Slope Minded

Slope Mined: What I Learned

Words / Cody Liska

Photos / Jake Liska, Matt Wild


I always thought that to work on the North Slope meant to work in Wild West conditions. Whiskey and drugs and brothels filled with muddy Al Swearengens and Dan Doritys. That bumps of cocaine was a roughneck’s midnight oil and Good Time Girls were his comfort. Man camps full of solemn, mustached men in overalls and brimmed hats, all of which were covered in crude oil. And wooden oil derricks signaled payday by spitting black gold 30 feet in the air.


I was full of shit.

My buddy Adam Eldred is a floorhand on the Slope and he told me that if someone yells “ravens on the wind wall,” you don’t want to be on the rig floor. If you are, you’re a Worm and ravens eat worms. And the last thing you want to be called on the North Slope is a Worm.


“No matter who you work for up there, that’s what you call the greenhorns: Worm or Wormy,” Jake Liska says. My brother Jake was a roughneck for 7 years. At one point or another he worked as a floorhand, a pittwatcher, and a derrickman. “Other terms are like fuckhead or dumbshit.”


Jake Liska //


Same goes for “Squirrel.” Squirrels and Worms are the weakest link. Find yourself being called one or the other too often, you’re liable to get run off. You can always pick them out by their bright orange hardhats. (“They call them Pumpkin Heads because all the new guys have to wear orange hardhats for their first 6 months. That’s how it is for all the companies [on the Slope] now. Pumpkin Patch if there’s a bunch of them,” Drilling Rig Safety Coordinator Ryan Wilson says.) It all depends on how fast a guy progresses. Sometimes he isn’t ready for the switch after 6 months. Other times, he’s ready in 2-3 hitches.


Any given oilrig has about $20-25 million in heavy machinery. When you’re working with that much equipment, there’s little room for error. One miscalculation could be the difference between life and death. Like the time Jake was on the rig floor when a driller stacked out on the drill pipe.


“That could kill all the floorhands on the floor and it could kill the derrickhand up in the Tree,” Jake says. “When you stack out, it means you came down with the top drive and you put all that pressure on the pipe. Now, you’re bowing a 100 ft. stand-up pipe that weighs 2,000 lbs. and when you come off of it with the top drive, the pipe releases and fuckin’ ping-pongs all over the place.”


Dodging a ton of bouncing iron is a floorhand and derrickhand’s worst nightmare – one reason why safety regulations are so stringent now. (“If we have [a fatality] within 10 years, it’s a big deal. Even within 20 years,” Wilson says. “We’re so far ahead, as far as safety goes. Especially compared to a lot of the smaller outfits down [in the states].”)


Every Sloper has to pass the North Slope Training Cooperative (NSTC) general awareness and safety courses. After you’ve passed those, you’re Slope bound. Most companies require workers to complete pre-work or pre-job checklists. Every tool you use, every task you do, everything that could potentially go wrong with that task, and how you’re going to prevent it from happening, all has to be documented. It’s just one more measure in creating a safer work environment.


“Now all the rigs are turning automatic – new age drilling rigs where no one has to do shit anymore because machines and buttons are running everything. So, Fluffnecks are the new age Roughnecks. Now, drillers sit in their little computerized room in a big, lounge, leather chair with five computer screens and two little handles in charge of a big drilling rig. The fluffiest of the fluffy,” Jake punctuates with his telltale, high-pitched cackle. 


People tend to make fun of the older drilling guys because they’re a bunch of hard asses. These are the guys that have been there for years, the guys who are constantly bitching about their divorce(s), the guys who have like 4 different wives and 10 different kids. (“That’s Slope life in general. It’s hard to have a family when you work 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. That’s why I quit. I quit the Slope after my third child was born because I couldn’t take it anymore,” Jake says.)


Some years ago, while we were stuck in the clusterfuck of a typical overcrowded night at the Pioneer Bar in Anchorage, my buddy Trevor King pitched me an idea for a story. It involved the sordid lives of a handful of his coworkers on the Slope. Alcohol, drugs, deceit, infidelity. Shit akin to reality television. I vaguely remembered the conversation, so I asked him, “It was something like ‘so-and-so was sleeping with this one chick, but he also has a family down in Anchorage. Then maybe another guy who makes all this money and he does all these drugs on his 2 off.’” “Yea, that pretty much nails it right on the head,” he replied. The pitfalls of money and boredom.


“There are two types of people up there: the fuck ups and the family guys,” Trevor says.


A 30 ft. pipe is a Joint. 3 Joints make a Stand. Pipe Dope is thread lube. So, the Slope is the only place they pay you to play with 30 ft. Joints and 5 gallon buckets of Dope. It’s a language unto itself, constructed of routine, grit, and isolation. Double-entendre that tightropes between witty and offensive. A slang that conveys it's just another day in the Bay...