When I was 18 and out of high school I landed what I figured was the perfect job for a climber: roofer.
Besides working outside where you get a free "hardening" by the elements—rain, wind, temperatures well over 100 and down to zero—being a roofer acclimates you to heights. Carrying 80-pound bundles of shingles up a tall ladder from dawn to dusk is a training bonus.
When I was a roofer, the boss even had a fun contest among us “maggots” to see who could carry the most shingles at one time. If you could stock the roof with two bundles of shingles balanced on your shoulder (160 pounds), you could knock out that chore (average roof had 120 loads) in half the time, and get to help with the nailing on of the shingles. This last part was awesome because grabbing a thousand or so coarse, sandpaper-like composite shingles toughens up the fingertips, and nailing them on is even better for the forearms than wrist curls. Being a roofer is also great because you can miss work for half a year and return as if you had never left. There are always, it seems, shingles that need carried up a ladder.
It would be hard to script a job as perfect for a climber as roofing, but I have held several others that while, not quite as idyllic, are still worth considering.
Besides getting to work out in the elements, just like a roofer, working on oil rigs prepares you for alpine climbing with shifts that can run for days at a time. I once worked a week straight on a rig. After a few days without sleep and getting constantly sprayed in the face with crude oil, hydraulic fluid and other toxic, brightly colored chemicals, waking up at 2 a.m. to romp up a North Face feels like vacation. The pay is great, too, because once you log 40 hours, which takes about two days, you get time and a half. I knew a guy who made so much money he bought an airplane. It didn’t even matter that he didn’t know how to fly—he just revved the plane up and down the county roads, go-cart style, but with wings. For a climber, the mountain of cash could fund nearly unlimited trips, or a spendy memorial in the unlikely event you got crushed by a two-ton piece of pipe or were roasted by flames or slipped off the oily derrick from 100 feet up—the death rate for a roughneck is only eight times higher than the average for other occupations.
This job is indoors, but has the advantage of providing you nearly unlimited free food. No experience necessary, and age isn't a barrier: I got my first job as a cook at an A&W when I was just 15. Flipping Papa Burgers all day or all night, and sometimes all day and all night, teaches you responsibility and hardens you to repetitive tasking—perfect big-wall training. I once made 100 Coney dogs in five minutes, getting my brain right for banging endless strings of pins into such big-wall classics as Mescalito
and the PO Wall.
Cooking at a fast-food joint doesn't pay as well as that of a roughneck or roofer, but you also don’t have to buy food, and it's hard to put a value on that.
These are the schleps who carry 100-pound rolls of seismic-survey cable across swamps, deserts and mountains, and unroll them and connect them to the other 100-pound rolls of cable that are in turn hooked up to a “thumper” truck that whacks the ground, sending small earthquake vibrations into the ground. A geologist in the truck reads the EKG-like waves picked up by special sensors hooked to the cables, and can see if there’s any oil or gas down there.
Besides beefing up your arms and legs, carrying big rolls of cable doesn’t require any special training. You can just show up, begin work, and get a paycheck every week. As you work, your mind is free to wander, to say, the great ice walls of the Alps or the limestone down in Mex. One juggie, a guy from Menard, Texas, who we called “Maynard,” perfected mind wandering to the extent that he gassed up the diesel truck with regular gasoline.
Wiping out toilets and changing the rumpled and stiff sheets on the beds for complete strangers isn’t as glamorous as humping 160 pounds of shingles up a ladder, but you get to watch television while you work, and the specialized training for such a job only takes about 15 minutes, so you can get this job just about anytime you want. And once you have honed these valuable trades you can work at just about any hotel or vacation condo in America. Scrubbing skid marks out of toilet bowls at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite has benefits so obvious to a climber that they don’t even need explaining.
I worked a winter at the Tamarack Lodge, a cross-country ski resort near Mammoth Lakes, California, one winter and I still carry fond memories. My buddy Walt Shipley and I shared a small log cabin and every day after it stopped snowing 20 feet we got to go out and excavate the lodge and the dozen or so guest cabins sprinkled across the compound grounds. Walt and I really shone with the shovel, and were once rewarded by getting to go into Mammoth proper and paint the interior of the lodge owner’s rental condo.
But it got better than that. Across the road from the lodge, and uphill on the facing mountain side Walt and I spied a nice ribbon of ice that back then hadn’t even been climbed. If you are a climber and you see something like that, the temptation is too great and one morning we slipped away from work and got on that thing. Conditions weren't right and we bailed and slunk back to the lodge, darting crouched over from car to car in the parking lot, figuring we’d grab our shovels and get back to digging before the Boss noticed we were missing.
Imagine our surprise when “Boss John” popped out from behind a car and stood there face-to-face, us still geared up in our Gore-Tex and harnesses.
“Where you boys been?” he asked, matter of factly. “Looking for jobs?”
That was the first and only time I’ve been fired, and that was too bad because shoveling snow was truly the climber’s job jackpot.