Safety on the slide

At the Flight of the Gibbon outside Chiang Mai, only the guides are given gloves and the zipliner has no braking devices of any kind.

Ziplines are all the rage across the region but writer Mick Grant argues that in Chiang Mai, even big-name operators are cutting corners on safety, risking lives to cash in on the trend.

All over Thailand – on posters, in magazines, on billboards – you see ads for the Flight of the Gibbon (FOTG), a zipline company operating in several locations. Check out their website, www.treetopasia.com, and you’ll note their claim, ‘Safety is our top priority’. They hold a 2016 Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor, as they did in 2015. That’s despite the fact that in July that year, an American woman was nearly killed on their zipline outside Chiang Mai through their gross negligence.

A quick, low-level try-out helps build confidence. With gloves on, the zipliner can also use the length of bike tyre over the wire as an effective brake.
A quick, low-level try-out helps build confidence. With gloves on, the zipliner can also use the length of bike tyre over the wire as an effective brake.

On July 13, 2015, RichardS1958, from Oregon – as he identifies himself on TripAdvisor – visited with his wife Lisa, their two daughters and a friend. They were placed with a Chinese couple to make up a group, accompanied by two zipline guides. Called ‘sky rangers’ at FOTG, one of this pair goes ahead of the group from platform to platform while the other brings up the rear.

The experience got off the wrong foot when one sky ranger started boasting about the benefits of smoking dope. Also Hazel, the Chinese woman, began losing confidence as the platforms got higher and higher off the ground.

At Station 21, the group reached a 300-m zipline, the second longest on the circuit. The platform at the end of this line is not visible through the canopy, so the sky rangers must maintain shortwave radio contact to ensure the line is clear for the next zipliner. The Chinese couple zipped off: first the man, then the woman. 

Then it was Lisa’s turn. She was told to ball herself up to go faster as she is petite, like the Chinese woman. However, Hazel had failed to reach the platform ahead and had slid back down the line. With no clear warning from the sky ranger up ahead, Lisa set off. Zipping along at high speed and now spinning, she saw Hazel just a split-second before she slammed into her.

The rest of Richard’s group couldn’t see the accident, but heard the sickening thwack. Post-collision, things were chaotic. FOTG had a limited first-aid kit and no protocol for dealing with rapid evacuation. Luckily, as Lisa was lain on the ground with blood pooling at her head, a trauma expert from John Hopkins University miraculously appeared. She happened to be in another zipline group at the time, and attended to Lisa as best she could. She most likely saved her life. 

Incredibly, FOTG continued operating, with other groups advancing along the circuit as Richard’s party rappelled to the ground. It then took several hours to get Lisa to hospital in Chiang Mai, where they learned she had sustained a fractured pelvis and vertebrae, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and facial contusions. Even more seriously, she had brain damage from a stroke and damage to her optic nerve, resulting in complete and permanent blindness in her right eye.

After more than a month of operations and rest in Thailand, Lisa flew back to west-coast USA in a wheelchair, for a lengthy rehabilitation. The family later learned that Hazel, the Chinese guest, was able to return to her hotel the same night with nerve damage to her hip. 

Clearly the sky rangers had failed to make sure the line was clear but FOTG attempted to shrug off liability, saying the family had all signed a waiver. More than a year on, they have still not been given permission by the Thai courts to seek damages.

Tragically, this was no one-off occurrence. On July 27, 2012, a family of four from Taiwan was on a long zipline at FOTG, possibly the same 300-metre line. The last in the group was the father, who fell short of reaching the platform because the sky ranger up front had raised the line to slow him down. The second sky ranger – who failed to check that the line was clear – smashed into the man from the back, giving him spinal damage and seven broken ribs.

A check on TripAdvisor under the one-star ratings (there is no provision for no-star ratings) reveals a litany of other injuries suffered at FOTG – from rope burns to broken bones. 

While FOTG was the first zipline in Thailand, now there are over a dozen copycat operations in Chiang Mai alone. Many do most of their business with Chinese tourists who have flocked to the area since the 2012 release of Lost in Thailand, a wildly popular Chinese-made comedy movie.

In June 2015, at Skyline Adventures, a Chinese man plunged to his death from a tree platform more than 15m up. He was not clipped into the line at the platform. The operator tried to blame the tourist, but was later charged with negligence. 

On October 12, 2015, a woman, also Chinese, died on a long zipline at Flying Squirrel. Management said she suffered a heart attack, but an autopsy revealed she died from a broken neck. Later, a record B2.8 million (US$80,000) was paid in compensation to the woman’s family – said to be the highest payout for a foreign tourist ever in Thailand.

At the Flight of the Gibbon outside Chiang Mai, only the guides are given gloves and the zipliner has no braking devices of any kind.
At the Flight of the Gibbon outside Chiang Mai, only the guides are given gloves and the zipliner has no braking devices of any kind.

FOTG was set up in 2007 by New Zealand kayaker and adventurer, David Allardice. He made sure his guides were rigorously trained, tested for drug-use on a regular basis and had safety inspectors from America and New Zealand. But after he died of cancer in May 2013, FOTG fell into less scrupulous hands. Today it is not clear who owns the operation. One of the managers is Steve McWhorter, an American with a record in the US for tax evasion. It is not clear whether FOTG pays proper taxes in Thailand, as they insist on cash for most of their transactions.

Allardice’s mandatory drug test was quietly dropped. An ex-employee at FOTG told me it was because too many sky rangers were failing the test, and it was difficult to find replacements.

In 2013, on a zipline ride with FOTG, I smelled alcohol on the breath of a sky ranger. He and his partner spent much of the time asking for tips, saying we owed our lives to them. In early 2016, when I visited again, they didn’t seem to have learned anything from the near-fatal accidents of previous years. Staff remained unidentifiable, with adopted names like ‘Donatello’ on their helmets. Sky rangers were rushing clients and maxing the thrills for Chinese zippers, the main customers. I saw them jerking the line to make clients swing – several times almost connecting with trees. I saw a sky ranger push a female zipper off a platform with no warning. I zipped in to another platform rather fast and crashed into the guide, who was attempting to slow my progress. He came off worst but using the guide to slow down the zipliner is not viable: you need a braking system that the client can deploy.

Ziplines elsewhere have them. In Costa Rica, it’s a heavy leather glove used to grip the line behind the top slider; in Laos you use a forked stick; in Australia, the guides control the braking. Elsewhere in Thailand, I visited a zipline outfit that gave guests construction gloves and a section of bicycle tyre to pull down over the top slider which proved a very effective brake. They also had a short line to practice on at ground-level first.

FOTG do none of these things: even the famous gibbons in their name are now caged at night, though the white female, and her darker-furred son, are still introduced as wild. The office manager at FOTG in Chiang Mai says the present, mostly Chinese, clientele are interested in adrenaline, not flora and fauna. Shelving the canopy exploration aspect allows them to get a group round a circuit in 90 minutes now.

Patently they, and other zipline operators in Chiang Mai, are sacrificing safety for financial gain. There’s an urgent need for close regulation before further serious injuries happen. AA

First published in Sep/Oct 2016 issue. 

FOTG have since been taken to court in Thailand by the American couple mentioned in this article.