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Not for the faint of heart

The highly technical and extremely dangerous work to stabilize the rockslide is being carried out by Janod, a Canadian company. A leading expert in rock stabilization, they get called in by mines, quarries, railroads and highway departments to shore up volatile mountainsides.

Janod brought along a team of employees from all over the world. But they have hired some locals — including two young men from the Fines Creek area of Haywood County — and are still looking. The top requirement other than no fear of heights?

“You have to be able to physically climb that thing everyday. Unless the guy is a real go-getter, the first week here is going to be rough,” said Mike Patton, the lead DOT inspector on the site.

The upper staging platform is 400 feet up, and the steep hand-over-hand climb is hard work.

“Ropes assist you almost all the way to the top. Without them you would be on your hands and knees. The rope also gives you something to hold onto so if you slip you don’t start tumbling down,” Patton said.

Once on the slope, cables run back and forth for workers to shimmy along.

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“There is a safety net that is strung all the way across the thing so if someone were to fall and you can’t get ahold of a stump you are going to get tangled up in that net,” Patton said.

On steeper sections, workers wear harnesses tied off to anchors and cables as they move about.

Getting equipment and supplies up the slope is another story. Some equipment is ferried up in a large cage with a system of cables and winches.

But heavier things require a helicopter. The drill rigs are the size of a go-cart and grout pumps are the size of a big pick-up. There’s massive light poles for working at night, bundles of steel drill shafts and pallets of grout — all of which had to be airlifted onto the slope.

Several staging areas and platforms were built on the slope as a repository for equipment. Ultimately, however, the crews have to muscle the supplies to the exact spot where they’re needed. When the bolts are installed, for example, they’ll be tightened down with a giant hydraulic jack.

“That weighs about 300 pounds, which these poor guys will have to manhandle around on the slopes,” Patton said.

In the final stages of the job, workers will have to tackle drilling and bolt installation on a verticle rock face. They will rappell into place with their equipment rigs suspended from platforms.

“Almost like a window washer on a sky rise — something like that is what I envision,” Patton said.

As the site inspector, Patton has to go where ever the workers go, even if it’s over the side of the mountain. So the DOT sent him to a crash course on rock climbing.

“The first time I did it, I felt like Spiderman in a way,” Patton said. “The first time you lean backwards over a straight sheer drop, it’s tough. You have to learn to trust the rope.”

Janod is working under a $6.2 million subcontract from Phillips and Jordan, the prime contractor on the job. Phillips and Jordan had a total contract of $9.2 million for the slide clean-up, a price that is bound to climb higher, however, due to weather and unforeseen additions.

As the prime contractor, Phillips and Jordan is reponsible for bringing the project to the finish line, and all the myriad details along the way. During blasting, for example, Phillips and Jordan set up seismograph equipment to monitor the tremors. If they were too strong, it could rupture nearby pipes that carry water from the Pigeon River dam to the Waterville hydropower plant.

Phillips and Jordan also employed spotters to simply keep watch around the perimeter for things that might go wrong. As blast technicians were preparing to set a charge one day, one looked over the road side into the Pigeon River below and saw a group of kayakers in the water. Debris from the blasts has been known to fly across the road and down the banks into the river, shearing off tree tops as it goes. The blast was halted in the nick of time.

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