Climbers roped in to help finish off the Dome

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The Independent Online
THE CONSTRUCTION industry is turning to rock and mountain climbers in the search for builders happy to work suspended high above the ground on complex construction projects.

John Batty, marketing director of CAN Ltd, a construction firm based in Chesterfield, put adverts on notice boards at indoor climbing walls in Sheffield, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London - and the responses poured in.

For if there's one thing that rock climbers know about, it's using ropes to stay alive, and coping with heights. And if there's another thing they're keen on, it's using their expertise from their favourite pastime to earn money. The same is true for cavers and potholers, who also responded in large numbers to Batty's ads.

The roof of the Millennium Dome is at present crawling with people whose hobby is climbing or caving. Right now they're employed by CAN, earning more than pounds 100 per day, six or seven days a week, as the construction tries to meet its deadline at the end of this month.

London is now a prime location for "rope access" jobs. Among them are the Jubilee Line construction, and regular work at Westminster cleaning the face on the clock tower that contains Big Ben.

Rope access has become a thriving industry, offering a regular money earner for keen climbers and cavers; it's a better-paid and more interesting alternative to the odd jobs they might otherwise be doing and they can use the cash to fund expeditions.

Among them is Simon Yates, well-known for his mountaineering exploits around the world. He worked on the Millennium Dome between January and March of this year. "I was getting pounds 130 per day plus bonuses, working seven days a week," he recalls. "If you can find fairly well-paid work then you don't have to spend so much time doing it to save up some cash. A few months on the Dome will pay for a good trip anywhere - summer in the Alps, or climbing in France."

Many climbers are delighted to find that they can get paid for indulging their passion. In the 1980s, unemployment benefit funded a generation of eager climbers in cities such as Sheffield. But changes in benefit rules and the availability of well-paid work has proved too tempting for most. As a result, rope access jobs have almost entirely replaced the climbers' "dole culture".

The transition is easy. "It's pretty straightforward really," said one climber last week. "You need a certificate, so you go on a five-day course costing pounds 270 and take a test at the end. Pass that and you can be up on the roof the next day."

But having qualified, climbers can work 7am to 9pm days. Rain is not sufficient reason to stop; only wind, and even then only if it is above 25 mph. Yates recalls it as a scary experience: "The wind really whips up along the Thames. We were just hanging off ropes at the top of those masts. It was very exposed and windy." As the masts are nearly 100 metres above the ground, that is not surprising.

But Yates also suspects that the boom times can't last. He saw the business shrink as the building boom of the 1980s gave way to bust. "Now there are a lot of little companies, so the competition is fierce, and that's pushing down wages."

But even if chill winds do blow through the construction industry, it won't trouble the climbers. There'll always be someone who needs somebody prepared to hang about on a rope.