Zip Lining to the Hospital

Injuries from this adventure sport have risen at a breathtaking pace

Marty Ordman had zip lined before, but he usually ended up on the other platform.

This time, he landed in the hospital.

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That might sound shocking, but injuries from zip lining are on the rise.

A study by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that almost 17,000 zip line-related injuries have landed adventure seekers in the hospital from 1997-2012. One of the study’s authors, Tracy Mehan, manager of Translational Research for the Center of Injury Research and Policy, told LifeZette that 70 percent of these injuries occurred in the final four years of the study.

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One obvious reason for the sharp uptick is a similar rise in zip lines themselves. Mehan pointed out that in 2001 there were only 10 commercial zip lines in the U.S.. By 2012, there were more than 200.

“If you add in the amateur zip lines, which include those found in outdoor education programs, camps and backyards, this number soars to over 13,000 in 2012, and there are many more now,” Mehan said.

“There’s been an increasing popularity in adventure sports.”

Ordman was 52 years old in May 2010 when he found himself zip lining in Costa Rica with a small group of colleagues. Ordman is a fan of scuba diving and other adventure sports, and he had ziplined before, so he didn’t give it much thought. In fact, when he noticed a young couple zip lining upside down, he was excited to try it.

“Is that safe?” he asked an attendant, who assured him it was while showing him how to position himself.

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It happened quickly: Ordman was spinning out of control, completely disoriented, and flying toward another tree at around 20 mph. Attempting to regain control, he tried swinging his legs around the metal line, foot on it. The line immediately sliced through his shoe, then his sock, his flesh, and into his tendon.

The line destroyed his foot with a sort of burn, similar to how pavement strips skin from a body that is thrown from a motorcycle. Blood drenched everything, but shock kept him Ordman from pain — until hours later, in the brief horrible moment between his shock wearing off and the morphine injection he received.

It happened quickly: Ordman was spinning out of control, completely disoriented, flying toward another tree at around 20 mph.

“Pain like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.

In 2012, there were 3,600 zip line-related injuries. That’s almost 10 a day.

While not all zip lines are inherently dangerous, Mehan advises doing proper research before strapping into one. Many commercial zip lines follow some industry or state regulations, and those are obviously better than none.

Those industry standards vary, but Michael Baker, vice president of the board of the Professional Ropes Course Association, said the one to trust is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

“Without a doubt, ANSI is extremely comprehensive,” Baker said. “It covers everything from manufacturing to training.”

Specifically, he said, potential zip liners should ask if a “course is compliant with the ANSI 1.0-.3-2014 American National Safety Standards.”

“If you’re going to a course that meets those standards, you’re on a much better foundation,” he said.

Marty Ordman zip lining moments before accident in May 2010.
Marty Ordman zip lining moments before his accident in May 2010

Both he and Mehan agreed that adventure seeks should never use a backyard (or amateur) zip line.

Additionally, always remember there’s an inherent danger to the sport, which is part of the thrill. As Mehan said, “Think about it. You’re 20 to 30 feet in the air, careering toward a stationary object.”

For many zip liners, though, that’s part of the thrill.

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