The MakeShift Challenge: Retrieve Your Keys from a 15′ Crevice

The MakeShift Challenge: Retrieve Your Keys from a 15′ Crevice

[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

Thinking you could use a new hobby to get you off the couch, your significant other gifts you with a metal detector for Christmas. After digging up loose change in your backyard and at the beach for a few weekends, you decide it’s time for a real prospecting adventure. So, after loading up your SUV with the metal detector, a pick, a shovel, pry bar, and enough snacks and water for the day, you both drive 80 miles out into the desert to poke around some abandoned gold mines you’ve heard about.

Finally reaching the end of the road in the middle of nowhere, you ask your partner to unload the car while you head for the rocks to survey the landscape. But as you climb through some old barbed-wire fencing to look for a trail, your keys — attached to your Swiss Army knife — fall out of your pocket and skitter off across the rocks before they disappear into a deep, six-inch-wide crevice between two boulders. (Don’t you just hate when that happens?) Needless to say, neither your cellphone nor your OnStar system gets reception out here, and the fancy anti-theft option you went for makes hot-wiring your SUV all but impossible.

The Challenge

Without transportation, you’re stranded. To avoid the daunting prospect of walking back out to the main road — as well as “never hearing the end of this” from your mate — you’re going to need to recover those keys.

The boulders are too massive to be moved in any way and you don’t have a direct sight line to your keys. But you are able to ascertain that the depth of the narrow crevice can’t be more than 15 feet. It’s about noon now, so you’ve got at least 6-7 hours of daylight to work with before it gets dark. Surely someone with your skills and ingenuity can get those suckers out of there in time to get you home safely, if not still salvage the outing, no? As the wheels start turning, your mate appears and asks, “Is something wrong, honey?”

Here’s what you’ve got:

In addition to everything mentioned, there’s a basic tool kit in the car: hammer, screwdriver, adjustable wrench, snippers, pliers, etc., as well as 100 feet of nylon rope. Because this is an old mining area, there may also be some small pieces of wood and metal lying around.

Photo by Gregg Segal

Analysis, Commentary, and Winners

I guess because most of us have wrestled with the frustration of misplacing our keys at some time (or maybe because the solution seemed obvious) this challenge drew a near record number of entries. And, as we’ve come to expect from all you Make-oids, there was no shortage of creative thinking about how to tackle the task, ranging from the optimistically simple to the convincingly complex. For instance, some of you suggested just sticking your hand down the crevice to feel around for the keys. Easy and instinctive perhaps but, given the snakes and other nasty critters that often hang out in such desert refuges, not really the wisest of approaches.

Others proposed just rigging up a simple wire hook to try and fish for the key ring itself. Again, simple enough, but considering the depth and darkness of the fissure, you’d have to be pretty damn lucky to come up with the keys that way. Not to mention foregoing a golden opportunity to really impress your mate with your inherent brilliance after watching them roll their eyes at you for having dropped them down there in the first place.

No, this challenge was really a chance to turn a brain-fart into a triumph and, ideally, still manage to salvage the outing you both expected. The fact that failing to retrieve the keys could leave one or both of you stranded in the desert until help could be found only added enough jeopardy to make success all the sweeter.

Now a few of you suggested using the built-in cellphone camera in movie mode to first locate the keys by using it as a probe lowered into the crack, thus increasing the odds of then fishing them out with a hook. Very creative but, alas, somewhat flawed. Like any camera, a cellphone camera needs light. And, at the bottom of a 15-foot crevice, we seriously doubted there would be enough light for the cell camera to see much of anything. Also, cellphone cameras use a lot of battery power and your charged battery will weaken quickly if you use it this way. Yes, the cellphone does not work as a phone where you currently are, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t work at some higher spot a few miles away if you do need to try and hike out as a last resort. If it can shorten a possible 80 mile attempt at hiking out of a desert, it is best to leave the phone intact and turn it off once you know you can’t get a signal.

But the vast majority of you instantly grasped that magnetism was — to pardon the pun — the real key here. (Though why some of you thought that the stainless steel in a Swiss Army knife wouldn’t be attracted to a magnet still has us scratching our heads. It definitely would — as would the key ring itself).

So, then the question becomes where to find — or how to construct — a viable enough magnet to get those keys back. And there were two schools of thought here.

The most popular approach was taking apart an audio speaker or two in the SUV for the permanent magnets they contain. Very good thinking. But, depending on the actual size of the speakers and their magnets, we were concerned about their really having enough power to attract and extract the knife and the keys given the likelihood that they would scrape or bounce against the sides of the crevice as you tried to pull them out. We’re not saying it wouldn’t work but, here again, a fair amount of luck and deft handling would be required to ensure the success of this method.

To our thinking then, the surest bet here was to use the available materials to build a sufficiently strong electromagnet. So to those of you who responded with “No sweat — just make an electromagnet,” you get the satisfaction of knowing that, at least in concept, we agree. But that’s about all you get. Because, as with most things in life, the devil is in the details. And, if you really hope to win the wildly coveted prize of a Make: sweatshirt, you’re gonna want to lay out the specifics next time so everyone can benefit from your genius — and know exactly how to proceed when they find themselves in this mess.

Some people thought of using the cellphone or metal detector batteries to power the magnet, while others thought about using the car battery from the SUV. Needless to say, the more powerful the magnet, the greater the lifting capability and range of attraction it has. So for us, the car battery was the optimal choice: it would easily handle this task and still be able to start the SUV once the keys were recovered. And, if you used the barbed wire for your coils instead of cannibalizing the wire in the metal detector, your cellphone, metal detector and SUV would all still be intact and functional when you were done.

This would not only permit you to proceed with the outing as planned, but afford you the incomparable pleasure of smiling coyly at your mate with a silent “ta-da” as you hand them back the keys and say, “Here, why don’t you hang onto these?” If they don’t immediately shower you with impressed compliments — or something even better — maybe it’s time to reconsider your choice of mates.

Thanks again to all for your great brain-work and we look forward to hearing from you on the next challenge. Now off to search for all that overlooked gold!


The winners of the MakeShift Vol 10 Challenge are:

MakeShift Master – Plausible: Mark Boyd
MakeShift Master – Creative: Peter Davoust
MakeShift Master – Honorable Mention: Ray Gibson

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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 (

View more articles by Lee D. Zlotoff


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