Climbing inspectors offer unusual sight for Multnomah Falls crowd

A worker dangles from a harness below a concrete bridge.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Aug. 10, 2018 – Weekend visitors to Multnomah Falls took in an unexpected sight July 22nd; two USDA Forest Service engineering inspectors performing a climbing inspection of the Benson Bridge and the viewing platform at the top of the falls.

A worker takes notes while dangling from a harness below a concrete bridge.

David Strahl, a USDA Forest Service engineer, taking notes while inspecting the upstream side of 104-year-old Benson Bridge July 22, 2018. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Van Hecke; USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region.

Mark Sodaro and Dave Strahl are licensed professional engineers and members of the USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region’s Engineering Structures Group. Sodaro is also licensed as a structural engineer. But most unique among their qualifications is that both are Level 1 certified SPRAT (Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians) climbers.

“When I interviewed for my current position I was asked if I had a fear of heights, my response was that I had a healthy fear of heights and that I had recreationally rock-climbed several times before,” Strahl said. “I had no grasp of what I would experience over the next nine years.”

There are around 1,500 road bridges and 1,500 footbridges the Forest Service maintains or inspects in Oregon and Washington alone. Most are accessible by less dramatic means, such as a bucket truck; only the most technically complex inspections require climbing.

Sodaro said it’s “exhilarating” to take in some of the Pacific Northwest’s most scenic views during a technical inspection climb – but that it probably isn’t for everyone, or even most of his fellow engineers.

“It’s awesome. It’s just pretty cool. I do recreational climbing, too, so it’s fun for me,” he said. “I don’t think this is something you can ‘be volunteered for, you have to volunteer.”

A worker is dwarfed by a network of steel girders, located high above the forested walls of a deep canyon.

A USDA Forest Service engineer inspects the High Steel Bridge, which rises 420 feet above the Skokomish River Gorge on the Olympic National Forest in Washington, in an undated 2017 photo. Courtesy photo provided by David Strahl.

Twisting from a harness beneath the bridge below Gorge’s tallest waterfall isn’t even the most nerve-wracking inspection they’ve conducted, Strahl said.

That honor goes to the High Steel Bridge, perched 420 feet above the Skokomish River Gorge in the Olympic National Forest, which he and Sodaro inspected last year.

“That bridge is an order of magnitude more intense that the Benson Bridge,” Strahl said.

Strahl said he still gets a little nervous before a climb, but it fades as his focus shifts to the technical side of the bridge inspection and managing his ropes.

Any sense of relief he felt as he climbed out of his harness after the Benson Bridge inspection was related less to the height of the bridge, and more to the large crowd of visitors that had gathered to watch the inspectors work, he said.

Multnomah Falls is located along Interstate 84, less than 30 miles west of Portland, Ore., and summer weekends frequently draw a capacity crowd.

“Some of the public weren’t too happy to have access limited to the bridge,” Kathryn Van Hecke, the regional structures engineer, said. But, “they certainly enjoyed taking pictures of something they won’t see for at least another five years—climbers dangling from the bridge!”

The recent Benson Bridge inspection combined a regularly scheduled maintenance inspection and a review of repairs done in 2014 when a rock fall damaged the century-old bridge. The viewing platform was inspected to ensure it didn’t sustain damage in the 2017 Eagle Creek fire.

“For the most part the bridge is in good condition. I expect it to last another 100 years,” Strahl said.

A wide view of a bridge crossing a chasm between the upper and lower levels of a large waterfall. Workers are standing on the bridge, and another is hanging below the support truss.

A USDA Forest Service engineering team inspects the 104-year old Benson Bridge, located above the base of Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon July 22, 2018. Forest Service engineers David Strahl and Mark Sodaro, both Level 1-certified SPRAT climbers, conducted the inspection. A contractor, Extreme Access, provided Level 3 supervisory climbers to ensure the climbing was done safely. USDA Forest Service photo by Kathryn Van Hecke; regional structures engineer, USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region.


Source information: Kathryn Van Hecke is the regional structures engineer for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region.

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