Mile-long zip line connects Newry homes
“Mandy and Phil live up there,” said Jim Sysko, pointing up a hill in Newry. “I live down here. I started thinking about how to get from there to here without a car.”
When Sysko – the civil engineer behind Bethel’s world’s tallest snowpeople, a snow maze, and a snow volcano – starts thinking about how to do anything, something unusual is often the result.
In this case, it’s a 5,000-foot long zip line that runs between his daughter and son-in-law’s house and his house. Using the line, a rider can descend the 500-foot vertical drop in less than two minutes.
Driving the two-mile dirt road connecting the homes takes 10 to 15 minutes.
Sysko dreamed up the idea last year, and started building the line in the unlikely month of January.
The dead of winter was chosen because near the bottom of the route, the line needed to cross over a pond (created by a dam built by Sysko).
“January was the only time we could get out onto the pond with the cable,” he said.
His friends, Bob Westfall and Ed Bennett, provided most of the assistance on the project, which required stringing the 2.5-ton cable from the top of a wooded hill.
After cutting a path through the trees, the men anchored the cable in solid rock and rebar at the top, and ran it downhill.
Lifting the cable off the ground from the bottom was tricky.
“We pulled it with a skidder and an excavator,” said Sysko, which were tethered to each other with their own cable.
Then the unexpected happened.
“As we were pulling the last two feet, the cable to the skidder broke. It pulled the excavator instantly back 20 feet. It was a heart-stopping moment,” he said.
But they reattached the two pieces of heavy equipment, and were eventually able to get the zip cable in position. It is now anchored by two huge boulders that sit just below the landing platform outside Sysko’s house.
To test the line, he first sent down 180 pounds of sandbags. “They did just fine,” he said.
Then it was his turn. “I was nervous,” Sysko said. “I wore a helmet and a motorcycle jacket. But it was fine, other than turning around a lot on the way down.”
Braking is accomplished by pulling down on a forked tree branch (like an inverted slingshot stick) above and against the cable to create friction.
Since Sysko’s first ride, there’s been an informal competition among family and friends to see who could get to the bottom the fastest.
Sysko said riders often hit 50 to 60 miles an hour, averaging around a minute and a half from top to bottom.
The record is held by his son, Dustin, who managed to assume a Superman pose to cut down wind resistance.
He shattered the previous record of a minute and 19 seconds, clocking a minute and one second. His top speed: 80 miles an hour.
The ride could have ended in disaster if not for a backup braking mechanism. Dustin was having trouble braking on his own because of his riding position. Fortunately his father had placed a rope, looped once, over the cable near the end. When the trolley mechanism hit the rope, it stopped Dustin, who came away with bruises and rope burns.
“It saved his life,” said Sysko. “No one will break that record and survive.”
Sysko’s zip line is among the longest in the world. His research shows there are only two longer ones, both commercial – a 6,500-foot one in South Africa and a 5,300-foot one in Alaska.
As for the small matter of getting between the houses going uphill, Sysko is still working on it.
He has built, and has a patent for, what resembles an upside-down unicycle. The wheel sits on top of the cable, with two facing seats attached below. By “pedaling” with the hands over the head, a rider can move uphill.
So far, Sysko has only been able to get about halfway up. “It gets too hard to do it after that,” he said.
But he’s working on an improved model that he hopes eventually will allow the family to visit each other in both directions. If it works, he believes the zip line will see as much uphill traffic as down.
“We can bring the harnesses back up on it,” he said.
And if Mandy invites him to dinner, it will be a great way to work up an appetite.