The MakeShift Challenge: Save a Man Stuck in a Fissure

Biohacking Science
The MakeShift Challenge: Save a Man Stuck in a Fissure

by Lee D. Zlotoff


[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 07, 2007]

The Scenario:

You set off on a solo backpacking jaunt one blissfully free weekend, in search of a legendary mountain hot spring that has remained pristine thanks to the 12-plus-hour climb it takes to reach it. A well-earned sweat topped off with nothing but silence, solitude, and hot water – what’s not to like?

Just as your topo map indicates that you’re within minutes of the spring, you hear an agonized shouting from somewhere off of the rocky trail. You quickly discover a large, cylindrical fissure in the ground, about 15 feet in diameter and about 20 feet deep, at the bottom of which lies a rather large example of humanity, with his leg bent at such an unnatural angle that there’s no doubt it’s badly broken. You yell down to the man – who is easily twice your weight – to say help has arrived. He acknowledges you with a wave, but he seems to be fading fast from shock, pain, or whatever. The walls of the fissure are nearly vertical and full of jagged rocks, but your experience tells you they’re scalable. Still, there’s no way you’ll be able to climb those rocks with this guy on your back. You’ll have to come up with another way to get him out of this hole.

And then it hits you: A noxious, sulfuric smell that says that this fissure is a vent for the same gases that make the hot springs so warm and bubbly. If you don’t quickly find a way to get fresh air to this guy, he’s not going to survive long enough for you to rescue him.

The Challenge:

Devise a way to keep this guy breathing while you come up with and execute a plan to safely extract him from the fissure. Then you’ll need to get him stabilized long enough that you can either get him off of the mountain yourself, or hike back out to summon help.

Your Supply List:

A top-of-the-line backpack with a nested, detachable water container, a sleeping bag, inflatable air mattress, two-person backpacking tent, a large towel, cook set, butane stove, camping food, and a basic first aid kit. You also have 40 feet of nylon rope, a Swiss Army knife (or Leatherman tool), a 25-foot roll of duct tape, a small Maglite-type flashlight, your trusty, 6-foot bamboo walking stick, and the bandanna around your neck.

Any questions? Good, ’cause humanity awaits.

The most plausible and creative solutions each won a Make: sweatshirt.

Analysis, Commentary, and Winners:

There was an exceptionally high number of entries, most of them fairly lengthy, quite detailed, and all over the map in terms of creative thought and relative kindness toward a fellow human being in a difficult situation. Hence the judging was both time-consuming and difficult.

The challenge was to resuscitate a large man who’d fallen into a deep fissure swirling with potentially toxic gases using only camping gear and other resources available in the remote surroundings.

The first and most important step was to give the trapped man the ability to breathe some fresh air. Since he was also obviously injured and breathing in a toxic environment, this was a time-critical step. Many entrants thought that the best way to do this was to cut the tubes of the air mattress apart so that they could be duct taped together into a long breathing tube. This would take quite a bit of time, and given that the rigidity of air mattress tubes comes from internal air pressure in sealed compartments there is no reason to assume that these cut-up tubes would not just collapse under their own weight, making breathing through them extremely difficult if not impossible. Other suggestions were to simply blow up the air mattress and let him breathe the air from it. This would certainly serve as a stop-gap solution but not really provide a steady source of high-quality breathable air and would become more difficult as the pressure within the air mattress dropped. Some people suggested constructing air filters and gas masks. Both would be time consuming, and since we have no analysis of the gases present other than from the sulfuric smell, we really don’t know what we are trying to filter out. And it may not be just a breathing problem we are facing, since depending on which chemical agents are present, such fumes may attack the skin, mucous membranes, and the eyes.

Given the circumstances of this situation, the rescuer has to react quickly, and so those that decided to use the flexible tent poles from their backpacking tent as long breathing straws (like a person underwater breathing through a long hollow reed) were given the highest marks since it would be quick to tape them together and get them down to the injured man.

Several contestants elected to find a way for the trapped and injured man to breathe while leaving him in the hole as they went to get help to extract him. These methods included sealing and lowering the backpacking tent to him so that he would have a sealed environment to live in while they went to get help, and building fires in the hole to create an updraft to vent the gases. Alas, the challenge specifically stated that he was to be safely extracted from the fissure first before going for help, so while many of those ideas were creative and interesting, they didn’t really rise to the original challenge.

In addition to the tent pole “straws,” other things we looked for in judging this competition were how fast the various components could probably be assembled in order to get the injured man from the hole as soon as possible. In this regard, the backpack is a natural lifting harness designed to be attached securely to a human body. The bamboo walking stick makes a great splint if cut into two 3-foot sections. The strong 40-foot rope is the obvious choice for lifting, and the air mattress could be used as a protective cushion during the lift. The rope should be protected from the rocky edge during the lifting so it will not get cut, and many of you found workable ways to do that — though a lot of you also had unrealistic expectations of how well a typical tent stake can be secured and how much force it could really sustain.

A few people generally checked over the injured man to see if there were other injuries in addition to the broken leg before attempting to lift him out. This was a good idea. Along this line, most contestants suggested descending into the toxic gas to examine him and help him get ready for extraction from the pit. If the gas had not killed him and if he could still yell, which was the case, then a few minutes in the toxic gas environment would probably not be lethal for the rescuer either.

Once the man was hooked up to the rope, the real heavy lifting would start. How to lift twice your own weight from the hole was the big question here. Greek mathematician Archimedes said “Give me a place on which to stand and a long enough lever, and I will move the Earth,” or something to that effect (he was speaking Greek after all). But he was referring to mechanical advantage gained through the use of a long lever and fulcrum in order to generate tremendous lifting power. It was here that the ultimate winner was decided, since this was the most difficult physical part of this challenge, though those of you who conceived of creating a counterweight or simple pulley system got a lot of points as well: to varying degrees, all of those methods would be viable. But the overall winner of this challenge designed a relatively simple, practical, and effective lifting lever that could be constructed and employed in a relatively short period of time.

Once the man was safely removed from the hole and stabilized, then it was time to get help. Here the scenario for this challenge states that you are only minutes away from the actual hot springs, but 12 miles away from where you started your hike. It makes sense to take a quick trip to the hot springs to see if anyone is there to help with the rescue. A few people thought of doing this but most didn’t.

Many of the entrants made the assumption that the large example of humanity in peril must be fat and out of shape (and also clumsy to have fallen in the hole in the first place). Anyone can get in trouble anywhere and at any time. Just because someone is described as large, does not mean fat or unfit; in fact the opposite is often true. And in this case the trapped individual would have had to make the same 12 mile uphill hike that the rescuer just made in order to have fallen in the hole in the first place. So he might be large, but also in relatively good shape, which could be helpful in getting him out.

In your responses, the vast majority of you were clever, determined, and eager to help. If I ever fell in a hole, I’m heartened to think that one of you might happen by to save my sorry butt. Thanks again for all your sharp thinking and patience.


Erik Brown’s Most Plausible Winning Entry

Greg Hora’s Most Creative Winning Entry

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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