NEW YORK – As a young woman in Spain, architecture student Berta de Miguel Alcalá loved rock climbing, and that love for the sport brought her to Manhattan and a job that calls for hoisting herself hundreds of feet off the ground to examine some of New York City’s landmark buildings.
“When you get out on a rope and you are there in the middle of a big city, or with a very nice view… you feel like a bird,” she explains. “You have a very different perspective on the city,” adding that this is the part that she likes the most about her job.
No, she is not a daredevil, but rather an employee of Vertical Access, LLC, a New York-based building consulting firm that specializes in providing structural assessment of buildings nationwide. Instead of using scaffolding, de Miguel Alcalá and her teammates use equipment traditionally used by mountain climbers.
“It is much easier and faster to have your own ropes and be free to move along the façade and go where you need to go,” she said in an interview with NBC News. This allows her to get a bird's eye view of potential damage as well as document it firsthand. Her list of work sites include the 700-foot tall Clock Tower Building in New York City, once considered the tallest building in the city, as well as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Her current job is the perfect blend of her two passions, climbing and architecture. She began climbing in her native country of Spain when she was in her early 20's, and went on to join the climbing team at her University. She obtained a master's degree in architecture with a specialization in heritage conservation, and went on to work on various restoration sites throughout the world. One day, a friend put her in touch with the man who would become her boss.
“Berta is highly confident, friendly and easygoing,” said Kent Diebolt, founding partner of Vertical Access. “She and her husband are both rock climbers, but not everyone in our company has a climbing background.”
Inspecting a building can take up to five days, and depending on the needs of the client, can include scaling down the whole building or just a portion of it. The work is in pairs for safety, with radios for communication. Each job entails careful research, planning and yes, a lot of equipment.
“We bring a lot of stuff with us,” de Miguel Alcalà explained. “A 600-foot rope in a bag, is a big bag… We each use two. We bring a cart with gear and our rigging packs, which include a big harness. It has a lot of devices hanging from it … and tablets and cameras … Sometimes we do a live feed video."
The video feed allows the project team engineer to see what she sees. Then the equipment is taken up to the roof of the building to start rigging. “We look for big beams and we encircle them with our ropes, lower them, put on our harnesses … double check that everything is correct and then we go down on the ropes,” she explained.
De Miguel Alcalá is on the ropes for three hours at a time, or a “drop” as she calls it, before taking a break. Then it's time to go back out again. Asked if she has ever been afraid, she said definitely not. “We always prepare very well, and we have a safety plan. I have never had any issues."
Is this what she dreamed of being when she grew up?
“Not at all,” she said with a laugh, “I wanted to be a pilot.” Close enough it would seem, as her current job still takes her above a city.