Caltrans workers scale heights to keep roads safe |

Caltrans workers scale heights to keep roads safe

Emma GarrardA Caltrans worker rappels down a cliff on Donner Summit last week.

When Caltrans workers deal with rock, they are typically blasting a route for a new highway or laying a ribbon of crushed gravel where a revamped road will soon appear.

That work is done with both feet planted firmly on the ground. Caltrans rock scalers, however, are secured in climbing harnesses and work on cliffs to remove boulders that threaten to cascade down onto the state’s highways.

And to learn how to perform their specialized airborne duties, state transportation workers head to Caltrans’ “Kingvale U” on top of Donner Summit.

The problem the Caltrans employees are trying to fix is a dangerous trend. Highway road cuts, many carved out during a public works bonanza in the 1960s, are degrading and threatening to rain rocks onto the state’s byways.

“Slopes age,” said John Duffy, a senior engineering geologist for Caltrans, who pioneered the rock-scaling courses. “We have more and more rock falls nationwide.”

To combat the problem, Caltrans workers had to shift their focus from ground work to something much more vertical. The employees remove dangerous rock clusters on steep road cuts, preventing rock slides and keeping roads clear.

“It’s proactive” work, Duffy said. “If we didn’t the rocks would come down. Scaling is a good, quick, efficient way but it’s not permanent, you have to do it periodically.”

The new job description required workers with the skills of recreational rock climbers while using the equipment of industrial workers. So a school to teach such skills popped up on Donner Summit.

“Ours is a marriage,” Duffy said. “It’s really one of the only programs for rock scaling in the world. There are trained rock-scalers in every [Caltrans] district.”

Crews come from Tahoe, Caples Lakes on Highway 88, San Francisco, Eureka, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles and San Diego, Duffy said.

Duffy learned from world-class climbers including Todd Vogel who helped design a class specifically for rock scaling.

Employees are taught to hike above a hazard area and then rappel back down. They don’t get into lead or free climbing, Duffy said.

Caltrans employees volunteer to be on the rock-scaling team and receive additional hazard pay per hour, Duffy said.

After descending a 70-foot granite cliff during a recent refresher class on the Summit that had multiple routes, Cedric Lagajit of Redwood City watched his peers scale down.

“It’s part of my job,” Lagajit said about his unusual highway worker occupation. “It keeps the roads safe.”

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