My Covid-19 Story

On March 11, 2020 I was in South Bend, Indiana with co-worker Patrick Capruso and colleagues Casey Williams and Mary Donlon of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger. Just as novel coronavirus was starting to dominate the news headlines around that time, a lot of our dinner talk during the two days on site centered on the topic. What would it be like traveling home later that week? Would our offices be open next week? What precautions would we need to take in the coming weeks and months?

Then on Friday, March 20, New York’s Governor Cuomo announced he was putting the state “on pause” and that all non-essential workers must stay home as of the following Monday, March 23. Certainly, compared to the heroic work performed by medical professionals and first responders, we did not consider our work essential, and we asked all staff to work remotely as of March 23.

Most of our ten-person company already works from their homes across several states, so we were fairly well equipped to continue doing so. The few people in our main office in Ithaca were now asked to make that relatively simple transition as well. The larger impact was that the stay-at-home order meant that all of the field work that we had scheduled for the rest of March and beyond was now postponed.

Over the rest of March and through April and May our company took the same steps that many of our colleagues and other small businesses followed. We made cash flow projections assuming a plunge in billings. We applied for, and thankfully received, a Paycheck Protection Program loan through our local bank, Tompkins Trust Company. We developed an in-house COVID-19 Plan for office, travel and site work. We watched webinar after webinar on how to handle the financial, professional and personal impacts of COVID 19. We acquired disposable gloves, face shields and masks, alcohol wipes and other supplies to keep staff safe once we were ready to return to the office and field work. And we checked daily, sometimes hourly, updates about New York Forward, the phased re-opening plan of New York State.

Arrival in Montana.

By the end of April, some states had started planning their re-openings, including Montana, which has had one of the lowest rates of infection and deaths in the United States throughout the pandemic. One of our projects that had been scheduled for months prior to the beginning of the pandemic was an assessment of the Montana State Capitol, working with Comma-Q Architecture of Bozeman, Hennebery Eddy Architects of Portland, OR and DCI Engineers, also from Bozeman. Our one of week of field work was originally scheduled to begin April 13 before it was postponed due to COVID-19. With Montana re-opening and with New York starting to establish its plan for re-opening, known as “New York Forward,” we agreed with the project team on a June 1 start date for our field work in Helena. For the next couple weeks as we continued to track the health situations in Montana and New York, we became more comfortable with the June 1 start date.

Typically, I get my temperature taken once a year, in the doctor’s office for my annual physical. But in May I purchased a noncontact thermometer and started taking my temperature daily, as well as checking my oxygen levels and pulse with a fingertip oximeter. We had as a company decided that we would take daily temperature checks while on site, and previous records of our temperature would be useful for establishing our own personal baselines. As expected, my temperature did not fluctuate much from 97.9 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of several weeks. The morning of Sunday, May 31, I started my journey to Helena, MT in Syracuse, NY. After my third flight that day, as I left the secure area of the airport in Helena, a group of Montana National Guard members greeted me, and all other deplaning passengers with a few screening questions and a temperature check. My temperature was normal. The morning of June 1, I took my temperature again and it was now above 99 degrees, a significant increase from my consistent readings of 97.9. I took my temperature an hour later and it was over 100 degrees. I immediately looked up COVID-19 testing centers in Helena, MT. Later that morning after confirming with one that I should and could get tested, I was in the line of cars at the closest testing center.

My view from quarantine.

I spent the next three days in my hotel room waiting. At the testing site I was told I would get the results in 24 to 48 hours. After about 24 hours I called the hospital where I was tested, but the results were not in yet. After 48 hours I called again, and the results were still not in. Finally, at 5 pm on Thursday, the hospital called to tell me the good news, my test came back negative. What a relief to know that I had not put those who I had come into contact with over the past two weeks at risk. What a relief to know that I would be able to join my co-workers on site the next day at the Montana State Capitol to help them finish the project.

During my three days in isolation, I thought a lot about the measures I had taken since mid-March to protect myself and those around me and I thought a lot about the precautions I had not taken. There is always more that I could have done, and more that I will do because this is not the end of the COVID-19 story.

The Ruins of Chan Chan

by Kevin Dalton

On a recent trip to Peru I had the opportunity to visit some of the ruins at Chan Chan, located in La Libertad province around the city of Trujillo. Built around 1200, Chan Chan served as the capital of the Chimu Kingdom until falling to the Incas around 1480. The city covered 20 square km, was the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas and a monumental example of earthen architecture. At its height Chan Chan is believed to have had a population of around 60,000 people.

Due to the consistency of the swells in nearby Huanchaco, I was preoccupied with surfing for most of my time in the Trujillo area and only visited the Tschudi Complex, a relatively small section of the Chimu city. In all the city consisted of 9 walled citadels, or palaces, so there are several more interesting sights worth visiting.

Preservation efforts at the Tschudi Complex, which is the only section of Chan Chan that has been partially restored, are ongoing. Most of the architectural details are modern recreations though there are a few originals that remain. Due to its geographic location on the northern coast of Peru the ruins are susceptible to erosion from the heavy rains brought on by the El Niño phenomenon so much of the Tschudi Complex is now covered by a protective roof structure, which I found to be interesting in its own way. Upon returning to Huanchaco I immediately recognized some of the same architectural motifs at the Instituto del Mar del Peru, Laboratorio Costero de Huanchaco.

Besides being an important cultural site I think that Chan Chan is also a powerful example of ecological construction. It’s interesting to see how a 500+ year old city constructed of locally sourced, earthen material slowly returns to it’s original form leaving almost no trace of it’s existence. Try to imagine what a modern city will look like 500+ years from now.

Learn more about Chan Chan on the UNESCO website.

Research in the tree tops of the giant sequoias of California

This July, Keith Luscinski (from the Vertical Access – Salt Lake City office) joined Rob Moore and Dave Katz from Cornell University’s Tree Climbing Institute, on a research trip to assist a team from  the University of California, Berkeley with an ongoing project of tracking and sampling seed cones from the canopies of the giant sequoia trees in California.

Giant sequoias are coniferous trees that can grow to over 300 feet in height and 50 feet in diameter, though their cones are only as large as a chicken egg. In previous years, large quantities of these cones were collected to stock California’s state seed bank and assess seed germination rates.  The current research, however, is a multiyear project that tracks the in-tree cones as they grow and age.  Each year, several cones are harvested from each tracked location.

While working on buildings, VA technicians often have the luxury of taking an elevator to the top floor.  In giant sequoias, a “quick” trip to the top of a previously unclimbed tree may take several hours.  More difficult trees can require 2 or 3 days of work before reaching the highest branches.  In these trees, the lowest branch may be 150 feet above the ground, ruling out the possibility of climbing from branch to branch like a kid.

A standard sequoia climber’s arsenal includes an 8-foot tall sling shot and a crossbow.  Mounted with fishing reels, these “line insertion” tools are used to place a strand of fishing line over one of the lower branches in the tree.   This line is used to pull up a small diameter cord, which in turn is used to pull up a 7/16-inch diameter nylon rope.  At the uppermost supporting branch of this rope, a tree climber may be less than halfway to the top of the tree.  Working from here, the climber will throw ropes over successively higher branches until reaching the top.

Before coming to Vertical Access, Keith found his way into the world of rope work through climbing trees.  Keith helped pioneer recreational tree climbing instruction with Cornell Outdoor Education while studying industrial engineering.  In 2006, he found that many of his skills transferred over to industrial rope access, but most of his equipment did not.  Vertical Access uses hardware, harnesses and rope systems that are intended for heavy use in an industrial environment.  On top of that, VA technicians are always supported by two ropes for redundancy purposes, whereas tree climbers rarely have two attachment points.

Photos by:
David Katz
Robert Moore

Flume Fever – The Video

Catching Flume Fever
by Mara Ferris of Gen 9 Productions

Never realizing its rich history, I have stopped many times along the Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic byway to view the remnants of the spectacular wooden structure hanging high on the red rock walls above the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers. As a filmmaker based in Western Colorado I had photographed the structure several times and always pondered the story behind this vibrant piece of living history.  Thankfully my team was hired to film the Hanging Flume reconstruction project in April 2012 and our knowledge of the rich and colorful history quickly grew. We caught ‘Flume Fever’ as soon as filming began!

Contracted by Western Colorado Interpretive Association to film the reconstruction and produce a short video we had the pleasure of spending four days shooting footage, gathering interviews and learning the story of the structure.  This short documentary will be used as an educational tool to help inspire future historical preservation projects along the scenic byway and promote the preservation of our local history for future generations. It was a thrill to see the Vertical Access team work, and I am grateful we were all able to share in the ‘Flume Fever‘ – enjoy the trailer to the film here!

[vimeo w=440&h=247]

Watch the full-screen version of the Flume Fever trailer here

Berta’s World Travel Journal

by Berta de Miguel

I am back in the New York City office after 5 months traveling. In April I flew to Spain, where I spent some weeks visiting family and traveling through ancient cities such Avila, Salamanca or Ciudad Rodrigo in my way to Portugal, a country that I love for several reasons, being its wonderful people and their amazing food two of the main ones. Also, the cultural and architectural heritage of the country is awesome and kept as a secret treasure … Coimbra, Santa Maria da Feira, Aveiro, Porto … are amazing cities that I never get tired of visiting. There, you can close your eyes and feel transported to the old times at the same time that you enjoy a wonderful Porto wine hearing fado music and eating a plate of breathtaking bacalhau al bras (a dish with cod, potatoes, eggs and black olives).


I reentered Spain through Galicia, from where I headed to León; I spent some days visiting Leon city and its Gothic Cathedral: a thirteen century temple, also called The House of Light. It was built on the site of previous Roman baths of the 2nd century which, 800 years later, King Ordoño II converted into a palace. I also had the chance to visit Logroño and its gothic-baroque Cathedral, recently beautifully renovated. If you go to Logroño, you can’t miss Laurel Street with its Rioja wine, mosto and tapas, another well kept secret from the north of Spain.

Before the arrival of the summer I flew to Thailand and traveled through the north visiting ancient villages such as Sukotai. From Chang Mai I crossed the border with Laos by boat and arrived in Luang Prabang. The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main part of the city consists of four principal roads located on a peninsula between the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. From there, we took a boat upstream the Mekong River and then the Ou River, with the aim of arriving to Nong Kiao and Mon Ngoy, small villages nested in the middle of tropical forested mountains, the later with no electricity nor road traffic. I contacted some masons and craftsmen of the area with the purpose of understanding the vernacular traditional architecture based in wood, straw and ceramics.

After one week in Lao, I flew back to Bangkok in order to take a flight to Myanmar, the most amazing country I have ever visited. My travel through Myanmar started in Yangoon, the capital, with its rich colonial architecture, its street vendors and its life; everything surrounded with warm decay. After some days I headed to Bagan; from the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar. During the highest time of kingdom, between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 13000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in the Bagan plains alone, of which the remains of over 2230 temples and pagodas still survive to the present day.

I had the chance to visit some restoration sites and learn the techniques of restoration, which are no much different from the techniques used years ago. The two basic materials used are brick and mortar. I also visited the second largest city in the country, Mandalay, and the area of the Inke Lake, an otherworldly place with its floating markets, fishermen, villages and gardens; a society on the water. Then I directed my steps to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with its world known Petronas Towers. The mix of tradition and different cultures makes KL and its architecture a very interesting city worth of visiting. Aside of Kuala Lumpur I crossed all the west coast of the peninsula from north to south stopping in the islands of Perenthian, Kappas and Tioman, before entering to Singapore.  Singapore is a city where the most futuristic buildings and the vastest extension of shopping malls I have ever seen merge with the east Asia tradition such as churches, hawkers (food courts), pagodas, Hindu temples, and mosques.

Once back in Europe I took a break in Spain with my family and then I traveled trough the west coast of France, where you could taste the wonderful French food, enjoy nature, middle age villages, sea and excellent climbing. Bourdeaux, Pays de la Loire, La Bretagne, Normandie, Saint Emilion, Paris… but the most striking place was, without doubt, Le Mont Saint-Michel, MtStMichelan island full filled of middle age buildings with the castle-church crowning the top of the mountain. The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times, and since the 8th century AD been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The Mont Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Years ago you could not reach the island but in low tide, even though it was very dangerous because of the quicksand surrounding the area. That is the reason why this place was so difficult to assault.

Among the numerous historical sites I have discovered I would highlight Yangon, the magic of Shwedagon pagoda and the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, University of Coimbra, Oporto city center and Mont Saint-Michel. The best part without doubt has been sharing my trips, time and life with family and friends.

Since I came back to New York and returning to Vertical Access I have had the chance to participate in very interesting and challenging projects such as the former MetLife Tower on Madison Square, the Ritz tower in New York, and the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building in Washington DC, among others. I am very happy to be back and share what I have learned.