In the Colombian mountains, I marvel at the graceful nerve of mankind

Zip-wiring is an activity no doubt available outside Colombia, but surely nowhere else is it so high or fast or far. A strong steel cable is strung from a tree on one hilltop to another tree on a slightly lower hilltop; a small cradle hangs beneath the wire, able to run freely along it on a pulley-wheel, as with a ski lift.

To zip-wire you start from the higher end.

Wearing over your trousers a harness of the sort which will be familiar to those who abseil or subscribe to bondage magazines, you then suspend yourself beneath the cable. You drop your weight on to it, steadying yourself in an upright seated position by gripping the cradle with your left hand. Your right hand, gloved with a leather pad to prevent burning, is held above your head, resting loosely on the cable above so that it runs beneath the palm.

Then you push off from the tree trunk.

Gravity takes you down, at increasing speed, until the wind whistles in your ears, the wire sings, the sun is on your back, and the valley between the hilltops has dropped away hundreds of feet beneath your boots. You can reach a tremendous speed, but as the tree trunk at the end of your journey looms you must brake, by pulling your gloved right hand down on the cable until friction slows you. Ideally you hit the cushion padding on your destination tree with a gentle thump.


This is a big sport, here in Colombia, and I've just completed one of the finest recreational zip-wire systems in the world, whose longest span is a quarter of a mile, situated at a lovely nature reserve called Montevivo, where you can stay, near the village of Santa Elena, cool and high in the mountains above the once notorious but now safe and thriving city of Medellin.

As the cable hums and the air hisses in your ears, a quarter of a mile's flight seems to take a long time: time to contemplate risk, and danger, and Health and Safety at Work.

I thought about the dangers. There are really only two: one is that you might place your braking hand in front of the pulley rather than behind it, and mash your hand; but we were given clear and repeated instructions about that. The other danger is that you might misjudge speed, or simply faint; fail to brake, and hit the cushion rather hard - but a broken nose or rib would be about as much injury as this could cause. If you did pass out, your harness would hold you suspended: you would not fall.

In Britain this kind of thing would almost certainly be banned, or insurance-priced out of existence because it appears so dangerous; and there are doubtless a few accidents every year in Colombia; but, all things considered, zip-wiring is not a particularly hazardous activity. As with parachuting, serious mishaps would be sensational but statistically unlikely.

And it struck me as I rushed through the ether that this zip-wiring business was probably a good deal less dangerous than so much that we do that is commonplace. The scope for human misjudgment was rather limited. There were fail-safe mechanisms in place: the body-harness and the cushions.

The chance of the hefty cable snapping was (with occasional inspections) about zero.

What, on the other hand, are the fail-safe mechanisms available to the driver travelling at 70mph in the fast lane of a motorway with his wife beside him and three children in the back? If he passes out, misjudges, or suffers a tyre blow-out, he could be all across the carriageway within seconds, and a multiple pile-up could follow. Passenger aeroplanes have co-pilots and plenty of time to correct errors or failures. Passenger cars have no copilot, and are at all times - and for hours on end - only seconds from disaster.

Think of the risk you take - or, rather, the reliance you place on your own judgment and sense of balance - every time you walk along the kerb beside a fast and busy road. One false step, one giddy spell, and you would fall into the road and beneath a car. Think of the reliance you place in your own judgment and concentration when you climb a ladder to clear the leaves from the gutter of a two-storey house: as you mount, you only ever have one hand on the ladder while the other renews its grip higher up.

Miss, or lose your grip, and down you will go. Think of the reliance you place in your balance as you load a dishwasher, bending over the knives in the cutlery tray; or as you descend a long flight of stairs, teetering down from tread to tread with the possibility of serious injury attending each potential misjudgment at every step.

Think of the crowded platform on a London Underground station, as the train rushes out of the tunnel. We've all lost our balance scores of times in our lives. Why (almost) never there, then? Millions travel to work every day. Every day they all tell themselves that it really matters not to topple over at this point, and day after day, year after year, almost nobody does.

A man standing on two feet, or a cyclist proceeding on two wheels, is inherently unstable: a mannequin or dummy could neither stand nor cycle without stabilisers. To stay upright a living human has to take hundreds of tiny, unconscious judgments every minute, correcting his imminent fall one way, inevitably over-correcting, then correcting it the other. With how tiny a margin of failure do we all, all 60 million of us, get this right, all day, every day, all our lives.

Sometimes, speeding through the night down the M1 motorway from Derbyshire, too close to the car in front, with the car behind too close to me, I contemplate the tens of thousands of fellow motorists doing the same thing that night, scores of them around me. Each of us is implicitly reliant on the judgment of the others. Yet some of those people in the fast lane with me may be mad; some will be in terrible health;

some will be emotionally distracted; some will be almost senile; many may be socially dysfunctional; there will be many whose judgments I would not trust in any other situation, and many who would not trust mine.

But we all trust each other as machines: as precision instruments, calculating, balancing, estimating, reacting; making critical judgments every few seconds - and getting them all almost always right, or near enough right to avoid disaster.

George Eliot remarked that if we were sensible of all the sub-audible sounds - 'hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat' - that lie 'on the other side of silence', we should 'die of the roar'. One might add that if we stopped as we stepped from the kerb, and considered for a moment how critical and how many were the reckonings and balances we were making, we should fall to the ground, paralysed by failure of nerve.

What a piece of work is man.

Thomes Buller

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