Why You Might See A GZA Engineer Climbing A Cliff

If you’re driving by a major dam one day, or driving down the highway looking at a cliff, you wouldn’t expect to see someone rappelling down the front of it. Yet that’s all in a day’s work for a dam inspector and a rock slope engineer. And you’ll find engineers strapping on harnesses and checking their knots in multiple offices across GZA, as it expands its ropes practice.

“Climbing has been a recreational hobby for going on eight years. It started while I was living in Vermont and make it through the end of class. We’d drive down to the local crag and get as much time in as we could before the sun went down,” says Luke Detwiler, leader of the ropes practice along with Nick Williams of GZA’s Portland office. “There’s a distinction between doing it professionally and for fun, but the best part is that the principles are the same. It’s another way to bring a methodical approach to a challenge outdoors.”

For his part, “I hadn’t planned on doing any rock climbing at all,” Nick tells us, but he’s found that even with modern technology, it’s important to get up close. “We need to truth the measurements we take with drones,” he explains. “If you’re feeling loose blocks or seeing large cracks, that’s not something you get from photography or laser scanning tools.” 

GZA’s ropes practice started in the early 1990s, focused on dam inspections. Especially with larger structures, it’s the up-close inspections and detail work that matters. From there, GZA’s ropes work has expanded, with everything from building inspections to rock slope mapping to emergency inspections after rockslides. Luke explains that it’s a natural extension of engineering and geological work: Patience and a methodical approach are key. “The people I’ve learned from are the most level-headed, logistically minded people I know, and I enjoy it because it engages that part of my brain.”
Any rope work begins with getting access to the area. Some projects will need a hundred pounds of equipment carried to the top, which when you include elevation and distance, makes fatigue a concern. “Being strong or able-bodied enough to do the work is important, but not nearly as important as knowing your limits and how the environment can affect you,” Luke explains. 

Then you set up the equipment itself, checking and rechecking. GZA uses a double rope system for maximum safety and compliance with Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) requirements, and the people are just as important. “We work on rock slopes in teams of two, where one person rappels and the other takes notes. Both people check the gear beforehand,” Nick says. “If you forget something before going on a rock slope, you have to completely disassemble it and reevaluate.” Luke adds “You have to start the day right too. If you’re not fully hydrated and fed, you’re starting off on the wrong foot.”
The teams of two are designed to keep the physical aspect in mind. Luke says that “making that a group decision with someone who cares about how you’re doing and is keeping you honest on your limits helps limit the risk.”

And with drones in the mix, it’s become even more important. “In a lot of scenarios, you need both, depending on site features,” Nick explains. “We had a three-phase mapping process on one job. Photogrammetry with the drone came first. We brought the photos back to the office, analyzed them, and built a road map for the climb.” Drones offer a handy snapshot of the whole structure, Sean elaborates, and “doing that from the beginning to get an idea of what you’re jumping into is a more efficient way to get the job done.” 

So, if you’re wondering what an engineer gets up to on the job, find a structure or slope and look up. You might just see one hard at work.