Thursday, 10 March 2016

One month ago, in an attempt to challenge myself by writing about something ‘other than climbing,’ I described my recent journey into the mad, bad world of Rope Access. Although the Hazel Findlay/Rob Greenwood style of writing appeals to me, in the past I’ve certainly found it easier to describe a rich, emotive climbing experience rather than a philosophical, introspective journey within myself… or whatever it is I’m trying to say.


However, I faltered. Perhaps it’s because of the tragic disappearance of Rachel Slater and Tim Newton on Ben Nevis recently (two active members of our relatively small climbing community), or because of the whirlwind of the last few weeks, but I’ve found it hard to write and hard to digest, articulate and… sit down and begin.


Whilst even typing these words - sit down and begin - I’m taken back to one of my first rope access jobs almost six months ago, when I was a bright-eyed and clean-clothed technician attending my first site induction: ‘sit down and we’ll begin.’ Like giant cigarettes and a Star Wars film set, the towers and endless pipes of the chemical plant left me in awe. Now, I think of one of the latest jobs I’ve done and it’s 5 a.m. and I slide down a rope…


… I slid down the rope, the concrete rising fast towards my boots. I could see solid ground only ten… eight… six metres below and I was ready for the relief that came with the end of another rope access night shift. We’d been painting the inside of a warehouse roof, dodging our drips and swinging from the rafters. The hours dragged, but we entertained ourselves with thoughts of fat wads of paper and bottles of Jack. At the end of each night, I’d reckon rope access was still pretty fun, but painting is still painting.


With a thud my steel toe caps hit the floor and I stood up, taking my weight from the harness straps. Such a big harness would be comfortable, you'd of thought. Like being hugged by a soft gorilla, you'd of thought. Try hanging in it for hours at a time, and you'd of thought wrong.


Shoulders, hips, elbows... a dull sensation spread over my body. I flexed and stretched, blood returning to squashed muscles. Sitting in a harness reminds me of long belays whilst climbing, slowly shifting the straps to ease the pain. As the body is enclosed and trapped by webbing, the mind starts to drift, suddenly free from any stimulus. Liberated, at first it wanders, then it runs and jumps and explores a new freedom. But after a few hours, it falls flat on its face, stumped by the lack of instant entertainment.


Rope Access work is often physical, but the empty time inside my head is what’s most challenging. But I know I can handle the long hours and lack of sleep. In a strange kind of way, I quite like it. It's a bit like alpine climbing, constant activity and thinking and moving and silence; you have to just keep going. The night shifts messed with my head, flipping the world upside down. My mind was slow, a bit of a mumbling drunk, opaque with sleep deprivation. Like drinking a bottle of tequila, but without the fun of the lemon or salt. 


Was this the fifth consecutive night shift? I tried to think but got lost somewhere between three and four. I stared into the darkness outside the warehouse, orange streetlights giving intervals of clarity in a world of black. I smiled in realisation: the things we do for money!


I was attracted to rope access work when the money from outdoor instructing dried up last autumn. I was still keen for endless laps of Snowdon throughout the winter, but apparently everyone else wasn’t. I quickly realised my summer Mountain Leader qualification was just that: seasonal. A drastic re-training was needed, and thankfully friends had been recommending the IRATA course for months. As a climber, the ropes and carabiners were familiar and the course was fairly straightforward.


I've really enjoyed my rope access work, but the money is a major reason. Suddenly there’s a whole new world of peculiar forms of employment. I've been into chemical plants in the Midlands, on rooftops in Manchester, in mud-baths in Wales, beaches on the English coast and into the jungles of London. I’ve started to notice small figures dangling from the odd high-rise city block, where previously I’d never even looked up. The time away is always profitable, but it's often hard to stay fit and strong for climbing.


Rope access attracts some interesting characters. The money is a tempting lure, a doorway to somewhere else. Perhaps it's a doorway to the underworld, or more accurately, an overworld. My laptop wants to correct overworld to overworked, which makes me smile again.


Each new job brings excitement, and occasionally apprehension, at what will be involved. Arriving at a new job, the usual chaos will ensue whilst we get inducted onto the site, find our kit, work out what we're going to do and how we're going to do it.


The accommodation is always the cheapest place available, since it saves the most money. During a recent job in Dover we stayed in a delightful place with real character. The breakfast consisted of two slices of plastic cheese and a boiled egg (pronounced 'cheez-igg' with a Polish accent). The owner screamed at me through the bedroom door on the first evening, ‘Thomaz! No shower with bathroom door open! Fire alarm!’ I was going to tell him I couldn't stand in the shower and close the bathroom door at the same time because of the size of the room, but thought better of it. Better to be a true rope access warrior and stay in your van ('geo wagon’).


I’ve faltered again, now writing from an apartment in the Chamonix valley - my home for the next two months. Time has continued apace and the rope access work is seemingly long distant. Another chapter has begun, and I’m listening to the call of the alpine winter. It’s loud, like a starting gun about to fire and I’m waiting in the blocks. I’ve worked hard in order to fund my adventures and I’m checking the forecasts, weighing the objectives, making sure I’m ready when the gun goes…

Tom LivingstoneComment