Learning the Ropes: The Inside Scoop on Rope Access Work
From weekend warrioring in the Ozarks, to cragging in Mexico, to working at Miguel’s in the Red, there are common threads I frequently notice in climber conversations. Talk about hold preferences, climbing styles, brand politics, the price of local avocados… and then there’s always chat about rope access work.
Although the job—rigging haul systems and swinging around on ropes all day—seems like a natural fit for a climber looking to dive into the real-life workplace, few seem to really understand the full scope of the job or where to begin if they want to pursue it as a career.
What does rope access work really entail? Can anyone get into it? What kind of training do you need? Can you make a living and still climb?
To answer these questions and more, I talked with Jeremy Smith, operations director for Global Rope Access, who kindly made time between work and climbing in Squamish, to pull back the curtains and find out what this gig is all about.
Smith is a longtime climber, and got into rope access work as a way to mediate his passion for climbing, and his need for a steady income. After several years as a technician, we worked his way up, and now works full-time for Global Rope Access in Squamish, British Columbia.
Q&A with Jeremy Smith
What is rope access work?
Basically, it is a means of getting into hard-to-access places to complete a job. We’re the superheroes; we come in when no one else can do it. It’s the same idea as scaffolding, ladders, or boom lifts, but we can get to places that those things can’t. It’s a means to get to work.
Are all rope access jobs the same?
No, it’s pretty diversified. You can work in wind towers, oil and gas, window washing, welding, insulation, infrastructure maintenance. It’s important to know that rope access is a way to further a trade.
Rigging and rope access and rescue component is relevant to climbers, but if you really want to make it in the industry, you need to be pursuing a trade that you can work in once you get somewhere on ropes. Let’s say you’re a welder. Rope access is a skill you can have in your toolbox to make you more eligible for harder welding jobs. It doesn’t mean you just get to swing around on ropes all day—it means you use your rope access knowledge to get to where you need to go for work… but you need to be able to do the work once you get there.
How do you get involved?
Basically the best place to start is to seek out a training center: IRATA or SPRAT training or both to get dual certified, that’d be the best option. You can walk in with zero experience. There’s a one-week course and an exam, and if you pass, you become a level 1 rope access technician. Once you have that cert, you are hirable and can start looking for jobs on Facebook pages, indeed.com, even Craigslist.
What are the different levels and advancement opportunities?
If you’re going the industrial route, it’s a little more challenging.
You can work yourself up in the rope access system: there are levels 1, 2 and 3. Level 3 you can supervise job sites, based on having hours on ropes. You need 1,000 hours of rope access experience to move from level 1 to 2. Then another 1000 to get to level 3. Once you’re level 3, you have to renew your certification every three years.
What is the salary?
Depends on which industry you’re in. With your level 1 certification, you will most likely make at least 20 bucks an hour, and overtime is another thing to consider. The work is often shift work or contract-based, which is great for climbers because you work hard a lot and then get time off. It can be one month on, one month off.
What are the benefits?
Aside from the normal job benefits, it’s super cool. We work on iconic structures. It’s an awesome job and the techniques are similar to recreational climbing. Aid climbing, ascending ropes, etc. Plus there’s a lot of problem solving, which keeps it interesting.
What are the safety stats?
Compared to any other trade on-site, we are quite a bit safer. The difference is, let’s say you build scaffolding. You’re not working under the same safety standards as we are. We have higher safety standards because we are seen as needing them. You could be hanging 1,000 feet off the side of the building, but you’re safer than the guy on the ladder changing the lightbulb. It’s statistically much safer than the vast majority of other trades out there.
Do you get to travel much?
If you just want to window wash, you can work 9 to 5 washing in your town. Other jobs require a lot of travel. Right now, Global Rope Access has projects in Minneapolis, Miami, Oregon, L.A. … Some companies can’t have a home base. The majority of the work is actually travel based because the technicians go to the work.
We were in Atlanta for a year and a half going up to Horse Pens 40 on the weekends. When we worked in Las Vegas, we spent all our free time in Red Rocks. I’d say over 75% of our employees are climbers, so there are always partners. The skills are very transferable. It’s not exactly the same, and climbers shouldn’t expect to know anything when they walk in the door. But it’s similar.
What do you notice about workers who are also climbers versus workers who don’t climb?
Climbers are a broad range of individuals. As much as I’d like to say they’re the best and hardest workers in the world, some are and some aren’t. So I don’t want to generalize. I will say that when a resume comes across my desk, I look them up. If I’m looking at two resumes, one has a picture of a haul system on Half Dome and the other guy has a picture on a dirt bike, well—who am I gonna hire? Climbers are fit and driven, they generally aren’t scared of heights, they’re psyched to be on ropes. It just makes sense; it’s an obvious suit.