The MakeShift Challenge: Mountain Bike Rescue

Biohacking Science
The MakeShift Challenge: Mountain Bike Rescue
rescue bike
Photo by Jen Siska

[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 17, 2009. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

You and your best friend, both experienced mountain bikers, take off on a daylong jaunt to explore a little-known and rocky canyon trail. The ride is challenging but spectacular until, as you finally decide to turn around and head back, your friend’s bike hits a loose rock, skids out from under him, and he and the bike both topple off the edge of the trail down into the canyon. Smashing his knee in the fall, your friend manages to land on a thin, unstable ledge about 15 feet straight down from the trail, only able to keep himself from falling farther by grabbing onto a small but secure tree branch jutting out from the rock, while his bike cartwheels out of sight to the bottom of the canyon.

The Challenge

Your friend is clearly in a lot of pain and there’s no telling how long the ledge he’s on will hold, so riding the many miles to the trailhead to call for outside help is not an option. And, as is always the case in these situations, your cellphone gets no signal out here. Bottom line, you need to figure out a way to get your friend, who weighs a good 30 pounds more than you, up off that ledge and back down the trail to your car before nightfall — which is maybe four or so hours off.

What You Have

In addition to your bike, you’ve got your daypack, which contains a canteen of water, some protein bars, a basic bicycle repair tool kit, an extra inner tube, your Swiss Army knife or Leatherman tool, a strong, flexible, 3-foot wire saw with split-ring finger-handles on both ends, some waterproof matches, and roughly 30 feet of strong nylon cord you use to tie your bikes onto the car. Since you know from experience that you can’t predict the weather, you also have some waterproof nylon rain gear and a warm jacket.

There are some small trees on the upper side of the trail but none immediately adjacent to the ledge where your friend fell. Though he’s conscious, it’s best to assume he can do very little to assist you in getting him off the ledge below, and he certainly won’t be able to walk if and when you do. However, he does have enough strength in his arms to hang onto the tree branch, at least for now. So what are you going to do?

Analysis and Commentary

OK, so your buddy’s gone off the side of the cliff and you need to get him back up to the trail, and then down the trail to your car for additional help. As we hoped and expected, nearly all of you figured using your bike was the best way to attack both those problems, so give yourself points for that, though we didn’t really expect the wide range of possibilities you all concocted for exactly how to pull that off (which led us to think bike makers might now want to promote their products as survival tools in addition to their transportation value).

Clearly, some dismantling of your bike was called for in an attempt to gain a mechanical advantage to hoist your friend up off the ledge. Your ideas ran from just removing a single wheel to practically tearing the entire bike apart, and while we were duly impressed with many of the really clever arrangements of ropes, wheels, frames, and pedals, a lot of them seemed so involved and complex that considerable and possibly critical time would be required to make them work, assuming all the variables lined up as one hoped they would.

So, for all the cool possibilities the bike offered in terms of pulleys, gears, and frames including sending the whole frame itself over the cliff to winch your pal up, we kinda leaned toward your basic KISS approach; namely “keep it simple, stupid.” The less work and time you needed to spend arranging the bike, the sooner your pal would be up off the cliff and on his way out. Several of you suggested creating a counterweight to offset the additional weight of your friend and we thought that was good thinking. But adding yet another element to coordinate with the rope, wheels, frames, etc. though it looks good on paper, might not be so easy to pull off in the field. So, here again we thought less might be more.

As for harnesses to hold your friend in the hoist itself, most of you went with using one or more of the available inner tubes that could be easily slung under the arms, though a few suggested using your backpack itself as a harness with your buddy’s leg through the straps and we liked that too.

The majority seemed to think that the real challenge here was getting your friend back up off the cliff and that getting him down the trail itself back to the car or cellphone range was not really that much of a issue. We’re not so sure. Moving an injured person who weighs more than you many miles along a rough mountain trail is not as easy as it sounds. Assuming your bike could be put back together in a reasonably short time, if at all, just “walking” your friend out on the bike would be tiring, difficult, and potentially dangerous to you both since you’d need to constantly manage the weight and balance of your friend and hope the trail was always wide enough to accommodate all of you together. Not to mention the problem of having to move your friend on and off the bike whenever you needed to rest or catch your breath.

Though tempting to just use the bike as it is, we thought a simple wheelbarrow/travois arrangement using one of your bike wheels and pair of branches hung off your hips or shoulders, that could be alternately pushed or pulled depending on the terrain, might make for a safer and smoother way out for both of you.

So, collectively at least, we’re pleased to say you nailed this one, even if no one entry covered all the bases perfectly. And we’d be happy to go mountain biking with you anytime, since, if it was our fanny hanging off that ledge, we know one way or the other you’d get us out of there.

Looking forward to read what you’ve got for us on the next one.


The winners of the MakeShift Volume 17 Challenge are:

MakeShift Master — Most Plausible: Andy Tran
MakeShift Master — Most Creative: Frank Tipaldo
Honorable Mention — Jayne Johnsen-Seeburger

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Lee D. Zlotoff

Lee D. Zlotoff is a writer/producer/director among whose numerous credits is creator of MacGyver. He is also president of Custom Image Concepts (

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