Constructing a Canopy Course
“We could see the topography was just perfect,” Victor Gallo confidently asserted. Victor Gallo is the expert Antigua Canopy Tours hired to construct its professional and secure canopy zipline course. Gallo says the terrain is ripe with dense oak trees, which is crucial. Hardwood trees are an absolute necessity when constructing a canopy tour because the cables can and do place a considerable amount of stress on the trees: literally TONS of stress in fact.
Built as a double-cable course Gallo says the canopy adventure of Antigua Canopy Tours can hold up to 500 lbs, while still maintaining a safety margin of five to one. What that means is the system is five times stronger than the maximum weight (500 lbs). Gallo says each cable can support 25,000 lbs of tension – that’s 25 tons. So in order to remain within the five to one safety margin that means 5,000 lbs, or 5 tons, of tension can be safely applied to the system. Yet, on average, a person uses just 3,000 to 3,500 lbs (3 to 3.5 tons) of tension. The system, Gallo says, is well above the margin.
The extent of stress and tension used when visitors soar across the treetops is why hardwood trees are so critical for the operation. Oak and Holm oak are commonly used trees in canopy tours that are constructed at a higher altitude. Conacaste trees, also known as Elephant’s Ear, are commonly used for canopy courses in lower, tropical climates.
Gallo and his crew don’t bolt a cable to just any hardwood tree, however. After identifying several possible candidates in an ideal landing zone, Gallo calls in a dendrologist – a tree surgeon or tree specialist. By considering the size and volume of the tree and inspecting the condition of the tree’s roots, the dendrologist determines if a tree is suitable for use in the canopy tour circuit.
Next, the crew wired up the course with specialized, Vectran fiber cables (known for their strength and durability in high temperatures) in the Forest Express course. They use a 1/2 inch thick cable (for extra long tracks) in the Canyon Express course. Can you imagine how, exactly, canopy course riggers can string more than 500 meters of cable across a ravine? Gallo says he uses a crossbow. First, his crew will launch a thin line from the crossbow. Gallo said the longest track in the Antigua Canopy Tours course (520 meters) took about 15 shots. Then, after untangling the line from forest foliage when necessary and attaching it to the selected trees, Gallo’s team will use the thin line to pull a thicker, stronger line across the length of the track. Next, they use the thicker line to string up a heavier rope (about 11 mm in diameter). Finally, they use the heavy rope to pull across first one, then two strong cables that will be used for transporting visitors through the treetop adventure at Finca Filadelfia.
Gallo and his crew choose to bolt the cables to the tree versus wrapping them around the trunks like some other operations. Gallo explains that bolting the cable is better for a couple of reasons. First, he says, attaching the cable in this way is like giving the tree a piercing. In time, the tree will heal around the “piercing” with a scar-like response. However, Gallo says if a cable is wrapped around the trunk, it will eventually end up strangling the tree as it tries to grow and its trunk attempts to expand.
As a current member of the ACCT (Association of Challenge Course Technology), Gallo has more than 6 ½ years of experience of installing canopy courses through his company Adventure Playground. Plus, the El Salvador native (but Costa Rican resident) can boast many more years of climbing experience – he began climbing when he attended university in Colorado. His rigging work isn’t limited just to canopy and ropes courses though. Gallo has also constructed special rigging operations for various commercial and movie sets. Furthermore, the adventure ace owns his own bungee operation, Tropical Bungee, in Costa Rica. I think it’s safe to say that Gallo is quite the revered expert.
And, he acts like one. Gallo insists on stressing safety guidelines and standards when constructing his courses. He became a member of the ACCT five years ago and, with his expertise, he managed to spearhead the creation of a new committee within the association that was focused primarily on canopy courses. In January of this year, newer, more complete ACCT standards were created specifically for canopy tour operations. This was important, Gallo says, because “the idea of actually traveling through the forest is kind of a different one,” from what the association was used to considering. Canopy courses use much longer ziplines than challenge courses. And dismounting platforms did not previously exist with the smaller challenge course operations. Plus, Gallo says it’s important to have a set of standards with which to comply:
“Anybody can hook a cable to a tree without knowing what they’re doing, without knowing anything about angles and strengths,” Gallo said.
Gallo has experienced and constructed his fair share of canopy tours. One aspect of Antigua Canopy Tours that really stands out for him, though, is the UNIMOG. Both experiences compliment each other well the rigger said.
As far as the fear factor? Gallo says canopy tours can be fun for all ages and, he believes that most have already experienced something similar.
“I think everyone as a child has had a zipline experience in one way or another,” Gallo said. “Maybe a swing rope or something. And for people to travel up high through the forest and experience that feeling of flight through the canopy is really unique. What’s great is anybody can do it no matter age, size or physical condition.”
Canopy tours have been operating as an adventure course for tourists since 1997. So just what, exactly, prompted someone to think, ‘Hey! I’m going to string hundreds of meters of cable between two trees so I can glide over the forest!” Can you imagine being the very first to try? The idea was born when a Costa Rican biologist wanted to move about among the canopies of trees he was researching – sixty percent or more of tropical wildlife makes its home in the canopy. Thus, Donald Perry began building bridges and various cable routes that comprise what is called a Tyrolean Traverse. A canopy tour is constructed with a series of these very Tyrolean Traverses that are installed at a slight angle.