8 November 2022

Odd jobs: It started with indoor rock climbing, now Gilbert scales Canberra's tallest buildings

| James Coleman
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Man on top of National Gallery

Geonho Park at the top of the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Geonho Park.

Alongside other business and community leaders from across Canberra, Deborah Rolfe abseiled down building eight on Hospital Road for the Canberra Hospital Foundation’s annual fundraising challenge on Can Give Day last month.

“Stepping off the top of that building will be difficult,” the chairperson of the Canberra Hospital Foundation said.

“But not nearly as difficult as what some of our patients face when going through treatments and searching for diagnoses in hospital. This is really the least I can do.”

But Geonho Park does it every day. As a rope-access worker for Touchdown Canberra, his day job consists of dangling off the side of our tallest buildings.

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“Our main technique is access, so we pretty much do anything where people can’t access,” he says.

“This ranges from painting and window cleaning to pressure cleaning, installation of bird netting and building repairs.”

Harnessed to the top with ropes, he and his colleagues perform all these high-flying tasks outside apartment buildings and offices while the rest of us are safely tucked inside, with a good few inches of concrete under our feet.

What kind of person deliberately sets out to torment their God-given fear of heights?

Geonho (or Gilbert) came to Canberra from Seoul, South Korea, 14 years ago, along with his mother and two siblings. At the age of 10, he took up rock climbing at the Canberra Indoor Rock Climbing facility in Mitchell, just for fun at first, until he became pretty good at it.

Two people climbing a building

Geonho Park and colleague Omary at the top of the Department of Home Affairs in Belconnen. Photo: Geonho Park.

“I became a competitive rock climber, representing the ACT most of the time, but also the entire Australasia and Ocean region at international events,” he says.

“I climbed a lot before I started working here.”

He became friends with the owner of Touchdown while rock climbing in Mitchell. At the same time, he was looking for a part-time job to pay the bills while studying architecture at university. The rest is history.

“I came to love the job, so I have never pursued a career in architecture.”

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A prerequisite to the job is, of course, possessing a distinct lack of acrophobia. And sure enough, only “once or twice” while working on an unfamiliar building has he been gripped by a faint case of nerves.

The highest building in Canberra is obviously Telstra Tower, which rises 195 metres above the summit of Black Mountain. This is followed by High Society in Belconnen, at 113 metres. The highest Geonho has been is 73 metres, to the top of Nightfall in Belconnen, which finished construction earlier this year.

“We did the initial cleaning for the building,” he says.

“It was exciting because there aren’t many high buildings in Canberra. The techniques become a little different and the rope also weighs a lot more.”

Man hanging on a rope off a building

The view from the top of the Geocon Republic complex. Photo: Geonho Park.

A working day starts with a rundown of the job at hand and what equipment they’ll need for it. Once on-site, they’ll then do a brief reconnaissance over a cup of coffee, pointing out possible hazards, before preparing the harnesses and running ropes down from anchor points at the top of the building.

He’ll then pop in his earbuds and … forget he’s wearing them.

“We like to listen to music and just have a good time on the ropes, but sometimes we forget that on the other side of the glass, they can hear us singing along. We then get phone calls asking us to lower the volume a bit.”

So far, Geonho has been doing this for nearly seven years but has yet to catch anything too bizarre through the windows.

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“But we do a lot of work on government buildings and it’s always an awkward moment when you abseil right into a meeting with everyone just staring at you.”

As for the long drop, the most that’s ever plunged below is a boot when he tried to get a foothold on the building’s concrete wall. Fortunately, underneath where Geonho and his colleagues are working is designated as an ‘exclusion zone’ so if anything does drop, it doesn’t become a lethal weapon.

“It doesn’t happen that often either.”

Man hanging on a rope off a building

Geonho Park scaling a building for painting. Photo: Geonho Park.

Geonho has all the qualifications for rope-access workers out there under his belt. At this point, he says many Canberra workers end up at mines or wind turbine farms, but he is hoping to take a different route into information technology (IT). But he’ll miss it.

“People say that if you do a job that you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he says.

“I’d be lying if I felt that way every day, but I have to say it is an amazing job, abseiling on different buildings every day and enjoying spectacular views over Canberra.”

Touchdown Canberra is currently looking for new rope-access workers. Contact Justin Ryan via email (justin@touch-down.com.au) or phone (0439 421 290) for more information.

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