What feels like a lifetime ago, I was a height safety and rescue trainer for a German safety equipment manufacturer in China. A friend of a friend helped get me the job, for which my only qualifications were that I spoke decent Chinese and was of sound mind and body.
To teach me…well, everything about safety and rescue, the company first sent me to their home offices in Germany for two months of training.
On the flight over, after transiting Moscow on the way to Frankfurt, my plane encountered the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. The young Russian guy next to me gently and expressionlessly closed his laptop (playing Russian sitcoms) and vomited violently into the provided barf bag. Good start to the trip.
The fun-filled months I spent there included trying to get by in a tiny German town without speaking a word of German, and climbing up and down training towers for hours each day doing my best not to kill myself and others. I also got to visit a few nearby cities and reconnect with an old military friend who was stationed about an hour from where I was. Also, abseiling out of a 100 meter-high wind turbine is pretty fun, so it wasn’t all bad.
Once back in China, the training wheels were suddenly, and somewhat prematurely, ripped out from underneath me and I became the dedicated trainer for all of East Asia overnight. Almost immediately I began to get summoned away for 2 to 10 day training trips in parts of China I’d never heard of. Once there, I was presented with the challenge of training experienced industry workers on equipment that they used daily, mastering the entirely field-specific Chinese vocabulary used in the height safety/wind power industry, and doing both things while attempting not to embarrass myself or damage the good name of the company. I give myself credit for my overall success in rising to the challenge, but it didn’t always work out…
Though most of my training was geared towards the wind industry where most of our business was focused, I was occasionally called upon to perform demos or trainings for other industries on behalf of my company. These included areas which my trainers in Germany had almost completely glossed over believing it would not be of much relevance. And so it was that, with only a one-day training session on tree climbing under my belt, I was called upon to lead a tree climbing demo in Hong Kong.
I proceeded to resoundingly embarrass myself in front of actual professionals. I recall dangling exhausted from my ropes after managing to get 5 feet off the ground using my hand ascender, and looking up into the tree at the winner of the national rope tree climbing championship (yes, that exists – possibly solely to shame me) who I was supposed to be demonstrating equipment usage to. I also got bitten well over a hundred times on both arms by vicious mosquitoes. Overall, not one of my better days.
Despite those occasional glitches, I became fairly adept at conducting the training for the wind industry. The on-location trainings were almost always in tiny towns where the wind farms were located. The local turbine maintenance crews who were the recipients of the training were always so endlessly fascinated by this Chinese speaking foreigner with the fancy pants who came to train them that I’m certain that about 90% of the training fell on deaf ears. In any case, there was little chance that the stringent German standards I taught and advocated would be adhered to in the corner-cutting culture of the Chinese wind industry.
Like anything, the more I did it the easier it got. After a few months of training around China (and a random one in Uruguay) the 80 to 125 meter ladder climb was a breeze for me. I knew the various types of turbines inside out, and knew what course to take in almost any rescue scenario that might occur.
Once the stress of uncertainty was out of the way, I could just enjoy the process; and I lived for the silence at the top of the tower where I could briefly be alone with the wind.
I arrive for work and 30 minutes later I stand atop an 80 meter wind turbine in Inner Mongolia, 70 miles of gravel road between me and the nearest town, nothing but towers, sheep, and the open plains spread out below me. The nacelle sways gently in the wind, and the blades creak on their hinges, eager to turn. The wind whips around me like a living thing; it’s a sound like shouting, like rejoicing, like life.
And all the world is a flawless wonder.
I’ve had worse jobs.