Thrillseekers take note: the day job doesn't have to be humdrum and rope access specialist Phil Burke is the living proof.
Phil Burke is a very lucky man and he knows it. By combining his two great loves, rock climbing and engineering, he has forged himself a most satisfying career.
Burke is one of a handful of individuals who can claim to have developed a new branch of geotechnical engineering. In the early 1980s he pioneered the use of industrial rope access techniques on rock face and slope stabilisation projects and has now amassed well over 20 years experience in this specialist field. In 2000 he set up his own company, Rock Solutions, based near his home in Derbyshire's beautiful Peak District.
As a schoolboy in Stockport, Burke became fascinated by the local abandoned copper mines and joined the Derbyshire Caving Club.
When he went to Liverpool University to study process measurement and control, caving was still a major part of his life. By the time he was 25 he had completed descents of the world's five deepest caves.
His thirst for new adventures made rock climbing a natural progression and he quickly became one of Britain's leading alpinists, having climbed the north wall of the Eiger as his first Alpine ascent.
His international expeditions included establishing two of the world's hardest big wall climbs in Patagonia. In 1986, already active in industrial rope access, Burke was persuaded to join the British K2 expedition and was on the mountain during when 14 climbers died in severe weather conditions: a tragedy which will soon be the subject of a film.
In geotechnical terms, Burke's career started in earnest in 1979 when he began working for quarrying companies in Derbyshire designing controlled and production blast patterns. He also gained extensive experience of tunnel stabilisation including bolting, diamond drilling and sprayed concrete - all techniques that are used extensively when implementing rock face stabilisation solutions.
In 1983, Burke worked for a French company on a project in Martinique which employed rope access techniques. Back in the UK, he joined fellow climbers in establishing Britain's first industrial rope access company. Their earliest geotechnical job consisted of rock scaling at Whitby for the local council. Drifter drilling rigs used with rope access techniques were fist employed in the UK in 1984 to install rock bolts above a rail tunnel portal near Aberdovey in mid-Wales.
Burke identifies a project at Camp and Little Bay in Gibraltar in the early 90s as the moment when geotechnical rope access techniques truly came of age. 'The Gibraltar job was extremely complex, ' he says.
'Particularly challenging was the design and installation of 20m GRP permanent anchors. To achieve this we developed DTH rigs incorporating winching systems designed to conform to the LOLER regulations introduced in 1992. These rigs were critical to the success of the project, which received considerable coverage in Ground Engineering at the time [GE August 99].
'I think this was the first time that many in the geotechnical community started to seriously consider rope access as a practical and costeffective solution.
'Today, many consulting engineers specify rope access as the preferred option when they design rock face and soil slope stabilisation schemes. I've no doubt this is partly due to the impressive safety record built up by the rope access industry over the past 20 years.' In the mid-80s Burke was one of a small team that worked with the Rev Malcolm James of the Health and Safety Executive to develop the first advisory code of practice for rope access techniques, the forerunner to the current Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (Irata) guidelines.
'The majority of equipment in industrial rope access is derived from caving, including the static rope which was first used by RAF mountain rescue teams in the 1970s, ' Burke says. 'In the early days the hardest task was changing the mindset of climbers and cavers to use two ropes - a primary and a safety - instead of one. Nowadays the use of two ropes is unquestioned and provides an extremely safe working environment. This is particularly attractive to clients for whom safety is critical, such as Network Rail.' The railway sector is one of Rock Solutions' primary sources of work.
Typical projects include the installation of rock fall netting and anchors in cuttings and soil nailing to stabilise embankments.
'We're already Link-Up [UK rail industry supplier registration and qualification scheme] approved and in October we are hoping to become the first rope access company to pass our core Network Rail audit, ' he says. 'I believe our systems and procedures are much tighter and more professional as a result and I hope Network Rail continues to drive out those companies which do not take quality and safety seriously.' Burke has no regrets about his career choice. 'I have managed to combine my two great loves: climbing and engineering, ' he says. 'I would encourage anyone to consider geotechnical engineering if they love the outdoor life and the satisfaction of overcoming practical challenges.' Thrillseekers take note: the day job doesn't have to be humdrum and rope access specialist Phil Burke is the living proof.