Maestros of the ropes

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Alpine Rescue Team and Foothills Fire/Rescue host fifth annual Rope Access Olympics

By Vicky Gits

Men and women who enjoy dangling on ropes from extremely high and dangerous places like wind turbines came to Evergreen on Saturday for the fifth annual Rope Access Olympics.


Staged in the Alpine Rescue Team headquarters building and the Foothills Fire/Rescue vehicle barn, the event featured some 28 competitors who vied to solve various complicated rope problems.

The first involved transferring a 220-pound, crash-test dummy to safety while suspended in midair from a spider web of ropes, carabiners and various implements.

In the vehicle barn, others battled an obstacle course involving a hanging rope course, negotiating several knots and getting to the other side without swinging like a pendulum or sacrificing safety.

There was also a 100-foot rope climb made possible in the two-story building by letting out the rope as the participants clambered up using only arm strength.

An impressive display of strength, agility and athleticism, the activity represents a growing profession composed of specialized workers who use ropes to reach some of the hardest-to-access sites in America.

The practice became famous in November with the widely covered appearance of engineers rappelling down the Washington Monument to check for cracks in the facade.

One of the participants Saturday was Steve Davis, 49, of Rhino Denver, a stage-rigging company. Davis works full time as a project manager or crew member, usually anywhere from 50 to 120 feet in the air, and he has been doing it since 2000.

A rock climber since 1988, Davis does projects like concerts at the Pepsi Center and Sports Authority Field, hanging banners on the outside of the REI store, doing building maintenance for DU, and providing engineers access to buildings, dams and bridges.

His most challenging job was welding and replacing cables for the smokestacks on the Colorado Belle Hotel & Casino in Laughlin, Nev., which required welding 170 feet up in 107-degree weather. A more fun job was providing a performance rappel at the start of a Colorado Crush arena football game.

10-year anniversary

The Alpine Rescue Team headquarters in El Rancho was the home of the first-ever certification process of the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians, known as SPRAT, 10 years ago.

A number of Alpine Rescue Team members currently work together in Denver for Pigeon Mountain Industries, a rope and equipment manufacturing company based in Lafayette, Ga.

Ten years ago, the industry was in its infancy and there were only a handful of practitioners. Now there are some 3,000 certified rope-access professionals around the world, and SPRAT uses 27 evaluators.

The rope-skills contest was the culminating event of the SPRAT annual conference in Golden from Jan. 12-14, attracting 150 attendees from Ireland, Australia, Mexico and Canada.

Former Evergreen resident Loui McCurley, a member of the Alpine Rescue Team, founded SPRAT 10 years ago because she saw the need to establish standards for the growing number of rope-access professionals. SPRAT has about 1,000 members.

"There were a lot of people who didn't know anything about OSHA, protection rules, regulations or requirements of a tall building, versus working with trees and rocks," said McCurley, who is also president of SPRAT and vice president of PMI, based in Denver.

Safety is the main thing. Technicians always work in pairs and never allow a situation in which they are attached by only one line. Not a single individual has been lost so far, McCurley said.

The work isn't all that glamorous, McCurley said.

"It's grunge work. They work in the high places in tough conditions. They are the unsung heroes. This gives them an opportunity to showcase their unique skills and get encouragement from their peers," she said. "They are energized and motivated to attain a higher level."

McCurley is vice president of PMI, which has a sales, marketing and training office in Denver. About six of the 11 employees of PMI/Denver are also members of the Alpine Rescue Team.

Steve Hudson, president and co-owner of PMI, which makes rope and climbing equipment, explained the origins of the craft.

"For years if you wanted something done in a high place, you rented a crane and scaffold. It cost a lot of time and money," Hudson said. Rope access is cheaper and more efficient.

People hire rope-access technicians to check cables on suspension bridges. Disney hired them to replace the mast on the pirate ship in Disneyland. In fact, a Disney employee attended the conference.

Wind towers and wind farms are a growing source of business.

Contact Vicky Gits at vicky@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042.

Contest results

100-foot Speed Climb

1. Walker Mackey, 1:55:04 (a SPRAT record)

2. Mike Green

3. Martins Denisovs

Rope Rescue

1. Chad Dubuisson (under 2 minutes)

2. Steve Davis, Lakewood, Rhino Staging

3. Trask Bradbury, Colorado Springs, Gemini Rope Access

Rope Obstacle Course winners and overall winners

1. David Norrel, 5:35, Klatterservice AB, Stockholm, Sweden

2. Collin Moon, Elevated Safety, Chicago

3. Nathan Schuster, Ropeworks-Mistras Group, Reno, Nev.