Swinging from the job

The past quarter-century has seen abseiling rise from a pastime for the not-so-faint-at-heart to a vital service in the civil construction industry. Hugh de Lacy traces its development.

ROCK-CLIMBING AND MOUNTAINEERING were the passion of a Scotsman and an Englishman who migrated to New Zealand in the early 1990s, and they’ve turned that passion into a professional abseiling company which encountered spiralling demand for its services in the wake of the South Island earthquakes.

Donald ‘DJ’ Matheson, with a background in computer studies, had served with Scottish mountain rescue teams while doing abseil inspection and maintenance work as a “North Sea Tiger” working out of Aberdeen on the North Sea oil rigs.

He had completed computer studies courses and faced a lifetime in offices, but “I wasn’t an inside person”, he tells Contractor.

Martin Wilson was a juggler – yes, and really good at it – while earning an engineering degree in England before both he and Donald wound up independently in New Zealand, in part to escape Margaret Thatcher’s Britain but also drawn by this country’s “gorgeous” mountains, as Donald puts it.

A mutual friend, Paul ‘Dodgy’ Rogers, another keen mountaineer and rock-climber, introduced the pair in 1992, and the following year they set up their professional abseiling company Abseil Access. They launched into business at a time when demand for abseiling skills was largely limited to high-rise building inspection, window-cleaning and painting in the vertical construction industry, but had only limited applications to horizontal infrastructure.

Mundane jobs such as window-cleaning did not appeal much to the pair, but they could see an increasing role for their skills in slip clearance in the roading sector.

Another thing that they could see was that such work was a high-skills specialty area that needed to be covered by industry standards, and New Zealand had none at the time.

There were, however, international standards administered by the British-based Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA) which conducted training worldwide, and under which both Donald and Martin had gained professional qualifications.

In the absence of them in New Zealand, and needing some form of official recognition for their skills, the pair approached the Department of Labour (DoL) with a pile of paper that included documentation, processes and procedures drawn from their experience and qualifications in the United Kingdom.

They got a positive reception from DoL senior inspector Ian Sheppard, who promptly issued them with a letter of approval.

Subsequently Standards New Zealand became involved, and Donald was invited onto the committee that in 1997 framed a local unit standard qualification administered by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, which in turn led to the establishment of the Industrial Rope Access Association of New Zealand (IRAANZ).

The first decade of the new millennium heralded an expansive era for industrial rope-access services, with Abseil Access hired to install height-safety anchors for abseiling on many high-rises built before it was realised that rope access could in many cases be a less expensive alternative to scaffolding.

Abseil Access was based in Wellington at the time, and worked in close collaboration with Christchurch-based outdoor clothing company, Cactus Climbing, which is still in business.

But it was the geo-technical work that really interested Donald and Martin, and this segment expanded exponentially when the still-running sequence of major South Island earthquakes began in September 2010.

Immediately after the quakes that flattened much of the Christchurch central business district in February 2011, Abseil Access was called in to assist with geo-technical surveys of the Port Hills – they had no role in the post-quake rescues which were carried out by specialist rescue teams.

With a workforce boosted into double figures, they had the job of identifying, stabilising and sometimes shifting by hand loose rocks and boulders threatening houses at the top and bottom of the Port Hills cliffs.

The emergency response phase of the Canterbury earthquakes lasted for 18 months, by which time industrial rope access had matured as a core skill for hillside construction, and the company had gratefully shed its more mundane duties like cleaning, painting and putting up advertising banners.

By this time too the value of abseilers had been recognised in the roading sector where big slips, like those that kept closing the Manawatu Gorge, required people clearing rocks and spoil from the top as well as the bottom.

Another job the company did in the immediate aftermath of the Kaikoura quakes was to assist Opus International in inspecting the Waiau Ferry Bridge, which gives access to Hanmer off SH7 and is also the site of a bungy-jumping operation.

The bridge proved to be undamaged.

In the meantime, Abseil Access, now referring to themselves as rope-access engineers, expanded into inspection, designing and building swing-bridges for the Department of Conservation and landowners in remote locations.

It’s a good little sideline that employs both the company’s rope-access skills and its formal engineering design-and-build capacity.

Today the company operates branches in Wellington and Christchurch, with the northern branch dealing more with high-rise maintenance and the southern with geo-tech, much of it for the North Canterbury Transport Infrastructure Recovery organisation (NCTIR, or Nectar) which is cleaning up the mess left by the Kaikoura quakes.

From its modest beginnings in the early 1990s, Abseil Access’ Wellington branch has grown to eight full-time employees and 12 contractors, while the Christchurch branch has five full-timers and 18 contractors.

Since moving south permanently with his life-partner three years ago, Donald runs the Christchurch office and Martin the Wellington one.

It’s been a fair old journey for both of them since their start-up in 1993, but they’ve had the satisfaction of seeing their abseiling, rock-climbing and mountaineering skills elevated to a key element in our horizontal infrastructure industry.

Kaikoura cooperation

The Kaikoura quakes of last November brought new and continuing demand for rope-access services, and Access Abseil worked initially on the slips on SH1 south of the township.

Now that road access has been gained from the south, the company is working on the even bigger slips still blocking SH1 to the north, and which are going to take till the end of this year to clear.

Including Abseil Access, more than 50 abseilers from five companies – the others are Rock Control, Geovert, Highway Geotechnical, Geotech Ground Engineering – have been working on the northern slips.

This article first appeared in Contractor May 2017.

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