Magazine article The Spectator

In the Colombian Mountains, I Marvel at the Graceful Nerve of Mankind

Magazine article The Spectator

In the Colombian Mountains, I Marvel at the Graceful Nerve of Mankind

Article excerpt

Zip-wiring is an activity no doubt available outside Colombia, but surely nowhere else is it so high or fast or far. A strong steel cable is strung from a tree on one hilltop to another tree on a slightly lower hilltop; a small cradle hangs beneath the wire, able to run freely along it on a pulley-wheel, as with a ski lift.

To zip-wire you start from the higher end.

Wearing over your trousers a harness of the sort which will be familiar to those who abseil or subscribe to bondage magazines, you then suspend yourself beneath the cable. You drop your weight on to it, steadying yourself in an upright seated position by gripping the cradle with your left hand. Your right hand, gloved with a leather pad to prevent burning, is held above your head, resting loosely on the cable above so that it runs beneath the palm.

Then you push off from the tree trunk.

Gravity takes you down, at increasing speed, until the wind whistles in your ears, the wire sings, the sun is on your back, and the valley between the hilltops has dropped away hundreds of feet beneath your boots. You can reach a tremendous speed, but as the tree trunk at the end of your journey looms you must brake, by pulling your gloved right hand down on the cable until friction slows you. Ideally you hit the cushion padding on your destination tree with a gentle thump.

This is a big sport, here in Colombia, and I've just completed one of the finest recreational zip-wire systems in the world, whose longest span is a quarter of a mile, situated at a lovely nature reserve called Montevivo, where you can stay, near the village of Santa Elena, cool and high in the mountains above the once notorious but now safe and thriving city of Medellin.

As the cable hums and the air hisses in your ears, a quarter of a mile's flight seems to take a long time: time to contemplate risk, and danger, and Health and Safety at Work.

I thought about the dangers. There are really only two: one is that you might place your braking hand in front of the pulley rather than behind it, and mash your hand; but we were given clear and repeated instructions about that. The other danger is that you might misjudge speed, or simply faint; fail to brake, and hit the cushion rather hard - but a broken nose or rib would be about as much injury as this could cause. If you did pass out, your harness would hold you suspended: you would not fall.

In Britain this kind of thing would almost certainly be banned, or insurance-priced out of existence because it appears so dangerous; and there are doubtless a few accidents every year in Colombia; but, all things considered, zip-wiring is not a particularly hazardous activity. As with parachuting, serious mishaps would be sensational but statistically unlikely.

And it struck me as I rushed through the ether that this zip-wiring business was probably a good deal less dangerous than so much that we do that is commonplace. The scope for human misjudgment was rather limited. There were fail-safe mechanisms in place: the body-harness and the cushions.

The chance of the hefty cable snapping was (with occasional inspections) about zero.

What, on the other hand, are the fail-safe mechanisms available to the driver travelling at 70mph in the fast lane of a motorway with his wife beside him and three children in the back? If he passes out, misjudges, or suffers a tyre blow-out, he could be all across the carriageway within seconds, and a multiple pile-up could follow. …

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