Caltrans fields unique team of climbers to keep mountain roads safe

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A nine-mile section of Pacific Coast Highway just north of Malibu remains closed after a December rain storm sent piles of debris down a steep hillside and choked off northbound lanes.

The California Department of Transportation is still in the process of removing the debris, but while they're at it, workers are taking steps to reduce the risk of more slides.

Allan Sharon is one of a team of 250 trained climbers that Caltrans has assembled — all with different day jobs — who periodically work an estimated 3,000 miles or more of state roads that wind through the hills and mountains and sit next to slopes with the potential for rock slides.

On a recent sunny morning, Sharon is helping set up anchors at the top of a slope that's about 150 feet above Pacific Coast Highway. He's been with Caltrans for 22 years. Usually he works as a heavy equipment operator in the mountains of Ojai. Today his job is to identify any rocks or boulders at risk of falling and, well, make them fall — in a controlled way, of course. They call it scaling.

"If you look around right here, we're standing next to Mugu Rock. We're probably about 60 feet from the ocean looking at this beautiful mountainside and this is going to be my office for the day," Sharon says.

More than a month after a storm in December, there are still piles of dirt and rock on the northbound lanes of PCH.

Caltrans is there with 10 climbers and a handful of others on the ground for support.

Sharon is leading the group on a day-long scaling job. Before they start their climb, the crew has a tailgate safety review.

"Approximately a year and a half ago we lost two climbers up in Northern California — and that's what had happened is a slope did come down on them. It was no fault of theirs. It was just an oddity," Sharon says.

At the meeting, the climbers go over strategy, tie practice knots and remind everyone to stay hydrated.

"It's going to be a challenge to go up with all the equipment, but we're going to do it," says climber Gustavo Ortega, a Caltrans geologist based in La Mirada. His gear can weigh 40 to 80 pounds per trip.

The climbers make their way to the top. Alan Sharon yells up to them: "Look for a decent spot back over the slope to put an anchor in! I'll be up in just a second!" he says.

Once the anchors are set, the climbers start to make their way down on ropes. They're working parallel at about the same level — using their hands and pry bars.

They've all been through a Caltrans rock climbing and scaling training program.

It's called Kingvale Academy - held every summer off Highway 80 near Donner Pass.

Kingvale trains about 144 people a year — mostly men, but a couple of women go through the program each year. Sharon says the program is one-of-a-kind.

"We are the only state that does this, and we are the best at what we do and we've trained hard to do this," he says.

The state program was developed internally to address the needs of California's highway system.

"We found that it's much more cost effective for us to do it ourselves," Sharon says.

It costs the state less than $25,000 a year to run the program.

By contrast, if Caltrans had brought in a contractor to do this particular scaling job on PCH, it would have cost an estimated $6,000 a day - that doesn't include the cost of support and cleanup crews.

Other state transportation departments from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Oregon have reached out to California about the program and have even sent students to Kingvale.

Caltrans could use machinery to knock down loose rock but has found that it's not always as effective as doing the work by hand.

After four hours of setting up, pieces of rock start to rain onto PCH. Most are the size of a baseball or smaller. Some are bigger than a basketball.

A dust cloud hovers above the climbers.

Stephen Jones of West LA, the "first aid guy" on the job, says climbing is a rush, and it's fun as long as you don't mind getting dirty.

At the end of the day he says you'll look "like you've been cleaning a chimney or been in a dust storm. There's dirt everywhere. in your ears, nose, face, so you have to protect your eyes is the main thing. Try not to breathe any of it."

Alan Sharon and the other climbers don't seem to mind.After a mostly quiet morning, they go wild, cheering when they knock down a particularly big rock.

If you want to see the climbers in action (or you just like watching rock slides), take a look at this pair of videos from Caltrans. The first shows the recent mitigation efforts on PCH:


This one is from a project in June 2014:


This story has been updated.

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