The MakeShift Challenge: Impaled on a Tree!

Home Science
The MakeShift Challenge: Impaled on a Tree!
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 10, 2007. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

You are alone for the weekend in your vacation home, where a 40-foot-tall, white-fly-infested tree partially blocks your otherwise glorious view. To save the cost of calling in a professional, you have decided to finally get rid of it yourself. You will not have to worry about the noise bothering anyone, since your nearest neighbors are at least a half-mile away. From some Internet research, you have learned that you will need to cut off most of the branches first, then notch the base properly, and finally set a wedge to make sure it falls in a safe area and does not end up on your house. Your electric chainsaw should take care of the larger lower branches and, once they are cleared, you can do the smaller and higher ones with your pole saw. So you get out your 20-foot extension ladder, set it securely against the trunk, and, looping the saw’s extension cord over your shoulder to keep it clear of the blade, climb up, chainsaw in hand.

Your work starts smoothly, with some of the larger, lower branches breaking off under their own weight after you cut partially through them. The fallen branches pile up on the ground below. As you go higher and the branches get lighter, you have to cut deeper into them. The saw is beginning to feel heavier, and you feel it is time for a water break.

However, as you shut down the saw and start back down the ladder, you lose your balance. You instinctively drop the saw to grab for the ladder with both hands, but it is too late. You end up taking a nasty 15-foot fall into the tangled pile of branches below, and — damn it all — right onto a 4-foot-long, 1-inch-wide stob, which, like a giant punji stick, passes straight through your thigh next to the bone!

The pile of branches helped break your fall, but the branch you have been impaled on is locked into the other branches like a bunch of springy pick-up sticks. Together they weigh a great deal, and it does not help that the bark is rough. A few smaller branches attached to “Vlad” have also passed through your leg and now act as barbs, making extraction very difficult at best. There is not much blood visible, but you know you need to do something for yourself fast.

Your Supply List

You’re fully dressed as any good woodsman would be. Given the distance of your neighbors, shouting would be a waste of energy. Your cellphone and the land line are both in the house, as are your Swiss Army knife, first aid kit, and the keys to your car that is parked out front in the gravel driveway. The chain bar is now bent and the chain has slipped off in the fall, so even though you can reach your chainsaw, the machine is a goner. The pole saw is 10 feet away, resting against a chair, with the handle in the upward position pointing away from you, and the cutting blade resting on the ground in the way anyone interested in safety would place it. Meanwhile, this sucker in your leg is really starting to hurt…so now what?

Analysis and Commentary

If this challenge proved anything, it is the unbounded collective ingenuity of all you Make-azoids. Maybe there is a big difference between imagined pain and the real touch factor. While virtually everyone saw the wisdom of leaving the branch in your leg until professional help could be called, there was a wide variety of suggestions about how to cut that branch free of the pile so you could limp or crawl to the phone in the house.

Since the broken chain saw was within reach, many of you opted to try and use the loose chain as a sort of string saw to cut through the branch on either side of your leg. In principle, that might work, but the teeth on a chain saw are fairly large and require considerable speed to really be effective. Also, even if you could somehow manage to get the chain itself off the saw, which we suspect would be difficult without any tools, to actually cut through the branch with it would entail creating quite a bit of strain and movement on the branch. This would not only increase the pain quotient dramatically — stoic as you may be — but run the risk of exacerbating the wound enough to tear the artery or cause dangerously excessive bleeding. Not really a good idea.

Which brings us to the point that all but a few of you overlooked, perhaps falling into that gap between the abstract notion of pain on the printed page and an actual stick going through your thigh. Namely, before you start hacking away at that branch with anything, you really should use whatever you have got — shirt, gloves, the extension cord, or all of the above — to stabilize the branch in relation to your leg as much as possible. That way it doesn’t move any more than necessary when you attempt to cut it, for the reasons mentioned earlier. Clearly, you will need to cut the branch at least once, if not twice, to get yourself free. However, you will definitely want to bind that sucker in tight to your leg before you have at it.

As to the best implement to do that, we thought — as did many of you — that the pole saw was your best bet. Even if you could not remove the blade itself, the teeth on the saw are more conducive to carefully sawing through the branch without jerking or moving it any more than necessary. One entrant ingeniously suggested trying to dismantle the chain saw enough to use the chain-drive sprocket under power as a cutting tool. We had our doubts about the feasibility of that idea’s effectiveness, but it certainly earned points for creativity.

Then again, there were a handful of you who thought burning through the branch by starting a fire was another way to go, using either an article of clothing or the non-existent gas from the chain saw (it was electric, remember?) to get it started. While undoubtedly imaginative, the difficulty of starting a fire under those circumstances, not to mention containing it as you lay in a pile of leaves and branches, did not seem terribly realistic or particularly wise. Unless, as one entrant apparently felt, finding yourself in this predicament was sufficiently humiliating or prophetic that you might as well just end it all in a blaze of infamy, and hope to be reincarnated into a world where such things just do not happen. Okay!

Now, to get the pole saw into your hands, most of you, logically we thought, would fashion a lasso of sorts from the extension cord and try to rope the pole saw leaning against the chair until you could yank it to within reach. Some of you concocted rather elaborate schemes to either snare it with your shoelaces or somehow use the ladder to bring the pole saw closer, but we had trouble seeing how these would really work without expending a lot of unnecessary effort and energy or just further complicating your already difficult situation.

All in all, another impressive array of ideas of mind over matter, which only leaves all of us here more than eager to see what you can come up with for the next challenge. So keep up the good work and, if you should decide to take down a tree or two in the future, why not arrange a little insurance against such misadventures and invite a friend over to man the drinks cooler while they watch you do the Paul Bunyan thing. Just a thought.


The winners of the MakeShift Volume 12 Challenge are:

MakeShift Master – Most Plausible: Damon John Hoxworth [Sadly, Damon’s entry was a PDF that we can no longer locate on our servers. If anybody has it, please send it along!]
MakeShift Master – Most Creative: Nisse Taunt
Honorable Mention – Max Lee

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!
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 (

View more articles by Lee D. Zlotoff


Ready to dive into the realm of hands-on innovation? This collection serves as your passport to an exhilarating journey of cutting-edge tinkering and technological marvels, encompassing 15 indispensable books tailored for budding creators.

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).