US Army Corps of Engineers
Sacramento District

image - construction at Folsom Dam

Corps geologist learns the ropes

Published July 13, 2016
Coralie Wilhite, a geological engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, gives the thumbs up after rappelling down a rock face along the bank of the American River near Folsom Dam to mark rock bolt anchor locations as part of the Joint Federal Project.

Coralie Wilhite, a geological engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, gives the thumbs up after rappelling down a rock face along the bank of the American River near Folsom Dam to mark rock bolt anchor locations as part of the Joint Federal Project.

Coralie Wilhite, a geological engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, rappels down a rock face along the bank of the American River near Folsom Dam to mark rock bolt anchor locations as part of the Joint Federal Project.

Coralie Wilhite, a geological engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, rappels down a rock face along the bank of the American River near Folsom Dam to mark rock bolt anchor locations as part of the Joint Federal Project.

Coralie Wilhite, a geological engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, marks rock bolt anchor locations on the bank of the American River near Folsom Dam as part of the Joint Federal Project.

Coralie Wilhite, a geological engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, marks rock bolt anchor locations on the bank of the American River near Folsom Dam as part of the Joint Federal Project.

It’s said a really good geologist needs to know a bit of everything: physics, chemistry, geography, math, biology, engineering, and sometimes even climbing skills that would make Spiderman jealous.

Coralie Wilhite, a geological engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, recently added certified rope access climbing skills to her resume in order to efficiently complete her task at the Joint Federal Project in Folsom, California. 

“I was able to rappel over the edge of the high river bank and mark exact locations for rock stabilization bolts on the right bank of the American River channel, across from the outlet of the auxiliary spillway,” said Wilhite. “With a close up view of the rock surface, I could adjust planned bolt locations in order to avoid uneven surfaces or joints in the rock face.”

From the other side of the river, geologic and geotechnical engineering team members used binoculars and large printouts of the plan to communicate bolt locations to Wilhite via radio.

Wilhite is on staff with the Corps’ Regional Dam Safety Production Center and obtained training and Level 1 certification from the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians in November 2015. But that wasn’t her first experience climbing.

She grew up in the foothills of West Point, California. With a father interested in recreational gold prospecting, a mom who read Roadside Geology books to her kids on vacation and two older brothers involved in Boy Scouts, rock climbing was just a normal part of being a kid.

“Almost every summer vacation was traveling to a river to go prospecting, camp and enjoy the outdoors,” said Wilhite. When she was six, Wilhite and her family lived at a mine site in Alaska for three months.

Now that she’s SPRAT certified, Wilhite is a member of the Corps’ national rope access team and can be called upon to help with tasks that would benefit from her special skillset.

Charles Jeung, SPRAT Level III-certified technician in the Sacramento District dam safety section, directly oversees every Sacramento District rope access and teamed up with Wilhite to set up a safe and efficient rope access system for the job.

“Our national ropes team is a small group, about 20 members in total, and there are certain technical disciplines we look for,” Jeung explained. A majority of the Corps climbers are structural engineers.  

The equipment used by Corps rope access teams is a two-rope system with full-body harness, which is quite different from the single rope and minimal harness system typically used by sport climbers, said Jeung. Sport climbers use a single rope as their safety backup, whereas Corps climbers ascend and descend on the primary rope and use the second rope for fall protection. 

Using rope access enables efficient inspection and maintenance of structures in precarious and high locations without requiring scaffolding or elevated work platforms. Sacramento District climbers have helped with numerous operations tasks, including close inspection of dam faces and Tainter gates.

“We don’t just climb for the fun of it,” said Jeung. “We have a job to do.”