East Portland’s electrictrical linemen show skills at ‘rodeo’

There aren’t any broncos to bust or calves to rope – but see what these electrical workers DO compete in, when they go to the region’s ‘lineman’s rodeo’ …

At this PGE training station on outer SE Powell Boulevard, linemen from all over the region gather to compete at the Pacific Northwest Lineman’s Rodeo.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Some of the toughest guys you’ll meet are at this all-day rodeo – but you won’t find any bull-riding, roping, or herding at the Pacific Northwest Lineman’s Rodeo, held annually out on SE Powell Boulevard on the last weekend in July – this year, on the 26th.

Instead, electric utility workers – some from as far away as Alaska – who climb utility poles to help repair wires or replace burned out transformers for a living, demonstrate their skills, as they compete against one another.

Rob Wales, a Portland General Electric lineman foreman, says that safety is more important than speed in their events.

East Portland was well represented at the event, said the event’s spokesman, Rob Wales, a Portland General Electric lineman foreman. “This is the 15th annual event,” Wales told us. “We’ve got 16 teams competing. Each one consists of three journeymen and a judge.”

Safety more important than speed
This rodeo’s events mirror tasks that electrical linemen perform in their daily work. “The key thing in each of our events,” Wales explained, “is safety above all else.”

Adam Blackwell, a journeyman from East Portland, races up a utility pole …

… and comes back down with the raw egg in his mouth still unbroken.

Wales pointed to Adam Blackwell, a journeyman from his facility, who was racing up to the top of a wooden utility pole in the “Speed Climb” event. The participant was climbing rapidly using a strap around the pole and spikes on his boots.

“Blackwell is climbing as quickly as he can. But he – and all of the linemen in this competition – holds a raw egg in his mouth. This assures he’s not overstepping his own natural abilities. If he breaks the egg, he loses the contest.”

After showing that his egg was intact, Blackwell paused a moment to talk with us about the rodeo. “The best part for me is winning!” he said. “It’s fun, and it’s great for the family to come see what we do, and to be with your friends and talk with other linemen you haven’t seen in a long time.”

The rodeo also provides these high-climbers with educational opportunities, Blackwell added. “Although there is a standard way of performing tasks, we get to learn techniques from others; everyone does things a little differently.”

As we walked to other event areas, Wales reemphasized that safety is paramount at the rodeo. “Yes, the object is to work as swiftly as possible. But when the teams are scored, their attention to safety is measured first, and quality of workmanship is second; finally, ranking third, speed. And, because swiftness plays a part in the events, the electric lines here are de-energized.”

MAX light rail electrician Chad Morrison helps his daughter try climbing a pole.

Nine-year-old Cassey Morrison climbs her first utility pole at the Lineman’s Rodeo.

Budding linemen try out
Not all of the events are for the linemen. Their spouses and children participate in hay-mound cash-grab, and other games.

And, the more daring family members were offered the opportunity to climb utility poles. Chad Morrison, an electrician who works on the MAX light rail system, helped his daughter, Cassey, strap into a safety harness and go for a climb.

“It’s hard work,” the little girl said, “But it was fun.”

Play with a purpose
In addition to providing camaraderie and showcasing skills, the event is also a fundraiser. “We have developed a relationship with the Oregon Burn Center; our proceeds go to support them. We have a lot of fun, but also get to support a good cause with the rodeo.”

One of the favorite family events is the hay-mound dash-for-cash.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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