Updated: Jan 15, 2020
RATs – Rope Access Technicians – are in abundance across London’s constantly changing skyline, and for some of them, it’s an extension of a climbing addiction. We discovered that London has its very own ‘Rope Gang’ – a network of RATs with a dedicated Instagram account and a lively WhatsApp community sharing stories and job opportunities.
One member of the London Rope Gang is Kuba, who, like many climbers, comes from a family of climbers. His parents and grandparents spent their lives doing little else, so it was only a matter of time before he ventured into the nearest climbing gym and got to work.
Ultimately, it would literally be his work.
“Back in the day, rope access was an inevitable job for most climbers or cavers. It was an easy way to earn good money and be able to climb and travel. I was a teenager and some climbing buddies offered me a job one day. We all worked in a different style then because there were no clear rules of the trade, and no guiding organisations such as IRATA even existed in Poland at the time. It was more like a close circle of friends doing a bit of a cowboy show - it was all safe and professional, but definitely freestyle! Not surprisingly, my Dad and Grandad also used to do rope access before me.”
IRATA is the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association. Industrial rope access, as trained for and operated by the member companies of IRATA International, has come a long way over the last three decades. From the point where it was created to meet a specific need to solve maintenance problems in the offshore industry, rope access has distinguished itself as an integral part of the work-at-height sector around the world and has achieved this alongside a safe working record.
Kuba was 17 when he first got roped in: “We were cleaning and spray painting a 100-meter tall telecommunication mast. It was fun – long drops and loads of aid climbing, but dodgy and unsupervised at the same time. Working within the IRATA system is a completely different thing.”
He insists it’s a mistake to assume that climbing and rope access work are technically identical, despite some of the equipment being the same. There are several essential differences - for example, in rope access, you always work in a doubled system, meaning two anchor points and two lines.
But surely it’s an advantage being a climber?
“I personally think that the main advantage you get being a climber in rope access is the general awareness and physical abilities you possess, but increasingly, there are many guys in rope access who have nothing to do with climbing.”
For Kuba, climbing is his passion, and being a RAT is the means to an end – and, crucially, keeps him fit.
"Installing thousands of square metres of safety netting under the roof of Wembley Stadium, for example, was very physically demanding and rewarding. We had to use many advanced lifting and hauling techniques there, doing most of it aid climbing. Another complex London project was Olympic Stadium, where we de-rigged the old roof structure and installed a new bigger grid made of huge steel wires. It involved a lot of complex rigging and working with high-pressure hydraulic systems."
When he’s not dangling from a wind turbine or sports stadium, Kuba is serious about his climbing.
“Since I’ve been mostly living in Spain for the last two years, I climb there. I have plenty of amazing crags around. Nonetheless, my girlfriend and I love travelling and visiting new places, so we often plan some more exotic climbing trips. In March, we’re going to Indian Creek and Zion. For me, it’s a constant process - and whenever I do something harder and push my limit, I instantly start thinking about new challenges, whatever it is – bouldering, sport or trad climbing.”
What advice would Kuba offer a climber who was thinking of becoming a RAT?
“Just get on a course and try it. The most important thing is gaining experience and contacts in the trade. However, I think that it’s not so hard to put your foot in the door now since there is quite a high demand for technicians - especially in London, which is a huge market.”
London is definitely a hotbed for RAT work, but to give you an idea of where the job might take you, the IRATA website lists some of the iconic world-famous sites on which IRATA teams have worked: Big Ben, Eiffel Tower, Sydney Opera House, World Trade Centre, Wembley Stadium, Hoover Dam, Seattle Space Needle, Dubai International Airport, St Helena Island, The London Eye, The Burj Kalifa Dubai, Chapman’s Peak, Tower Bridge, BT Tower, Emirates Tower Dubai, Heathrow Airport, Luxor Hotel Las Vegas, Canterbury Cathedral, Burj Al Arab Hotel, Wynne Casino Las Vegas, Spinnaker Tower UK, Clifton Suspension Bridge, Mount Rushmore USA, The Eden Project, The Forth Rail Bridge, O2 Arena, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Singapore Flyer (Wheel).