By Marshall Matheson
“Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports … all others are games.”
This month, Design World is launching “Leadership in Engineering”, a community based print and online promotion to support and gain industry recognition for innovation and advances in engineering across several disciplines.
2300 feet above the deck
Company profiles appear in print and the engineering community is encouraged to vote online to choose a company in each category that you think is most deserving of leadership in their respective categories.
Engineering & Climbing
When asked what image leadership and challenge invokes, climbing seemed an obvious choice. Even better is extreme climbing that includes mountaineering and big wall climbing. For both big mountain climbing and big rock wall climbing requires a commitment, sense of adventure, determination and desire that goes beyond the weekend warrior mentality. Although adventure and adrenaline has much to do with climbing, climbing embodies all the elements of a solid engineering project. Technical climbing requires skill, endurance, extreme planning, redundancy, mitigating risk, anticipating pitfalls, and a reliance on the equipment from other suppliers. And when you make it to the top of one project, the sense of accomplishment takes you to even greater challenges. A comment made in a company profile echos well for most engineering companies: “Because each design challenge we face is another opportunity for us to engineer superiority…” Likewise, each climbing challenge provides an opportunity to achieve even greater heights. But to many people, those that desire to climb, and climb very large mountains or rock walls must have a death wish. To dispel this notion, it is interesting to note that the climbers on the cover of the January 2007 issue are engineers & scientists themselves.
The climbing team profiles:
From Left to Right: Roy Smith, Paul Hewitt, Kevin Steele
Roy Smith Ph.D, Professor Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering University of California, Santa Barbara, CA
Professor Smith jointed the faculty at UCSB in 1990, coming from a background in both industrial and government laboratory research. Known as an experimentalist and design engineer as well as a theorist, Dr. Smith’s research is broadly based upon feedback control systems. His current interests focus on the identification and control of uncertain systems, particularly the relationship between experimental data and theoretical models; design methodologies for uncertain constrained nonlinear systems; and distributed estimation, communication and control systems. On the applications side, he has applied these ideas to a variety of experimental testbeds including, process control, automotive and marine engine systems, flexible space structures, aeromaneuvering Mars entry vehicles, formation flying of spacecraft, magnetically levitated bearings, and semiconductor fabrication facilities. He has been a long time consultant to the Jet Propulsion laboratory on guidance, navigation and control aspects of interplanetary and deep space science spacecraft. He is a senior member of IEEE and AIAA, and a member of SIAM and NZAC. More interesting items can be found about Roy at http://www.ccec.ece.ucsb.edu/people/smith/default.html
Paul Hewitt, VP Engineering, Danaher Motion Controls
Paul’s career has taken him from voicemail systems to network products, and most recently motion control, machine control systems, and SynqNet® technical and business development. Paul has traveled extensively both on business and adventure in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Paul Hewitt received his BSCS from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1984. When not climbing or working, Paul makes his home in Santa Barbara California.
Kevin Steele, Product Group Manager, Semiconductor and Medical, Bosch Rexroth
Kevin is responsible at Bosch Rexroth for their growth in the semiconductor and medical markets in the US which includes the Nyquist acquisition and extends across all products for those markets. He was with Nyquist, Agile Systems and Motion Engineering. Kevin is also an adventure and travel photographer based in Santa Barbara, California. A rock and mountain climber for over twenty years, he has combined photographic skill with his passion for climbing and adventure. He has published images commercially since 1991 delivering outdoor lifestyle images to commercial clients (Patagonia, Black Diamond Equipment, Montrail, CMC) as well as to the editorial magazine market and stock clients. Kevin’s stock images are represented by Getty Images and by Aurora (outdoor collection). He is a member of ASMP, EP and TOPA. Kevin is well accustomed to travel: he was born in Kuwait and spent much of his childhood traveling and living with his family in different parts of the world, from Bahrain to Panamá, France to New York. His own travel, with cameras in hand, has included treks to Africa, Europe, Asia, and Central America as well as throughout the continental United States, Alaska and Canada. All photographs in this article are courtesy of Kevin, and his work can be found at www.kevsteele.com.
Triple Direct on El Capitan
El Capitan is a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite Valley. Considered the ‘Crown Jewel’ of American rock climbing, there are many routes up the massive rock face. All good, established routes, short or long, generally get named. Triple Direct shares part of its path with The Nose, the first ascended climb of El Cap in 1958. Back then it took 47 days expedition style to get to the top. The team profiled here spent 4 days getting to the top, a testament to modern engineering methods in regards to the gear. But there is no underestimating the paths blazed by a history of adventurous explorers and climbers literally starting with John Muir in the late 1800’s.
The system of climbing is a serious matter and takes much practice and experience to master. But essentially the point of the rope and gear, and the way the gear is placed, is to safeguard in the event of a fall. In aid climbing, the gear placement is also used to assist climbing where rock features are too thin to use just hands and feet alone.
Essentially two climbers are tied in to each end of the rope and the leader starts up the route placing gear along the way and running the rope through the protection. In the case of our three intrepid engineers, the technique is a bit more complex, but follows a similar flow. Two climbers stay attached to the anchor as the leader moves up the route, and the third follows on an additional rope carried up by #2.
Usually carabiners (snap links) connect to the protection and the rope runs through the carabiner. Protection now consists of modern, easily removed camming devices and ‘nuts’ that offer good protection if placement is done properly to assist climbing and/or for solid protection. The engineering trick however is finding good placement for the protection based on the rock features, and some gear affords little support in case of any fall, and in some extreme cases will barely hold the weight of the climber. Here utmost caution is required and most climbers understand these risks prior to ascending such a route. In the case of Triple Direct, the route is relatively well protected and carries a A2 5.8 rating. (for more on how climbs are rated in difficulty click here http://www.getbeta.com/aid_ratings.asp)
The anchored climber (the belayer) pays out rope to the leader through a belay device that can ‘lock-off’ the rope should the leader fall. The belayer is firmly attached to an anchor attached to the rock, and this anchor must be bomb proof in case all gear fails the leader and a fall on the anchor will have to support both climbers. Once the leader completes a ‘pitch’ of the route, which varies in length but is often around 100-150 feet, he sets up his own bomb proof anchor and ties in to it. Form here he then becomes the belayer and protects the following climber on the way up as they clean, or remove, all the gear that was placed. In big wall aid climbing, several ropes are used and in the case of Paul, Kevin and Roy, the third climber usually proceeds up the route by way of an additional rope going to the new lead anchor. In addition, the haul bag carrying everything the climber’s need and must be pulled up each pitch. This is done by way of simple pulley mechanism. Protecting the haul bag is critical, for losing the haul bag usually means the end of the climb, and possible disaster depending on your position on the rock face and anyone below you.
Thus, the redundancy, back-ups, reliance on supplied gear, reliance on your team, reliance on yourself, and staying focused are key climbing elements that parallel engineering projects in many ways.
Reference to some basic climbing techniques on leading and belaying here: http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~sedwards/climbing/techniques.html
Design World recently met up with climbers on a clear crisp morning to discuss the parallels of engineering and climbing.
The usual question one has to ask is: Why? And we can avoid the cliché ‘because its there’.
You can’t live a full life from an armchair, and for those of us that want to bring adventure & certain accomplishment into your life, big wall climbing and mountaineering bring a sense of accomplishment not found in a lot of other sports or activities. Maintaining complete focus on what’s in front of you can be entirely liberating and with climbing a large wall, you must focus on what’s in front of you while mitigating risk. This focus tends to clear your mind of everyday stress and recharges you completely after a climb. Especially one like Triple Direct.
I grew up in New Zealand where I started climbing mountains at age 14. It’s something that you’re infected with and currently it’s particularly convenient that my wife is also a climber, so its just another part of our lifestyle. She understands the drive, and its something as Kevin said helps cleanse your mind, and also puts all your skills to test. I see climbing as an extension of applying a very technical formula to getting up the challenge at hand, but it definitely does not dilute the adventure. My father (also and engineer) commented that on El Capitan, we simply ‘engineered our way up’- but that’s not entirely true. Obviously the elements beating on you, the protection, the psychological, and physical limitation all play a role and there is always risk. This risk and adventure can be extremely satisfying when you trust your own calculations & planning and this results in safe climbing and success.
Paul Hewitt secures the rope
Why? I’ll echo the fact that after episodes of intense work weeks, months of traveling, (both Paul & Kevin fly over 200K miles a year) and all the usual ups and down of work and the everyday, being a thousand feet off the deck staring vertically up another thousand feet provides the impetus for focus. Your mind is clear and it commands all your attention. If you look at your risks, climbing turns out to be within the realm of considerable safety. Roy and myself were doing a climb on 9/11 and this just drives the point home that risk is everywhere and it’s navigating your path that’s important. And again the miles that we log in the air every year represent a degree of risk as well. At some level, these activities are controlled and can be managed, while other more routine endeavors require you to place your trust entirely in a pilot, or any driver on the road.
Your calculated risks of driving into Yosemite yield higher fatalities than climbing each year.
So climbing is certainly an escape, but you all feel the same drive to climb also powers your work, your career, even how you approach a project?
At work, its easy to see the value in bringing a cooperative team together, getting motivated to achieve greater performance for our customers, and take on unknown challenges while always mitigating the risks as best you can, and getting the project done on time. Sounds a lot like climbing to me, only we’re our own customers. On Triple Direct, we finished the route at the same time we ran out of food and water. We could say we planned perfectly, but the deadline tends to obviously drive certain behavior. So I absolutely see a common thread.
Over time you tend to progress in climbing just like any career. I started climbing mountains in New Zealand in 1974, and it has been since 2000 that Paul and myself have moved onto bigger projects to wind up on El Cap. In 2005, I broke a rib on the Leaning Tower where moving my arm above my head proved very painful. Needless to say we had to come down. Now this is where planning and all your skills are put to use as rappelling down was entirely risky on the route, but had to be done. We all run into roadblocks in work and careers from time to time, and the best formula tends to apply to climbing as well.
Open air with Roy Smith
You take into account as many factors as possible, but just how do you plan for unknown circumstances? Obviously that’s part of what determines the risk level. High altitude mountaineering tends towards the highest risk because weather can be very unpredictable and volatile as one factor. Well, weather can be unpredictable anywhere, but its reasonable to apply probability and take that into account. Equipment failure tends to be the least cause of accidents, but is still a factor. Thus why the redundancy and backups are designed to shield catastrophic failure. Similarly, engineering projects require exploration, calculation, expertise, and safety mechanisms. As with a lot of engineers, this way of thinking and improvisation comes to some degree naturally in their personalities.
I actually bought a new etrier (sling with step loops for aid climbing) because it was rated 5x stronger than the one I had. Well, it failed on a small fall during the climb. I don’t need to mention the manufacturer, but this illustrates the key point in multiple back-ups. It was surreal to find myself quickly below my last piece of protection hanging there looking up 15 feet at a blown piece of gear. Supplier confidence is yet another piece of the puzzle, and it can be serious business. Same as in machine building where so many suppliers come together on a single project.
Any other gear issues?
Not with gear, but we had a great idea of taking up a heap of energy gel packs. I’d say around 25% of them blew up due to the pressure change from altitude, and they blew all over the equipment, clothes, sleeping bags in the haul bag. We only had enough water for drinking, none for washing, so it was a sticky climb. Luckily it was a non-critical thing, just inconvenient.
For as much gear as a multi-day aid climb entails versus free climbing (climbing with protection, but using just hands and feet only) the level of gear reliability is extremely high – except for Roy’s etrier.
A few items for the climb
Does the idea of aid climbing with the increase in time, gear, technical knowledge appeal more to your engineering side, versus say more free sport climbing?
Yes- although I enjoy a day out on short routes, you can’t really compare that to something like El Cap. The sense of accomplishment is so great when you complete a climb like that.
I enjoy all types of climbing and mountaineering. Big Wall climbing however carries a unique sense of calm and solitude.
Being on a 3,000 foot wall hardly seems calming.
There was a section on the climb where I had a 3 hour period alone in this great expanse of rock, seemingly so far from anyone. I was not worried about my placement, so it literally gave me that time to myself to contemplate, especially the valley floor- where so many tourists scurry about. I was actually in the same place where 2 climbers died in a sudden pacific storm in 2004. That also gives me time to reflect and brings a resolve to do things the best I can. It can be amazingly tranquil and calm.
The solitude is definitely a big part of the attraction. It tends to be very different and certainly draws a certain personality type. And over and over you see a predominant amount of engineering and mathematical types really into this kind of climbing.
End of another relaxing day
So what draws you guys together on climbs like this?
Lots of planning and a long lead-time. (they all laugh) Some routes tend to also just seem like a great fit for everyone’s skills, and we all balance each other so it has always worked to find selected routes and go for it.
I have 2 young kids at home, and the work schedule requires planning maybe a year in advance.
Yes – so guys, what do you think of a half-dome route next September?
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