OPPD apprentice line technician Victor Huerta checked his climbing gear one last time and stabbed his boot spike into the utility pole.
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! Up he went, one step at a time, leaning back into the belt around his hips with his knees pointed outward. His gaffs – sharp steel spikes attached to his boots – plunged into the wood, giving him traction to climb. A thick, leather belt, known as a buck squeeze, hugged the pole with enough friction to hold him in place.
“At first, it’s a little nerve-wracking,” said Huerta, who is based at OPPD’s Omaha Service Center. “You have to learn to trust your equipment. I was terrified the first time I climbed. You’ve just got to learn to get over that fear.”
With just a few simple tools and a well-practiced technique, Huerta climbs poles nearly every day along with dozens of other OPPD line technicians and troubleshooters. They ascend at all times of day, in all types of weather, lugging up to 20 pounds of tools needed to maintain and repair equipment and restore power during outages.
How do they do it?
Climbing is a core skill for these workers, and not for the faint of heart. Even before they’re hired at OPPD, aspiring climbers spend a lot of time practicing on simple dummy poles in line school. When they apply for a job at OPPD, the utility requires them to show that they can go up safely, perform critical work, and stay focused under pressure.
On a real job, poles might have protruding pieces of metal or knots that can keep gaffs from penetrating the wood, causing a climber to slip. They might be unusually thin or rotted. Crossarms and obstacles can get in the way. With incorrect technique, a climber could slide 1-2 feet down the pole before their belt tightens and catches them.
And, of course, live wires pulsing with electricity are a risk that climbers must always carefully assess.
For OPPD apprentice line technician Gil Zarazua, getting truly comfortable took a few months of consistent practice. The biggest challenge now is evaluating each job and deciding how best to approach it.
“There’s a lot preparation that goes into it,” said Zarazua, who recently finished in the top 10 overall in the apprentice division at the Nebraska Lineworkers Rodeo. “There are a lot of potential hazards, and no two jobs will ever be the same.”
Repetition is a big part of learning, but so is watching others with years of experience. Pole climbing dates back to at least the 1840s, when linemen would shimmy up telegraph poles with no gear at all, or using basic ropes or wooden ladders. Equipment has improved vastly over the last century, but knowing how to climb efficiently is still a staple of the trade passed down from older generations.
“Proper technique is important,” said Tim Potts, a former lineworker and now manager at OPPD’s Transmission & Distribution Center in Omaha. “You find a rhythm. If your steps are too big, it’s hard on your legs and you’ll wear yourself out faster. If your steps are too small, you’re probably doing more than you need to. With practice, you find that happy medium where it’s almost like you’re walking.”
Huerta learned the basics in the line technician program at Metropolitan Community College. Getting used to heights was one challenge. Two students in his class dropped out because they were too uncomfortable high on the poles.
Instructors taught the fundamentals: inspecting poles and gear, clipping in properly, double-checking everything and always thinking ahead to the next step.
But up on the pole, even at just 40 feet, a lot of beginners get nervous. Huerta still remembers the first time he had to transition over a cross-arm, a move that requires climbers to wrap a secondary belt over the obstacle, clip in properly, and then unhook their main belt – their lifeline – so they can carry it over and reconnect.
“I had butterflies,” Huerta said. “I yelled down to my instructor, ‘This is kind of sketchy.’”
Before he starts climbing, Huerta checks his gear for damage and wear, making sure nothing is loose or ripped. Then he examines the pole. Is it hollow, rotten? Leaning? Is the base stable and sturdy enough to support a climber’s weight? Poles can be 40 feet or 120 feet tall, depending on their intended use, and many are decades old.
Satisfied that the pole is safe, Huerta clamps the climbing gaffs snugly around his calves and ankles. Next comes his tool belt, loaded with wrenches, carabiners, knives, and a “ditty bag” full of lag bolts, staples and other small items that he may need to use. He clips on his primary and secondary buck squeezes, plus a long rope, known as a hand line. He can use a hand line for rescues in an emergency.
Then Huerta hooks himself to the pole, looping the buck squeeze around the wood. With each step, he leans forward a bit, scoots the buck squeeze higher on the pole and plants his gaffs firmly into the wood so they don’t slip. Situational awareness is critical. Forget to look up, and you might climb headfirst into a crossarm or an energized conductor.
Line technicians might spend hours working on a pole, depending on the job. If the belt is in the wrong position, their legs will tire. To compensate, they hike the belt up higher to ease some of the pressure on their legs.
“I feel like that’s the hardest part for me,” Huerta said. “You might be up there for three or four hours, having to change out a transformer. Your knees start quaking, and in the summer it can get pretty hot.”
Climbers also try to avoid rocking poles as they ascend, Potts said. Shaking a pole violently enough could cause equipment to rattle, perhaps slap together and damage something. Smoothness helps. Of course, everyone has off days.
“One day, you might feel good and your climbing might be smooth and fluid,” Potts said. “The next day, you might have a badly leaning pole and you may be a little clumsy and off balance. It just depends on the day. But you still need to get up there.”
At OPPD’s apprentice boot camp, Potts and other seasoned lineworkers push applicants to stretch beyond their perceived limits while remaining safe. Applicants climb while fatigued, a condition that exposes sloppy and dangerous behavior and gives evaluators a chance to correct it.
The challenges are all well worth it for Zarazua, who always wanted a job where he could work outside with his hands.
“At the end of the day, you can look up and see the results of your work,” he said.
For Huerta, the satisfaction of restoring power to customers is worth the sometimes-tough conditions he encounters on the pole. And the views aren’t bad, either.
“It’s beautiful up there, out in the country, when you’re up on a 125-foot structure,” he said. “You just sit there and you see the sun coming up because you’re there at 6 o’clock in the morning. I feel like that’s the best part about climbing.”
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