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Maintenance in between your yearly Challenge Course inspections

Author(s): Chris Ortiz
Posted: August 22, 2008

I was going to include this in my last post but that one was getting sort of long and I felt like there was enough information about this that it deserved its own posting. Here are some tips for keeping up on the maintenance in between your annual challenge course inspection by a qualified challenge course professional.

In addition to the annual inspection, programs should conduct their own inspections on a regular basis. In this instance regular means two things, seasonal and daily.

Seasonal inspections or those done as conditions may dictate due to weather (on outdoor courses), high volume of use, etc. should be assigned to your course manager or some staff person who is familiar with the course construction. Many things can occur that can alter the condition of the course between annual inspection dates. Other daily inspections are the responsibility of all staff utilizing the course. It is recommended that you have a means for communicating any problems with the course to all staff whether they are in-house full-time people or adjunct staff who use the course occasionally. At High 5 we use emails and a white board posted in our equipment shed. Issues and concerns can be readily posted for the next facilitator to see before the next program begins.

  • Wood Chips – Without a covering of wood chips or some other type of organic mulch, a high volume of foot traffic on a challenge course will cause soil compaction which is a detriment to tree health. Six inches of organic material spread over all areas of consistent foot traffic is recommended. Because of ongoing decomposition, this should be done annually.
    • Many sites, including my own, have a difficult time keeping up with wood chips. Here is one of the most simple and ingenious ways I have heard of keeping up with this tedious task. Keep a pile of wood chips at the entrance of your course along with a bunch of 5 gal. buckets. Each group that is going out on to the course takes a bucket of chips with them. They then dump the bucket at the element they are going to use. One bucket is not much but over the course of the year… Besides who really enjoys that sweaty buggy “staff day” of hauling and spreading wood chips. Thanks for the tip whatever site originally told me about this technique… I don’t remember who you are.
  • Eye ka-bobs and widow makers – Make an effort to keep up with the removal of any loose, dead limbs that overhang an area where participants will be congregating or are passing. These hanging widow makers can come down in a strong wind and be a serious hazard, but don’t forget the low level branches that stretch out into the path or activity area trying to poke an eye (my old friend Cathy is cringing somewhere if she is reading this, visualizing the eye-ka-bob.)
  • Vandalism – No matter how remote or protected your challenge course is… if people know about it… it is an attractive nuisance. Keep an eye out of dropped haul cords, moved or missing equipment as they could be clues to more significant damage you haven’t yet found.
    • While we are on the subject of attractive nuisances, simple measures can be taken to make your course unattractive. Challenge courses can easily be built with “put up/take down” cables or element access (which should be locked away when not in use). Has anyone thought of putting those fake security signs up… my father-in-law has them on his doors, little signs that say this house is protected by ABC security systems. No such company but I think would be a deterrent if I was just passing by and had nuisancy thoughts. That or just electrify your cables when you aren’t there…. Just kidding… DON’T do that, I shouldn’t have even joked!
  • Critters  – Challenge courses provide numerous nooks and crannies for critters to find a home. Squirrel nests in tires are a common one. Give those tires a thump now and again to make sure there is no build up of nesting material inside.  Another spot to be aware is in the shed.  Our High 5 shed has had mice make a home in just a few short days and on one occasion ate partially through a belay rope. Such damage would only be detected by the watchful eye of the facilitator conducting the days’ program. Of course insect critters are also a concern. Keep an eye out for nest on towers or other elements and make sure you have wholes drilled in the bottom side of tires for water drainage so as not to create standing water for mosquito or other insects.
  • Weather  – As I mentioned in the intro to this post… weather can reek havoc on the course. Be extra attentive after big electrical storms and high winds. Look for down branches and tree condition. If lightning strikes one tree on our course it can travel through cables or through the air to other trees… come check out our old zip line at High 5… 5 trees in one strike including the 2 primary trees on that element.
  • What is that Metallic grinding? – Be aware of points on your course were you have metal to metal contact… I know, that is everywhere, so keep your eyes open everywhere.
  • Cable ends – It is not uncommon for serving sleeves to slide out of places. Loose cable ends may seem like a cosmetic issue but they are sharp little buggers. Get skewered by one of those and you won’t soon forget. If you can not replace the serving sleeve, a healthy dose of duct tape is a good band aid until it can be properly fixed.
  • Record Keeping and storage – Walking into a well organized, clean shed just makes you feel confident in the program on some level. It would follow suit that other aspects of the program are also thoughtfully cared for. Some form  of rope log that could include such things as date rope is put in service, hours of use, days of use, number of participant, etc is also an example of conscientious management practices. Of course, such record keeping does not actually dictate the retirement date of a rope (though ropes do have a manufacturer suggested maximum shelf life). The most accurate measure of this is a regular visual and tactile inspection with every use and how your ropes have been used.

Wow, that is a lot of stuff to look at and pay attention to. There is even more but if you get nothing else from this post… be mindful of the equipment you handle on a daily basis. It is so easy to go into auto pilot and mindlessly hang ropes and attach carabiners. Notice the carabiners operation and wear points, inspect ropes every time you hang them and pay attention, period. (was that period redundant)


Chris Ortiz

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