Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Map of Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge
Seven bridge inspectors equipped with climbing harnesses stood in a circle Wednesday morning atop the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge for a safety check.
While the morning sun shined nearby on the architectural marvel that is the Hoover Dam, their carabiners jangled about their waists as they checked their gear. Their gear needs to be perfect; their lives and job depend on it.
In a few moments, they would begin a routine bridge maintenance check by dangling 800-feet in the air off the bridge with nothing below them but rocks and the blue Colorado River.
“All right, let’s be safe today,” says Ryan Nataluk, the bridge inspection program manager. “We have a 100 percent safety record; let’s keep it that way.”
Employed by architecture and engineering consulting firm Stantec, the men are all certified rope-access engineers. It’s a job that combines the know-how of structural engineering with the extreme sport of mountain climbing, allowing engineers better access to bridges than any machine could give.
On Wednesday, they are continuing the bypass bridge’s mandatory two-year maintenance check for the Nevada Department of Transportation. For seven hours, they will have the best view of the Hoover Dam in the world.
“My favorite part of this is there is a very small group of people in the world who are ever going to be able to rappel off this structure,” senior bridge inspection engineer Nicholas Cioffredi said. “But also when you drop below the arch ridge, there’s nothing below you than (800 feet) and the Colorado River, and that’s pretty cool.”
They begin by lowering a climber attached to two safety ropes down a concrete pillar. From the base of the bridge, he looks like a tiny orange smudge on the concrete column. His job is to attach their anchors – one-inch nylon tubes that can hold up to 5,000 pounds – to the pillar.
After a series of safety checks, the crew begins to rappel down the columns and across the arches to search for any signs of potential issues. Rust, cracks, exposed rebar or chipped paint could all signify the start of a more serious problem. For the next seven hours, they will have no access to a bathroom or food aside from perhaps a Cliff bar.
“All of us are athletes in the other realm, whether its cycling, climbing or marathon running; you learn your body, you know what you need to eat in the morning,” said Cioffredi, who begins each day with a bowl of oatmeal, honey and coffee.
Cioffredi and Nataluk – the team’s leaders – have been rope-access engineers for 11 and 15 years respectively. With the structure towering 900 feet high above the Colorado, Nataluk said the bypass bridge is the highest they’ve ever inspected, though its arch structure makes it one of the most simple to examine.
Still, the experience of dangling from the arch surrounded by nothing but air and the Colorado below makes it a unique job. Cioffredi said it offered a feeling of pure exposure - almost like being naked in public – and the view was unrivaled.
“It’s a little unnerving at first because there’s nothing underneath you,” Cioffredi said. “Your feet are no longer touching, you’re just hanging in free air, but that’s pretty cool.”
Despite the inherent risk of dangling in midair, it is still as safe as any other job. Each climber is connected by two safety lines and a multitude of carabiners so if there were a freak accident such as a rope giving out, another would be in place to keep the climber suspended.
But as in mountain climbing, a lot of the safety measures still rely on a teammate to do his job.
“There’s a ton of trust between us,” Cioffredi said. “Otherwise, you’re dead.”
After seven hours, the crews call their job for the day so the second lane can reopen on the bridge. Everything they examined will be documented for future years to compare. So far, Nataluk said the bridge has been perfect.
“This is one of the best constructed bridges I’ve been on,” Nataluk said.
At the end of the day, Cioffredi said the best part of the job was knowing they were able to prevent major incidents from happening. That, and the chance to hang off the side of a bridge over an iconic U.S. landmark.
“There’s no limelight, no glory … people don’t know who we are and what we do,” Cioffredi said. “But you have the odd job of being able to do things like this. It’s pretty cool.”