Keeping safety in line

HARPERS FERRY — Redundancy is built into nearly every procedure that River Riders uses to propel people along ziplines by the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry. Two heavy clips attach two thick nylon lines from a firmly harnessed rider to a thick metal cable. Two guides travel along to station themselves both at the launch point and endpoint of the line along the 13-station course, which also includes rope bridges, ladders and a final rappel descent.

[cleeng_content id="956655384" description="Read it now!" price="0.15"]In the decade since ziplining emerged as a tourist activity in Honduras, it has grown tremendously around the world, and in large part without regulation. Some localities regard ziplines like amusement-park rides and inspect them annually. But in many locales, there is no oversight at all.

Tourguides Laura Davis and Becca Russell lead a group to the first zipline platform tower at River Riders zipline park along the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry.

And the news-making accident earlier this year, during which a Georgia woman suffered a flesh-eating bacterial infection after falling from a zipline, has increased concern about the activity.

River Riders proprietor Matt Knott said the Georgia incident occurred on a private, non-commercial line.

“That was in a backyard,” he said.

Knott said the River Riders attraction was reviewed by the Jefferson County zoning and planning authorities, and the West Virginia Department of Labor before construction. The state also inspects the zipline annually, he said.

“It’s inspected more thoroughly than a building,” Knott said.

The course is rugged, beginning with a short hike to a rock outcropping, from which the first zip is launched. Walkie-talkies connect the guides at the beginning and end of each zip, allowing them to prepare for each visitor’s take-off and landing. Clips and lines are attached and unattached, connecting riders to safety lines throughout the course.

“You’re just here to have fun,” said a guide named Paul. “Only let the guides touch the hardware.”

Safety measures begin before the first zip is launched. Closed-toe shoes are available at sign-in, for visitors arriving in sandals. Next, helmets are selected and adjusted to fit snugly. Finally, visitors shrug into a 10-pound harness, with clips at the hips and waist. A pair of leather gloves, while not necessary, is also a good idea.

The guides tell visitors that the course is designed to increase one’s confidence, and it does. From the first, short zip, lines increase in length and height from the ground. Visitors scale ladders to reach higher platforms, and traverse bouncy rope bridges to move between launch sites. By the end, even the most timid zipper is flying through the air without fear.

“It’s a great time,” Knott said. “It’s exhilarating. It’s as close as you can get to flying.”

From one platform, a three-state vista of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, with the Potomac in the foreground, spreads out to zipliners. Summertime tours are under a canopy of leaves, while in the fall, wider views are possible. Tours are offered through the winter and in the evening, with towers illuminated by rope lights and riders with glow sticks attached to their harnesses. On Halloween, the tour guides wear costumes.

Waivers emphasize that while no experience is necessary, that doesn’t mean there is no risk. It is possible to get hurt. Already this season, miscommunication between guides resulted in a collision between a mother and son on the line, Knott said.

But the course itself is solid. Knott said it took $250,000 to build it, and each harness was a $500 purchase.

Knott calls West Virginia “pretty proactive in regulating the tours,” because “tourism is such a big part of the economy here.” River Riders employs 200 people in summer, and 25 year-round, he said.

In addition to the zipline, the company runs river tours by raft, canoe, kayak and tube. Last year, 13,000 visitors went rafting with the company, and a busy summer day brings 200 rafters and “double that amount of tubers,” Knott said.

Zip lining “fits very well, has a similar demographic,” he said. About 100 people a week come for zipline tours.

“I did it before anyone else,” Knott said. “My kids did it before anyone else’s kids.”[/cleeng_content]

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