December 22, 2017
Joining the EcoZip guide family
The EcoZip courtyard is bathed in glorious spring sunshine and the view over Puketi Bay, the inner Hauraki Gulf and on to Auckland is worthy of a picture postcard. Perched on a bench are six young people; three guys and three girls. They’re chattering happily and although most of them only met a few moments ago they already seem comfortable in one another’s company. Surveying them from the shadows of her office is EcoZip’s training manager Becks Goodenough. ‘Tick’ she says decisively, turning from the window ‘they’re talking to each other’.
This is day one of a 10-day process that turns enthusiastic would-be zipline guides in to real zipline guides. The fact that this bright bunch of guide candidates get on isn’t a surprise. Very few of our candidates have previously been zipline guides so we look for skills that complement the role. A sense of humour is good, detail orientation (ideally almost to the point of obsessiveness) is essential, physical fitness is fundamental, an interest in conservation is imperative and personality is vital. ‘We can teach almost anyone to be a zipline guide’ Becks tells her candidates ‘but we can’t teach you to have a personality’.
Training, the candidates are told on day one, is done on the basis of pass or fail; there’s no deferred success. If they don’t pass the induction course they won’t be offered a job with EcoZip. And some don’t pass. This can be a double blow if they’ve given up another job to join EcoZip, but in a role where safety is critical no one gets a bye.
Passing means mastering a tough curriculum that’s crafted on replication; because safety is founded in trusty repetition. The syllabus, which is independently audited as part of our registration under the Adventure Tourism regulations (check our safety page for more detail) is based on a series of tried and tested Standard Operating Procedures; or SOPs. And there is a SOP for everything at EcoZip. Personality, displays of humour and interpersonal skills all come later; after the written and practical exams have been passed and the probationary guides have conducted tour after tour under the watchful eyes of senior guides.
If you’ve ever watched one of those fly-on-the-wall TV series about military recruits you’ll know how this works. Not only do the candidates have to master all the basic skills of being a zipline guide but their character and performance is being constantly assessed by critical senior zipline guides; all of whom have individually run thousands of incident-free tours. The standards expected are high and it’s no wonder that some candidates find it overwhelming and voluntarily drop out.
On day one the candidates learn about the gear they’ll be using and that used by our guests. They learn how to correctly lay it out; how to fit it and how it is inspected every time it’s used. They practise selecting the gear and leading gear-up, a process that is sufficiently tough to master without experienced zipline guides jumping to act as willing volunteers -deliberately putting helmets on backwards, introducing twists to harnesses and undoing carabineers. But there’s a reason for the tomfoolery and we want to see who notices the helmets, carabiners and the kinked lanyards.
Day two sees the guides attaching each other to our zipline cables. This is the first real test of faith, both in themselves and the people with whom they’re training. There’s usually a wide-eyed moment of realisation when we tell them they’ll be, quite literally, putting their lives in their fellow trainee’s hands. Later they’re working landing decks and the reason why trolleys are always fitted to the cable in the same way becomes apparent. Working a landing deck is a workout worthy of most gyms, with the candidates up and down ladders, unclipping ‘guest’ after ‘guest’. They also learn how to retrieve guests who don’t make it as far as the landing deck, using a process called reach, throw and go. Go, they discover, is a great upper body workout requiring them to haul themselves up the cables, hand-over-hand, so they can get to and ‘tow in’ their guest. If there was an EcoZip swear jar we’d fill it during landing deck training.
During all this they’re learning to use radios and the hand signals that back up a failed radio. They’re learning how to reset our automatic brakes plus the various back-up brakes on each line. They’re learning to listen to trolleys, how the wind affects rider speed, how a prussik rope can hold them static on a cable, how to use an ID to lower themselves on to a deck, how to rope a rider that’s short of the deck and myriad other skills that leave many of them with their heads spinning. But by Friday, when they have been part of dozens of mock tours, it’s all beginning to make sense. There is still much they don’t yet know, like how to rescue a rider with a jammed trolley or how to set-up or pack down a deck, but by Friday they should have the basics. The weekend comes with homework; lots of it. There are several SOPs the candidates must know inside and out, from Tour Operations to Radio Communications and Emergency Procedures to Bush Walks.
Monday starts with gear inspections. We have a rigorous series of daily, weekly and monthly gear and hardware inspections but all our participant gear (harnesses, trolleys, lanyards and helmets) is inspected every time it’s used. You probably won’t notice our guides doing it as they fit your gear, but they are.
Now our candidates are introduced to the public for the first time as they begin a week of back-to-back ‘shadowed’ tours, where they work as one half of a guide-pair. At this point they’re still in their own clothes and they’ll only get their uniform once the final tests, peer review panel and an interview with our management team, has been passed. During their shadowed tours a senior guide is always watching them. The feedback they receive, while well meaning, pulls no punches.
The week culminates in written and practical tests – the pass marks for both of which are high. A failure to pass the written and practical test is terminal; there are no re-sits. Then there is the most nerve wracking period for the guide candidates, when the training team gather to discuss them in a panel peer review. The candidates’ progress over the course is discussed and their exam results reviewed. Safety is paramount and most of the senior guide team have children, so a salutary question we ask is ‘would you let them (the candidate under discussion) zip your child?’ Even at this point it is still possible to fail and occasionally candidates fall at the peer review stage.
But the six vibrant youngsters that arrived two weeks ago have all made the grade and one-by-one they meet with our management team for a genuinely warm yet honest assessment of their training. They leave with a bundle of new uniform and the assurance that they’re not on their own.
Over the course of the next 6 weeks they are subject to continual peer appraisal where the more senior zipline guides with whom they’re daily paired report on their progress. Plus their former trainers regularly join their tours, reprising the role of critical shadow.
Once they have amassed 300 hours of guiding, or about 150 tours, the prefix of probationer or junior guide is finally detached. Now they can further develop their skills as a rescue guide or course inspector or, for those with an interest and another 700 hours of guiding, they can become a would-be guide’s new shadow.