Bhupesh Patil first discovered the world of climbing in 2014. He started out on a small wall in his home-town of Nashik, Maharashtra, progressing to crags and spires in the Sahyadri mountains.
At the time, it was just part of the exploratory jaunts he enjoyed as an avid trekker. Patil has always experienced a sense of freedom in the outdoors but with climbing, he had to master the art of rope work and hone his skills on the rock. And before he realised it, hanging on ropes became a hobby, one he started enjoying with other like-minded folk and continues to practise today.
Getting to the top is just one part of the thrill. Patil, now 27, thrives on the challenges each climb presents and the heady rush he experiences while on top, as he takes in the views. “Ever since those early days, I have enjoyed handling equipment like harnesses and carabiners and working with knots. And, of course, being outdoors,” he says.
He had, however, been conditioned to believe this would have to remain a hobby. All that changed only when one of his experienced climbing mates told him about the rope access industry: This can include any job, from working on windmills to skyscrapers, that needs to be done at heights while being suspended from ropes. Combined with his degree in mechanical engineering from Nashik, he realised it could be the perfect fit for him.
“The rope access scene started in the 1980s because of rock climbers and cavers, who could hang on vertical faces and work at heights,” explains Patil. “I now work as a blade technician in the windmill industry, which uses both my climbing skills and technical knowledge,” he adds.
On any given day, Patil’s work can range from installation to cleaning and painting. These days, he is working at a site in Theni, at the foothills of the Western Ghats near Madurai, Tamil Nadu. “I used to watch a lot of online videos of people working on windmills. It really fascinated me. One of the reasons I wanted to get into the wind industry was because it allowed me to work in the outdoors and at heights. And get paid for it,” he says.
In India, most aspirants opt to pursue the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (Irata) certification, recognised around the world, through affiliated institutes—there are eight such institutes in India. Anyone can attempt the course, as long as they are over 18 and medically fit. It has three levels, each costing Rs.45,000-60,000, and gives rope access professionals the licence to work on everything from skyscrapers to oil rigs, shipping and the windmill industry. Most club it with a specialisation such as welding, non-destructive testing or inspection. Pay for this niche work is good. A newcomer can earn around Rs. 40,000 a month; salaries can run into lakhs of rupees, depending on experience and skill sets.
Rohit Vartak, 37, who started out as a snake rescuer, is now a regular on the climbing circuit. His first experience with climbing, in 2003, was enough to get him hooked to the sport. Over time, he realised the joy of climbing in the outdoors and the challenge each rock threw at him.
“There’s always a new problem to look forward to on each climb. In any other sport, you will be able to perform at some level without training. But when it comes to climbing, one needs to put in consistent practice or you will land up starting from zero each time. It’s why I really enjoy it. Then, of course, there are the views from the top, which are absolutely beautiful,” he says.
Finding the niche
“After studying commerce, my family asked me to look for banking jobs,” says Vartak. “But I was clear that my profession had to have elements of adventure, climbing and ropes.” Initially, he worked freelance jobs as an outdoors expert at camps that involved climbing or rappelling. He only grasped the real potential of his climbing skills in 2011, when he was given his first industrial assignment: installing safety lines on telephone towers across Himachal Pradesh.
“At the time, there weren’t many who were equipped to work at heights. But the scene changed after 2014, when maintenance-shutdown projects (closure of entire industrial plants, such as thermal, manufacturing or chemical units, for maintenance) started. These were high-risk jobs and climbers had the necessary skills to tackle them. A lot of them started working as trainers to impart climbing skills to employees or as rescuers in case of emergencies,” Vartak says.
Unlike Patil, who had a more formal entry into the profession, Ranjit Shinde, 37, found his calling quite by chance. He would regularly climb in the Sahyadris and in 2007, started working with an industrial equipment manufacturer to test their gear. They soon realised that his ability to climb could help with rescues in industrial plants and factories—these industries always have someone on standby. At the time, though, he did not have the qualifications or resources to take on such jobs. Four years later, he began to pursue his Irata certification, moving through the different levels at institutes in Chennai and Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu and Kochi in Kerala.
It was over time that all of them realised the similarities these jobs had with climbing. The feel of the rock was missing, as was the threat of a dislodged stone from above. But the work with ropes and knots, besides other gear such as a harness and a carabiner, wasn’t too different. There was also a sense of comfort in starting the day with a climb, though it may not have been as high as some of them had attempted. Vartak and Patil, for instance, were part of the team that made the first Indian ascent of Shoshala, a 4,700m peak in Himachal Pradesh, last year.
“When you miss a hold while climbing, you land up falling until the rope breaks your fall. When it comes to rope access, there’s no scope for falling since you are always secured by the gear. Then, if the wind exceeds a certain speed at work, we simply get down, whereas while climbing, we don’t stop until the weather turns really harsh. In fact, when I show my colleagues my rock climbing videos, they find it all very risky!” says Patil, laughing.
The usual day at work sees Patil drive 30 minutes to the site in Theni. He then readies his backpack, dons a harness and a helmet and climbs up the tower of a windmill that is about 80m high. On its turbine, Patil and his teammates set up base for the rest of the day.
They work on readying the ropes they have hauled up with them. After a quick round of safety checks to ensure their gear has secured them completely, Patil and his partner rappel down one of the windmill blades. These days, they are installing a pin-like structure which will help improve the aerodynamic qualities of the blades. They take a short lunch break on their perch, suspended high above the ground, before resuming work. They descend, with their gear, only at the end of the day.
“Climbing is more about using the right techniques, while industrial work is all about gadgets to make the entire exercise really safe. So while we take calculated risks during rock climbing, in the case of rope access, we try to eliminate any risk,” says Patil.
Today, Shinde, who is based in Pune, Maharashtra, is employed with Karam Safety as an Irata technical authority and helps develop rock climbing and rope access equipment, besides doubling up as an instructor.
“Those who haven’t climbed before find it difficult initially, since it is hard to balance on ropes. We don’t take new boys to great heights unless they are really comfortable. And if we find them unfit for heights, we don’t have a choice but to ask them to leave. You cannot play with human lives,” Shinde says. “All this is light work for someone who comes from a climbing background,” he adds.
Yet the job has its challenges even for seasoned hands. In 2017, Vartak’s team had to conduct a rescue at a plant in Odisha where two workers, suspended from ropes, had lost consciousness after inhaling leaked carbon dioxide.
He has also trained workers who were involved with the Chenab Rail Bridge project in Jammu and Kashmir, the highest railway bridge in the world, where his abilities were tested while operating in sub-zero temperatures.
But there’s tremendous job satisfaction. Vartak believes that he not only earns a living through climbing but also carries out community service each time he conducts a rescue. One person he rescued even offered to join him on future assignments and donated gear to express his gratitude.
He is aware, though, of the responsibilities that come with the job. “When I climb, it’s for myself, so there’s no fear of making mistakes. The stakes are higher during industrial work because not many have the knowledge that I possess and you are answerable if anything goes wrong,” Vartak says.
At the end of the day, however, there’s immense fulfilment in turning a hobby into a profession. Three months into his job, Patil says it’s a delight to go up each day and enjoy the view from the top. Shinde believes there is nothing more pleasing than biting into an apple while gazing at clear blue skies.
“For someone watching from down below, it may all look very scary. But I feel like I am on a holiday when I go high up. People pay money to rappel and we get paid to do it. And our work is really appreciated, which makes it all the more satisfying,” says Shinde.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist