A woman’s scream pierces through the rolling hum of cheers from the sidelines, and Brent Plumley, BSc ‘08 is all nervous smiles. Bound tightly with a canvas cocoon to a zip line, 350 meters long and 70 meters above a pit of bright blue water of an abandoned copper mine, she clutches a yellow ball. Her scream culminates into a loud whoop of victory as her ball plops just inside the boundaries of a red target below, ensuring her team’s success. Relieved, Brent exhales and turns to fellow co-founder of SlacklifeBC, Spencer Seabrooke, and his grin widens, “we nailed it”.
Plumley, who lives in Burnaby, British Columbia, has reason to be happy these days. SlacklifeBC has just finished 13 gruelling days of setting up a daredevil “roadblock” stunt for the juggernaut television show, Amazing Race Canada, for the third straight season. And business has never been better.
Designing highlining stunts along cliffs and across water isn’t as much of a stretch from his university degree in mathematical physics as one might think, “I use physics all the time… everyday,” Plumley admits, “Not to be dramatic but people’s lives depend on it. Calculating for cable tension, height, speed, distances, body weight plus external factors like fluctuating wind all come in to play.”
Originally Brent embarked on a successful career in software engineering until Seabrooke introduced him to the dramatic and beautiful world of highlining. After watching his friend attempt world records, Brent soon found himself suspended on the sides of mountains, fully hooked on his new hobby. He quickly found notoriety with other hobbiests for his stunt design ideas and began assembling highline kits and tools that others could use to enjoy the sport. He and Seabrooke set up SlacklifeBC as an online store providing highlining newcomers everything they needed. From there, requests for stunt rigging and creation increased to the point where he had to drop his regular job.
“We had some pretty strange requests … someone wanted to set a world record for yo-yoing on a highline.” Beyond creating the yo-yoing stunt (which can be seen on their website), they helped get it shot and filmed, which meant finding the right people willing to stand on a cable between to rock edges to capture it. Another time, his team assisted in creating a massive ‘net’ suspended in rock and trees for a wedding service, complete with bride, groom and several wedding guests. The couple’s unique venue ended up being featured on the TV show Ellen. One of Brent’s favourite projects recently was building an adventure park at a ranch for sick kids in Mission, BC.
With a normal company crew of six, big productions like the one SlackLifeBC executed for Amazing Race Canada had them add a substantial number of people: fifteen people working… from loading contestants to receiving them at the bottom and people in the boat. The stunt itself called for thousands of feet in cable, concrete blocks, 5- meter steel trusses to be brought in for set up. After that his team tested and retested every element of the stunt with zipline speeds expected to reach 100 km/hr. “Once we were certain our calculations were bang on structurally and had tested the safety of the rig it was time to bring in practice contestants to see how difficult the game part of the stunt was. How hard was it to drop a ball into a target 70 meters below?” Turns out, it was pretty hard. Plumley and his group had to adjust the cable tension continuously, sometimes a 3-4 cm change could make a whopping difference in the speed of the test bags. Once they reached the desired 10-20% success rate that producers were hoping for, his team was satisfied they had rigged the perfect stunt.
“It was a crazy day,” he recalls, “we were in the water making the target bigger and adding water to the balls when we finally got it right. Then comes the call from the show that contestants had just landed at the airport and would be here in about 20 minutes.”
This is SlacklifeBC’s third season with Amazing Race Canada and Brent eventually found himself on camera. This time he wasn’t hanging from a line or strapping a contestant into the safety equipment but had the honor of handing successful contestants the famous ticket affording them their next clue in the game.
“And that was it,” he laughs, “then contestants scampered off, cameras stopped rolling and we deconstructed the site shortly after. I watched the stunt on the season premiere on July 2 with my co-ed hockey team at a local restaurant.”
Thinking back to his time and education at the University of Waterloo, he has some advice for the undergraduates, “The skills you learn, and the methods of how you learn can take you places you’ve never dreamed of. There’s no telling what you can accomplish if you apply those fundamental skills. Waterloo made me a great problem solver. I get pushed to my limits, solve more complex problems and build a better career”. There’s a pause and it’s not hard to imagine that at that moment Brent is imagining the breathtaking beauty of the BC mountains and lakes he works with everyday before adding, “yes... a better career with a great office”.