in college, and that's from installing chains."

The days of the big paydays, however, are fading for the 400 or so registered chain installers who spend hours shivering along the sides of the state's snowiest roads. The popularity of four-wheel-drive cars and SUVs -- which usually don't require chains -- has cut heavily into their business, as has an effort by Caltrans in recent years to step up the plowing of mountain roads.

"We're a dying breed," Lotito said. "I'm really the last of the mountain men."

Chain monkeys have been around since cars first hit the road. But the job really came into its own in the 1960s and '70s in the Sierra Nevada, as new ski resorts opened and more people began driving from the cities up into the mountains.

Installing chains was a way for construction workers and loggers to earn extra money during the winter -- or to pay for a winter playing on the slopes.

Tire chains give cars traction on ice and snow. During winter storms, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol often require motorists to put on chains before driving across the mountains. But putting chains on cars can be difficult, particularly for those who have little experience.

They are sold in small boxes and have a tendency to come out of their packages in knots that would confound an Eagle Scout. And putting the chains on correctly means crawling under a car and joining the links on the inside of the tire. Put them on wrong and they can wrap around an axle, stopping the vehicle in its tracks.

Chain monkeys, also known as chain apes, are a reasonable alternative for many people. They charge $20 for putting on chains and $10 for removing them, the maximum recommended by the state.

It's a job both physically taxing and risky. Knee pads and thin gloves offer little protection during hours of work under and around cars in ice and snow. For a quick warmup, installers often wrap their gloved hands around a vehicle's tailpipe.

In 1999, the employment service firm Aramark ranked the snow-tire chain installer as the fourth-most-dangerous job in the United States, behind tugboat workers in the North Atlantic, search-and-rescue rangers at the Grand Canyon and those who stand under air-conditioning units as they are lowered by crane onto the roofs of buildings.

For chain monkeys, a big part of the appeal is the unpredictable weather and the mystery of who next will come skidding down the road.

Frank Stewart grew up in the San Fernando Valley and spent summers backpacking and fishing in the Sierra. He started installing tire chains along U.S. 395 in the Eastern Sierra in the early 1980s because he loved living in the mountains. Stewart, 50, now owns a general contracting firm near Bishop but continues to stand at the edge of the highway when big storms hit.

"You put yourself right out there in the elements and see what you can catch," he said. "I tell people it's like fishing for salmon. You only catch them when they are running."

Stewart said the change in his business can be seen in the hulking SUVs that now dominate 395 and other mountain roads that were once largely the domain of two-wheel-drive cars. When he started, nine in 10 cars needed to chain up. Today, it's two or three cars in 10. Indeed, many skiers say they bought SUVs so they could avoid hassling with chains.

As independent contractors, chain monkeys must buy annual $160 permits from Caltrans, the state agency that maintains California's roads. The state decided to regulate the installers 20 years ago after complaints by motorists that some unscrupulous operators were putting chains on incorrectly.

Before officials award a permit, the applicant must visit a Caltrans office for a test that involves untangling a set of chains and putting them on a car in less than five minutes.

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