Rock Steady

Rockfall Management
Name Ty Ortiz
Age 45
Title Engineer, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT)
On the job 12 years
Location Denver
Typical CDOT engineer salary $70,000 to $95,000
On thanksgiving morning in 2004, Ty Ortiz got a phone call: A massive rockslide above I-70 in Glenwood Canyon had crashed onto the highway and destroyed part of the concrete deck. CDOT needed a first responder to assess the potential for further rockfall before maintenance crews could reopen the highway. Translation: Someone had to climb 1,000 vertical feet up the canyon wall to the source of the slide and evaluate the stability of the remaining rock. Ortiz missed Thanksgiving dinner that year.

As one of two full-time specialists in CDOT’s rockfall program, Ortiz manages rockfall areas—756 known hazard sites—along the state’s roadways. In emergency situations, that means trekking up an incline in the wake of a slide, hard hat and climbing gear on, tools in hand, unsure if a second wave of rock is about to detach in his path. In nearly every such scenario, a CDOT manager’s decision about how and when to begin repairs or reopen the road is based on a specialist’s recommendation; so, ultimately, it’s Ortiz’s call whether or not it’s safe for road crews to put themselves in the fall zone for cleanup so cars can resume passing through. “I’ve dodged my share of rocks, and I’ve known people who’ve been hit,” Ortiz says, recalling a colleague whose helmet was punctured by a falling rock. “When I’ve been in those situations, it’s because of my own mistakes. On the ropes, if rocks fall on me while I’m rappelling, it’s probably my own fault because the rope was rubbing the gravel above.”

Out of the 25 to 40 calls the rockfall program receives each year, only about five result in true emergencies that require extensive road closures and post-slide mitigation work. Much of the job is about preemptively reducing the risk, like the year Ortiz and his team assessed the rockfall potential on Georgetown Hill and designed attenuators (steel netting) to control the descent of plummeting boulders and guide them into a ditch before they reach the highway. But it’s after an unforeseen rockfall that Ortiz’s decisions have the most immediate impact. “In emergencies, the trickiest part is getting to the source. You can’t make a good evaluation from 1,000 feet below,” Ortiz says. “If someone doesn’t get to the area, it could put someone else in a potentially worse situation.”