The Importance of “Old Dogs”

This has been roiling in the depths of the “Dave Brain” for some time, and is very timely in light of recent incidents in the ropes challenge course industry.

Two fatalities involving new hires on zipline tours in little more than a year, participants hurt or killed while under the watch of “more mature staff” who were “fully trained”, “recently certified”, etc.

Where were the experienced staff, the trainers, the ones with more than an initial training and a handful of experience hours under their belts? Where were the “Old Dogs?”

According to ANSI/PRCA 1.2 Operational Standards for Ropes Challenge Courses, this requirement falls on the shoulders of the owner/operator of the course. Any time “Authorized Person” level staff are performing work, a “Competent Person” is required to be on location (H.2.8 Supervision.)

Bottom line? The vertical environment we work in is both exciting and deadly. As course owners and operators, we can never forget that. When I put a new batch of instructors in the field, dropping their names in the schedule, I am potentially putting them in harm's way. Sure, they've been through my exhaustive training, completed all required skills assessments, but that still doesn't change the fact that they are woefully inexperienced. For the first several weeks, new hires are never scheduled without an experienced instructor to ensure actions are consistent with training and procedures, answer questions, model behavior, etc.

The trending growth of ziplines and aerial adventure parks concerns me, not from the standpoint of industry exposure. I think it's great that more and more people each year get to stretch themselves through these experiences. What I really hope is that those behind the operations of these courses have truly counted the cost. Paying for an outside training company to administer an annual training/ recert and thinking that's enough to ensure staff and guest safety is incredibly shortsighted.

I know firsthand of a program that had the annual refreshers, course and equipment inspections by 3rd party vendors. What they lacked was the presence of the “Old Dogs.” Little to no oversight of newly trained guides, bad habits crept in… they were an incident waiting to happen, and it did eventually happen. Something that would've easily been caught and mitigated was missed, resulting in a participant falling 30' from their climbing wall.

Planning, design & construction are the easy steps… daily operations are what really sets a program apart from the rest. Staffing is the last place you want to skimp, for the safety of your employees and guests.

Be safe, all!


Tagged , , , ,

A Backlog of Death

It’s a bizarre title, but it doesn’t compare to the tumult I’m experiencing right now.

I was going to post last month re: the June 11th zipline death of a 12yr old girl at a summer camp, but I held off. I wondered, “it’s relevant to ropes courses & risk management, but do I have to post every injury or death?”

Then a 16yr old girl died earlier this week on a Giant Swing… followed the next day by a 54yr old zipline guide who plummeted 150′ to his death (his second day on the job, btw.)

The absurdity of my thought today – “I’ve got a backlog of deaths to post.”


Tagged , , , ,


Saw this news article concerning a new aerial adventure park going up in Franklin, Tennessee. 50 feet tall, 110 elements, 140 participant capacity…

[wipes drool from face]

Of course I'd love to try it (110 ELEMENTS!), but is it bad my mind instantly focuses on the underlying systems needed to successfully operate something like this? Training, staffing ratios, equipment tracking, etc.

I love my job!



Tagged , ,

Camp Staff Injured in Fall From Course

Ran across this today concerning a ropes course incident that occurred yesterday afternoon. Details are scarce as investigations are conducted.


Tagged , ,

If you build it, they will come… but should they?

Ok, here's a rant that's been percolating for a while. Adventure programming is awesome! As ziplines and adventure parks continue to gain in popularity, the allure attracts developers in venues both large and small. Am I saying this is a bad idea? Absolutely not. However, as one who lives & breathes adventure programming, we can't forget a very important point:

Done wrong, people are hurt or killed utilizing these activities!

Honestly, I believe construction of these projects is the easy part. It's a willingness to invest in the following that tell me how long you'll last (or if I'll read about you in the news!) A couple points to consider:

  • Qualified staff – This starts from the top down. Somebody on site needs to be the qualified “expert” for their course. That person is responsible for the well being of everyone who touches that program – every participant, every instructor, etc. How thorough is the initial training for new staff? How are new staff supervised to ensure consistency in trained practices, policies, etc.? Are staff trained to handle emergencies on the course?
  • Equipment maintenance/ replacement – All programs, especially high throughput ones like ours, has to expect equipment to wear out. Our 900' ziplines we built in 2013 experience over 20,000 zip cycles annually, using a powered hydraulic lowering system. Expect to spend money to replace equipment as you burn through it through normal use.

I understand this post is pretty short – I could spend a day just talking about gear selection. Bottom line – gravity always works, folks! By adding high adventure activities to your facility's lineup, be prepared to do it right. Over the long haul, you'll stand out from the crowd as a program to be respected and emulated, serving many happy participants for years to come.



Tagged , , ,

A quick fix…

I had a “problem” in need of a solution. On our Zipline, sometimes if participants leaned back, their trolley would hop over the serving sleeve and get stuck. No biggie, but it was unnerving to some… ready, set, g… oh wait, now try it. 🙂

After chewing on a few ideas, it hit me – hockey pucks. High density rubber, made to take a beating, impervious to the elements, and cheap. I'll share it with you:

  1. Buy hockey pucks (lame humor, coffee hasn't kicked in yet.)
  2. Drill a hole in the center of the puck, 1/8″ smaller than the cable diameter (I have 1/2″ cable, so I used a 3/8″ drill bit.)
  3. Using a band saw, cut a notch in the puck approximately the same size as the center hole.
  4. Install on the cable. Use a hammer or mallet to tap it on if your cut is a little too snug.
  5. Secure with a #40 stainless steel clamp (2 1/16″-3″ size.)
  6. Enjoy your success (taking another sip of my macchiato.)


Tagged ,

What’s Wrong with Thrill Rides?

Over the years, I've heard various thoughts, opinions, etc. regarding how different adventure activities are regarded. “That's nothing more than a thrill ride.” “Don't expect any meaningful outcomes from that.” “Now, THAT'S experiential learning at its best!” I even read an article recently that tossed ALL ropes course experiences into the purely “thrill” pile (yeah, that wasn't a biased article!)


I've been involved in adventure-based programming for close to 20 years. I'll even admit at one time being guilty of experiential “snobbery,” thumbing my nose at the “thrill rides” in favor for activities “where the real growth occurs.”

That was, until I helped run a zipline at a colleague's facility. One day, face to face with dozens of participants working through their own personal challenges, and I was sold. I had to get a zipline for my camp. In 2013, my wish came true, and our zipline sent over 20,000 zips our first year!

In my opinion, it's not so much the activity itself, but how you facilitate it. If my client is looking for an exciting, recreational experience, what's wrong in providing it? If the client is looking for something deeper, my instructors can be intentional in looking for ways to tie in their experience with their stated goals. Regardless of client goals, my instructors are trained facilitators, have an understanding of Challenge by Choice®, and are intentional in the delivery of our various programs.

“Challenge by Choice” is a Registered Trademark of Project Adventure.

Tagged ,

Just another day…

imageStarted my day right with a little high angle work on our ropes course. Perfect weather, hanging 30′ off the deck in a full body harness, cutting old mallions off our cargo net cable with a cordless angle grinder.

Fun times indeed!


What a great time at the Christian Camp & Conference Association’s 2015 Wisconsin Sectional, hosted by Honey Rock. I had the opportunity to share a bit about challenge course risk management to a number of camping professionals.

As I creep toward 50 years of age, I still can’t believe I do what I do for a career. Besides enjoying the job for myself, I get to impart lessons learned over nearly 20 years in camping ministry. Way cool!

Even more cool? I get to experience this journey alongside some of the most awesome & unique individuals, all with passions to serve God & impact lives in eternal ways utilizing the wonders of creation.

Tagged , ,


As one who spends the majority of his time outdoors, in weather conditions that range from summer heat indexes that exceed 100°F to winter windchills below -30°F, the gear I choose is vital. A shell jacket is a critical piece of my outdoor kit, and I think I've tried all the major brands in my 18+ years as a challenge course professional.

The winner? I keep coming back to my Outdoor Research Furio Jacket. This all-purpose shell has all the bells & whistles I need to do my job. The jacket features Gore-Tex 3 layer Pro Shell in the shoulders and other critical areas, and Gore-Tex PacLite in the rest of the body to cut down weight. Keeps you dry by itself, and layers well for when the mercury drops.

My favorite feature? The water resistant “TorsoFlo” zippered vents under the arms that extend all the way to the hem. Unmatched ventilation when you need it, plus unzipping up from the hem a bit allows access to your harness gear loops for carabiners, radio, etc. without losing the length & coverage in the front & back.

Worth every penny, this shell has a MSRP of $375, but you can usually pick up last year's model/ discontinued colors for half that.


Tagged ,