Can you rig it?

For a group of climbers who work on Missoula’s tallest buildings and soaring rock concert grids, life is a high.

When your job involves strapping into a body harness, tip-toeing through a latticework of narrow ceiling joists and manually pulling cumbersome chains above a stage that’s crawling with roadies, your boss will likely ingrain two rules into your head: One, don’t drop anything. Two, see rule number one.

The anything, of course, includes you.

You also need to be strong and fast and knowledgeable in knots and weight distribution and the like, but clearly nothing is as important as not letting anything fall. Even something as light as a carabiner, when dropped from the Adams Center’s high rigging grid, gains enough momentum to become a real hazard to those working below—and that’s just the small stuff.

There are also tasks to complete. If you’re an “up-rigger” with Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Rigging (RMR), that may mean any number of things—but it almost always involves some kind of heavy lifting from an awkward position with plenty of air beneath your feet. For the rock climbers working for RMR, this helps keep the job interesting.

Founded in 2001 by Paul Donaldson and Cole Yarbrough, RMR specializes in “high-angle rope work,” a phrase that essentially means performing tasks risky enough to require wearing a harness, often from what many would consider dizzying heights. RMR is called in to wash windows on Missoula’s tallest buildings, to install inaccessible ductwork on steep roofs, or (most often) to rig the chain hoists to support the tons of lights and massive speakers for concerts like Elton John’s performances or the Rolling Stone’s 2006 “Bigger Bang” tour, the largest touring show in history.

The two founding members of RMR have a lot in common, from extensive rock climbing credentials (they’ve established new routes in the Bitterroots, climbed steep Beartooth ice and ticked off Cerro Cathedral in Patagonia) to outside professions as carpenters and contractors, Donaldson in Missoula, Yarbrough in Bozeman. But the main factor in creating RMR was a deep, mutual desire to establish a profession that allowed them to stay in Montana while employing the knowledge about rope systems and anchors learned in the climbing world.

This climbing litmus has proven effective with their hiring, too. The employees (up to 50 of them, depending on needs) “have got to be strong enough to do the work, and they’ve gotta be comfortable working in the air,” says Donaldson. “Heavy things need to be yarded in uncomfortable, exposed positions, and you just can’t go dropping things on people’s heads.”

“It was me and a crew from Boise working a Toby Keith concert,” he says. “Large mullets, missing teeth, shirts off, smoking cigs while they rigged, they were true roadie wannabes. They rappelled in upside-down and as fast as they could, trying to be the one to get closest to the ground before coming to a screeching halt. At that moment I thought of all the climbers I know, how we can do better than that.”

So he and Donaldson got together and tried to convince UM Productions that they could staff the rigging for the upcoming Pearl Jam concert in May 2003. “We knew a lot about climbing, some about rigging, and nothing about the concert industry,” he says. But they decided to wing it.

“They laughed at first,” says Yarbrough, but the university gave them the job. The show went off without a hitch, and Rocky Mountain Rigging was born.

The business didn’t really cut its teeth until it was called to rig a Poison show at the Missoula County Fairgrounds in June 2003—just months after 100 people died in a pyrotechnics-caused fire at a Great White concert in Rhode Island.

As usual, RMR would provide the riggers, but they were also expected to supply all the stagehands, a first for the young company. “Never mind the fact that we weren’t really sure what a stagehand did,” Yarbrough recalls. “Fake it till you make it, I guess.”

The band’s road crew sensed RMR’s inexperience and ribbed the riggers relentlessly. At one point, a Poison roadie grabbed Yarbrough mid-show and told him to get the pyro suits on.

“I wasn’t sure what he was talking about,” says Yarbrough. “I mean, pyro suits?!”

He quickly asked around. The lighting director pointed to a truss 50 feet above the stage that housed four seats and spotlights. “There’s a shit-ton of pyro[technics] and you’ll be right in the line of fire,” he told Yarbrough. “You’ll be needing the suits.”

The pyro suits were in good condition, but Yarbrough questioned the other protective gear, which he describes as “a dust mask and fifth-grade science glasses.” But being new to the business, the young entrepreneurs felt they had to go.

With visions of the Great White disaster still vivid in their heads, four of the riggers suited up, climbed up and fortunately didn’t burn up as they worked the spotlights in front of thousands of Montanans cheering on the aging statesmen of 80’s glam-rock on the stage below.

It was not the first time Donaldson and Yarbrough had worked through adversity, although up to this point most of the hazards had come in the alpine world, in the form of falling rock, lightning storms, suspect anchors and other challenges—challenges that effectively force climbers to think on their feet while staying safe.

“The diversity of their skills allows them to stay in Montana,” says UM Productions Adviser Marlene Hendrickson, noting the duo’s ability to create a profession out of their passion for climbing. It also gives them a chance to hire and pay a livable wage to their friends, many of whom feel the same need for stimulating employment. “They have a very physical crew who works together” building and renovating homes, Hendrickson adds. “When they’re not framing they’re at our venue.”

It’s true. At the recent Kenny Chesney concert at the Adams Center, six of the eight up-riggers worked as both a construction worker and a rock climber.

“Climbers already have the rigging skills intuitively, like how loading works,” says Greg Garber, production specialist for UM. They also are used to working fast, a policy that keeps climbers safe in the rock world by reducing time spent in exposed positions.

In a world of roadie wannabes, it’s a work style that helps them stand out—and get called back, in Missoula and beyond. While neither plan is finalized yet, RMR has a chance to work in 2009 at the Superbowl in Tampa Bay, Fla., and at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But for all the accomplishments, Donaldson is quick to note that the company’s success is completely reliant on the caliber of workers it provides.

“We just keep getting job opportunities because we are keyed into Missoula’s solid, smart and tight-knit climbing community,” he says. “We have always been able to secure non-egotistical crews, and that’s something that can be hard [for traveling shows] to find on the road.”

Hendrickson, the UM Productions adviser of 17 years, agrees. “These guys are just upstanding people and I like to have my students working around them.”

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