The Insider Q&A: Zip Line Constructor Morgan Shepard

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The Insider Q&A: Zip Line Constructor Morgan Shepard

“The Insider” column is a behind-the-curtain, day-in-the-life series about the people who make traveling easier for the rest of us. These industry stalwarts make it possible for us to create our own memories.

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A supervisor

and former zip line instructor, Morgan Shepard started his career as a zip line guru at Camp Twin Lakes as one of their rope course facilitators. Shepard worked his way through Historic Banning Mills to land a job at Adventure Experiences Inc., a pioneer company in the industry, as a supervisor who also oversees construction, inspection, and maintenance of zip lines and rope courses stretching from the US to Belize and Hong Kong.

Historic Banning Mills is located in Georgia’s only gorge on Snake Creek in Carroll County. The area was originally home to the Cherokee and Creek Nations. Banning Mills holds Guinness World Records for the longest zip line canopy tour, Screaming Eagle, and the tallest freestanding artificial climbing wall measuring over 130 feet in Whitesburg, Ga.

Paste Travel How did you get involved with zip-lining, from instructor to constructor?

Morgan Shepard I got started in this industry by accident. I returned home after my freshman year of college and sat down for a chat with my mom. I said, “Mom, I’m tired of working in the restaurant industry, I wanna do something else.” She replied, “Why don’t you go apply at that kid’s camp down the road and see if you like doing that.” The only opening they had was for their outdoor adventure staff. I decided to take the job and with that, I got trained by a company called Signature Research to operate their zip line and ropes course. As soon as I got back, I started to talking to a guy about jobs, and he said he worked at this place called Historic Banning Mills, where they had zip lines and ropes course stuff just like I worked at the past summer. 

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I started working for banning mills as a sophomore in college as a zip line tour guide and a team building facilitator. I ended up working for them during my entirety of being a college student. When I graduated they told me that they would be willing to hire me on as one of their construction personnel. I accepted the job and for two years I inspected and built new lines for them on their premises. During this time I studied and got my level one and two certifications for building and inspecting ropes courses and zip lines. During the last year of employment with them, I built an entirely new course at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and worked on building Banning Mills the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous zip line course in the world. After doing this line of work, I decided to look else where to gather more expertise in the field of challenge course construction.

I found Adventure Experiences Inc. based out of Texas who did this line of work all over the world. I got hired on by them as a builder, and after two years of supervision, I finally gained the trust to be a foreman to head these jobs up alone. 

PT Are certificates needed for each level of zip line instruction and construction? What are they? And why are they needed?

Morgan Shepard To be a basic zip line instructor, you must pass a general safety and knowledge test/exam to determine if you are a competent person in the skills of outdoor recreation activities. Construction is a whole new world compared to facilitating it. Different levels of construction knowledge are required along with continuing education units are needed to be certified in building the zip lines, and ropes course adventure parks as we provide for the public, such as an OSHA safety certificate and a Crosby rigging certificate. Certificates are not necessarily needed to land a job in this industry, but if you want to start out as being a respectable person, showing that you know the standards/rules and vernacular of the industry, really puts you in a prominent position over newcomers.

Shepard holds a level 1 and a 2 certificate in zip line and rope course construction and inspection, a rigging certificate from Crosby Group Co., his OSHA license for job site safety and procedures and a level 2 certification in zip line facilities.

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PT Please explain the steps, from picking the location to being the first person
to ride it.

Morgan Shepard We do what we call a site evaluation. We physically send myself or one of my supervisors out to the location to lay eyes on what this job might entail. We advise them if a plan is totally undoable. We draw out what it’s all going take and look like in the end and send them a bid for the work to be done. If they accept the terms and price, we start packing for a road trip to get it done. That’s how almost every business transaction goes. We never know what we’re getting into at the beginning of the planning process until we have feet on the job site and access what it’s going to take to make this vision a reality.

When it comes to testing out stuff, it’s a battle within my crew of guys. Building zip lines requires a ton of test rides to look at the clearance of obstacles and re-adjusting tensions of the cables until we have it dialed in where we want it. On your everyday zip line, you’re looking at about 10 or more different runs or so until we feel safe at where it’s sitting. We all get bored with raising lifts, using machinery, or climbing ropes during our day-to-day jobs, so it doesn’t take much motivation to step up when the opportunity comes up to do something fun and maybe a little scary. I like testing out free fall devices such as power fans and quick jumps. It takes a certain personality to want to throw yourself off a 50-foot structure to see if the equipment works.

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PT What does an average day look like to you?

Morgan Shepard There are two types of days: office days and road days. Office days are pretty much dredged about with my road crew of guys. Usually, it consists of keeping the work trucks and equipment in up to date working conditions such as oil changes, cleaning, inventory of hardware and power tools and general maintenance. During these types of days, we try to pre-build and pack for the job we have lined up next, and prepare the best we can for the work ahead. When my guys are taking care of general business, it allows me to work on drawing up bids and projects that other clients are interested in pursuing. Being able to have time to keep upcoming work going is nice when I have time at the office.

Road days look a little different. When we are on the road, we aren’t down the street. We’re states and sometimes countries away, so we have to bust our ass to finish what we have to do so we can get back home to family and friends. Doing a job on the road, we average 12 hour days and work pretty much in rain, sleet, snow, ice, and heat. Sometimes this mentality sucks, especially when you’ve been working 40 or more days straight, and you’re ready to be done. That last drive back home is always so rewarding to say we finished a job well while we laugh about what happened. 

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PT What do you wear while constructing the zip lines and what essential pieces must you have on you at all times?

Morgan Shepard Working at heights 90 percent of the time requires us to wear certain things on a day-to-day basis. Some of our work attire essentials are an OSHA approved helmet, an industrial full body harness, a repel and belay device along with many life rated carabiners and hooking devices, a work pulley and a pair of life lines which we call lobster claws. Life lines are two 1/2” pieces of hauser laid rope with steel carabiners on them as a fall arrest and positioning device.I prefer a hard toe boot and safety glasses on me at all times.

PT For someone who has never zip-lined before, describe the experience in the air.

Morgan Shepard It’s hard to remember what it’s like riding a zip line for the first time after riding thousands of zip lines in my career but after personally sending probably 40,000 people down a zip line and hearing their reviews, it’s like this: The first run is a blur. You have tunnel vision and you are unsure about the gear holding you and what is going to happen at the other end. The whole ride is kind of like being in a limbo state while you’re suspended. But after the first time, it’s a rush like no other. You start to look around at the terrain passing beside you, a feeling you’ve only ever gotten in a car or some other mechanical body. You feel the wind hitting you in the face and you sense a freedom that is not like any bodily feeling you’ve had before. You’re taking a risk and you realize it’s all safe and you start to enjoy the adrenaline that comes with purposely jumping off a platform off the ground to get to the other side. It’s literally like experiencing flight for a human. 

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PT Describe one of your close encounters on the line when you were frightened things wouldn’t go quite as planned?

Morgan Shepard With building these types of structures and elements like zip lines, it’s always sketchy on the construction end because nothing has been finalized or been set for participant use. A huge portion of our job lies within the dangerous realm of things. This job entails a great deal of risk assessment and management. I don’t like to tell these stories to the general public in fear that hearing such things will keep them from ever trying out a zip line or ropes course bc of horror stories they have personally heard. I’ve had lifts with heavy poles attached to them skid down hills, I’ve had man lifts flip over because of the uneven ground we have have to work in. I’ve only seen good things come out of the accidents that have happened. I pray every day on my way to work that I don’t see anything catastrophic happen to my guys or me, and I’ve been blessed because shit does happen sometimes. It’s up to people like me and me to foresee these types of disasters and avert them from letting them affect us. 

PT You oversee a crew as a job foreman overseeing the construction, inspection and maintenance of zip line and ropes courses all over the world stretching from the continental United States to Canada, Hong Kong, Belize and Barbados. Which has been your favorite to construct and why?

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Morgan Shepard I’ve built zip lines all over the place but out of all of them. I would have to say that my favorite line I’ve built was in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It wasn’t the longest or the fastest line I’ve ever built, but we built the zip line over a crystal mine at a place called Ron Coleman Mining company. What was so cool about this particular job was that anything we found while doing this job, we could keep. No matter the value of it. So as were digging these holes and stuff to put this zip in. I’m finding like football shaped crystals and just the most beautiful rocks you’ve ever seen. I tried giving them to the retail store, and they turned me down and told me it was mine. I walked away from that job with almost $3,000 worth of crystals that I gave away to kids, friends and family. I had my present shopping done for everyone in a year on just one job. The terrain around the job site was beautiful, and the zip turned out almost 1,500 feet long but being able to gather up all those crystals made it a project that stood out in my mind the most. 

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PT What aspects of being a zip line instructor and a constructor do you enjoy?

Morgan Shepard I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of it probably the most. Like I said, we never really know what exactly were getting into until we get there and start working. A lot of my job is problem-solving to find the solution. My boss told me when I first started this job; there is never problems but only solutions. The longer I work here, the more I realize how valuable that life lesson is. We’re always going to run into problems in work and life, it’s not about identifying the problem but finding the solution to that problem that is so enjoyable.

As an instructor, my favorite part about sending people off zip lines is seeing them overcome a fear and grow personally. Seeing people step out of their comfort zones to do something new and exciting gives me chills. I love to see the fear before they go down, but the sense of accomplishment when I see them at the other end.

Lauren Spiler is a freelance journalist based in Athens, Georgia, but most call her Spiler.