Blog

slacklining

I was leaving my office on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, when I got a call from a couple friends. They were setting up a slackline (a kind of tightrope) on the University’s quad and wanted me to swing by to help. When I arrived, they were part way through the process of putting up a giant, 200-foot long line that stood about 10 feet off the ground. They hadn’t started to tighten up the slackline yet so I started helping them get the necessary pulley-system rigged. If you have never set up a slackline, one key to doing so is that you have to get it really tight, otherwise, as a person walks out onto it, it will sag way down. On such a long line, a person could even sag down all 10 feet back down to the ground (if they could even handle walking on such a loose line). To get such a long slackline sufficiently tight, you really have to yank on that pulley system, and we did so, over and over again. By time such a long line is tight, it will have created an enormous amount of pressure on the gear at the ends of the line holding it all together. I’ve heard the pressure amounts to something insane like a few thousand pounds or more.

So, when we finally could yank in no more free slack, we stood back and felt pretty proud of ourselves as we took in our handiwork. We were just about to start pulling our shoes off when we heard a strange creaking coming from the line. My friend Chuck and I instinctually took a couple slow steps back. My other friend Jake, however, whose gear it was, stepped forward, up to the line to release some of the pressure. As he raised his hand to the locking device, baam! Then line broke with a bang. Suddenly I saw the line on the other side, 200-feet away, snap up into the air and whip towards me, shooting a metal carabiner at me faster than I could see. I felt the woosh of the line and carabiner as they zoomed by my head before I could even dive backwards. As soon as Chuck and I hit the ground we were back up again looking towards Jake who on his knees shouting. I ran over asking him if he was alright. He yelled “No” back to me like I was stupid and then I saw the blood. He was holding his right hand with his left and his great big farmer fingers were soaking red and I could just make out a stump where his giant pinky had been 10 seconds ago. The force of the line breaking was so great that it didn't even seem to pull his arm when it flipped back, instead it just swiped his pinky clean off!

I went sprinting for my car off-campus while Jake had threw his hand into a beer cooler. By time I got back his finger still hadn’t been found. It had just disappeared with the snap of the line. We zoomed off, bobbing and weaving, through traffic and even picked up a pair of cherries by time we made it into the ER. Ignoring the cop, we ran into the ER to get his finger addressed.

My other friend, Chuck, who also nearly dodged being killed by the flying carabiner, stayed behind at the scene to look for Jake's finger. His first efforts being a wash, he called upon passerbyers to help him look. He organized 15 people into a solid line and combed the scene up and down like a rescue squad looking for a dead body. After an hour of looking, he gave up! He never found it! So he just came over to the ER to sit with me while Jack got his finger sown up. We wondered if someone sitting at an outdoor eatery a half mile away had suddenly had a finger fall out of the sky and plop into their soup. We were half bracing for the news report.

Anyway, Jake got out of the ER minus a pink and 3,000 dollars (like most climbers, he had no insurance) but at least he was full of painkillers and we all had been taught a new lesson:  double up your slackline. Jake remains the only person I have even know who has literally lost a finger.