Caltrans workers rappel 150 feet to clear loose rocks along PCH

Under perfect Southern California skies, Caltrans climbers rappelled 150 feet down the face of a rugged hillside Tuesday to clear loose rock that has left a nine-mile stretch of Pacific Coast Highway closed since December.

"All right, gentlemen, be safe," a voice boomed from the workers' two-way radios before they began their descent into the rubble.

The Springs fire in May 2013 destroyed much of the vegetation that covered the mountain, leaving slopes and hills vulnerable to erosion. December storms sent rivers of mud and a jumble of rock onto the highway below.

As a result, a strip of the scenic coastal route between Las Posas and Yerba Buena roads was closed — and is not expected to reopen until later this month.

On Tuesday, the team of Caltrans climbers dislodged boulders that could roll onto cars along the closed stretch of PCH just north of Malibu near Point Mugu State Park.

Using their hands and feet, as well as crowbars and picks, about 10 workers loosened unstable rocks to secure the hillside.

By noon, pebbles rained down the slope, kicking up plumes of dust and pinging like hail on the asphalt. Larger stones quickly followed — some the size of a fist, others two feet wide — smashing with a thunderous thud on the road below.

The climbers cheered and whistled when a few rocks hit the ground so hard that they bounced over the concrete barrier meant to keep them in, leaving chunks splayed across the highway.

The image of Caltrans workers as mountaineers may seem unusual, but the agency has a unit of climbers along with staff biologists, archaeologists and anthropologists, according to Caltrans spokesman Patrick Chandler.

"People think we just sweep the freeway and mess up traffic," he said. "But to make the highway system work, we have to do things like this."

Caltrans did not have an estimate on how much rock the climbers would be clearing or the cost of the operation. The rock clearing was a one-day operation that ended at sundown.

Before the descent, rappellers admitted that their "office" was nothing to scoff at as they gazed toward the ocean, where a pod of dolphins swam along the coast.

The rock clearing marked Chad Dressler's first scaling job, but he said he wasn't nervous. The 25-year-old has worked for Caltrans for about a year and a half, climbing trees as part of the department's tree maintenance crew.

"I'm excited. The heights are funny at first but it's OK," he said. "And rocks come down on PCH all the time, so this is for public safety."

Strapped in yellow and purple harnesses and equipped with safety gear, Caltrans geologist Gustavo Ortega explained that each scaling operation poses its own risks and challenges.

Walking up the highway's steep slopes, carrying loads of equipment and setting up multiple anchors can be taxing, he said.

"It can be dangerous for people scaling, but done with care, it will be OK," Ortega, 55, said. "We try to avoid accidents, so we don't remove more than we need to."

With his nearly 30 years on the job with Caltrans, scaling a hillside above PCH doesn't rank high on the veteran climber's list of risky rappelling. Still, he said, it's just as satisfying as other missions.

As the group's geologist, Ortega assesses the area and determines risks while pointing out rock formations that could give at any moment.

"I like being out in the field, being out of the office and seeing that what I do has meaning," Ortega said.

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