KENAI — They’re out there right now, clamped to I-beams, sitting in harnesses, dangling from ropes over Cook Inlet.
Most mornings, when it’s clear enough for the helicopter to fly, the three-man crew descends the oil platform’s layered catwalks, rips out or welds in new piping, fits insulation, and guts old scaffolding from the structure’s underside.
“If my job isn’t scaring me a little bit, I can’t manage to hold my interest,” said Kevin Thompson, Ropeworks’ rope access team leader.
Thompson, and Adam Lederer and Adam Link, other Ropeworks team members, have been working on the oil platform since June 28, maintaining normally inaccessible reaches of the structure. Thompson and Lederer build the climbing anchors and manage the ropes; Link does the welding. They all hang below the deck.
Ropeworks, part of Mistras Group Inc., repairs, maintains and inspects wind turbines, bridges, dams, electrical substations, tall buildings and — for the first time in the Cook Inlet — oil platforms. Team members have rappelled down the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge, among other iconic structures. Their work includes infrared monitoring, inspection and maintenance.
Thompson, personally, has cleaned rotor grease from wind turbine blades and fryer grease from the Space Needle. He said at more than 200 feet off the ground with a rag and bottle of Simple Green, the wax-on, wax-off motion is captivating. And getting up there — be it wind turbines, the Space Needle or oil platforms — is no different for him than most others commuting to work.
“We just use the ropes to get to work,” Thompson said. It’s a vehicle, just like a car, he said.
Ropeworks is unique from other ground-up or scaffolding-based asset protection companies, said Van Grainge, operation supervisor for the Nikiski Mistras branch.
Many operations utilize scaffolding to access structures, Thompson said. But that takes months, heavy equipment and thousands of dollars to build, he said. Crews also need to tear it down once maintenance or inspection is complete. Thompson and his team spent much of their first week removing old scaffolding from the platform, he said.
Ropes are fast, they leave no trace and they break down quickly, Grainge said. They do have drawbacks — the team avoids high winds, it must be self-sufficient, it doesn’t work in the rain and it can’t stay out long in subzero temperatures — but with ropes, Graninge said, the team can access more remote areas.
“Whenever you can’t use any type of scaffolding, that’s where Ropeworks comes in,” Grainge said.
Ropeworks teams always consist of at least two members and two ropes — redundancy is safety — and each member serves a specific purpose. Thompson and Lederer build all technical systems and monitor the team. Link is the mechanic. He welds, fits pipes, removes old insulation and rips out the old scaffolding.
Training for the line of work is extensive. A single team may have knowledge in thermodynamics, physics, rescue skills and a range of climbing equipment and systems, said Nelson Perrin, general manager of the Mistras Alaska branch.
Perrin said the profession attracts many for the lifestyle. They are “green, environmental type people. They are people that believe in organics. Real, natural, earth-loving people,” Perrin said.
Some team members have climbed Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan solo; others have set out on climbing trips to South America, Thompson said. He whitewater rafted before Ropeworks and was fascinated with the rigging involved in the sport, he said.
“A lot of people have a job,” Perrin said. “(This isn’t) a job. It’s a career. It’s a passion. It’s a hobby.”
At the end of the day on the platform, Thompson and his team haul their rope, welding torch and all the hardware back up the catwalk, each deck spreading farther out than the last, and the team retires to its sleeping quarters.
Inside, their bunks are separated by curtains. The walls are navy gray. The floor is carpeted. With earplugs in, they cannot hear the sea below.
And outside, when it is clear, it is beautiful.
“When you see the mountains,” Thompson said, “it’s definitely a spectacular view.”