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When I was 18 and out of high school I landed what I figured was the perfect job for a climber: roofing.
Besides working outside where you get a free “hardening” by the elements—rain, wind, temperatures exceeding 100 and down to zero—being a roofer acclimates you to heights and danger. Carrying 80-pound bundles of shingles up a tall ladder from dawn to dusk is a training bonus.
When I was a roofer, the boss even had a fun contest for us “maggots” to see who could carry the most shingles at one time. If you could stock the roof with two bundles of shingles balanced on your shoulder (160 pounds), you could knock out that chore (average roof had 120 loads) in half the time, and “get” to help nailing them on, a sort of promotion until someone needed more shingles. This last part was awesome because grabbing a thousand or so coarse, sandpaper-like composite shingles toughens up the fingertips, and nailing them on is even better for the forearms than wrist curls. Being a roofer is also great because you can miss work for half a year and return as if you had never left. There are always, it seems, shingles that need carried up a ladder.
It would be hard to script a job as perfect for a climber as roofing, but I have held several others that while, not quite as idyllic, are still worth considering.
Roughnecks get to work out in the elements, just like a roofer, and toiling on an drilling rig prepares you for alpine climbing with shifts that can run for days at a time. I once worked a week straight on a rig. After a few days on the job without sleep and constantly being sprayed in the face with crude oil, hydraulic fluid and brightly colored chemicals, when you are in the mountains, waking up at 2 a.m. to romp up a North Face feels like (and is) vacation. Roughnecks also make stacks of money. Once you log 40 hours, which takes less than two days, you get paid time and a half. I knew a guy who made so much money he bought an airplane. It didn’t even matter that he didn’t know how to fly—he just revved the plane up and down the county roads, go-cart style, but in a go-cart wings. For a climber, the mountain of cash can fund nearly unlimited trips, or let your parents host a nice memorial after you get crushed by a two-ton hunk of pipe or roasted by flames or slip off the derrick from 100 feet up—the death rate for a roughneck is only eight times higher than that for most other occupations.
This job is, unfortunately, indoors, but has the advantage of providing you with nearly unlimited free food, and that prepares you for the crap you’ll be eating on the big wall. Better, like roofing, no experience is necessary, and age isn’t a barrier, either: I got my first job as a cook at an A&W when I was just 15. Flipping Papa Burgers all day or all night, and sometimes all day and all night, teaches you responsibility and repetition—perfect big-wall training. I once made 100 Coney dogs in five minutes, getting my brain right for banging endless strings of pins into big-wall classics such as Mescalito and the PO. Cooking at a fast-food joint doesn’t pay as well as that of a roughneck or roofer, but it does cut down on your food bill.
These are the schleps who carry 100-pound rolls of seismic-survey cable across swamps, deserts and mountains, and unroll them and connect them to the other 100-pound rolls of cable that string for miles and at the terminus are hooked up to a “thumper” truck that whacks the ground, sending small earthquake vibrations into the ground. A geologist in the truck reads the EKG-like waves picked up by sensors on the cables, and can see if there’s any oil or gas down there. Brilliant.
Besides beefing up your arms and legs, carrying big rolls of cable doesn’t require any special training, or even thinking. You can show up, begin work, and get a paycheck every week. As you work, your mind is free to wander, to say, the great ice walls of the Alps or the limestone down in Mex. One juggie, a guy from Menard, Texas, who we called “Maynard,” perfected mind wandering to the extent that he gassed up the diesel truck with regular gasoline.
Wiping out toilets and changing the rumpled and stiff sheets on the beds for complete strangers isn’t as glamorous as humping 160 pounds of shingles up a ladder, but you get to watch television while you work, and the specialized training for such a job only takes about 15 minutes, so you can get this work just about anytime you want. And once you have honed these valuable trades skills you can work at just about any hotel or vacation condo in America. Scrubbing skid marks out of toilet bowls at the Ahwahnee in Yosemite has benefits so obvious to a climber that they don’t even need explaining.
I worked a winter at Tamarack Lodge, a cross-country ski resort near Mammoth Lakes, California, one winter and I still have fond memories. My buddy Walt Shipley and I shared a small cabin and every day after it stopped snowing 20 feet we got to dig out the lodge and 21 guest cabins sprinkled across the compound grounds. Walt and I really did great work. We were detail oriented and fast. One time we finished so early the owner of the lodge rewarded us by letting us go into town and paint the inside of his condo.
It got better than. Across the road from the lodge, and uphill on the mountain that faced the lodge, Walt and I spied a nice ribbon of ice that back then hadn’t been climbed as far as we knew. If you are a climber and you see something like that, the temptation is great and one morning we slipped away from work and got on the ice. Conditions were awful. The ice wasn’t bonded and much of what looked like ice was really snow. We bailed and slunk back to the lodge using the cover of the cars in the parking lot (which we’d dug out) to get back undetected so we could grab our shovels and unearth those 21 cabins before the Boss noticed we were missing.
Imagine our surprise when “Boss John” popped up from behind one of the cars. Walt and I froze, still geared up in our Gore-Tex and harnesses, ice tools in hand.
“Where you boys been?” he asked, matter of factly. “Looking for jobs?”
That was the first and only time I’ve been fired, and that was too bad because shoveling snow really was a climber’s job jackpot.