Zipline Zen: Riding the Wires in Whistler

Long way down...

Long way down…

A few people have asked me how to go ziplining.

It’s not all that difficult, actually. Once you’re in the harness, you just walk (or run) until you can’t walk anymore.

Or to put it another way: sit, and go.

Whooping and yelling as you’re zooming down is optional. But highly recommended.

There are some things in life that you need to try at least once. And ziplining is definitely one of them.

I went ziplining for the first time in June 2011 up at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia.

Whistler is a major ski and winter sports resort in western Canada, with a number of summer and year-round activities as well. It was also the site of several of the events for the 2010 Winter Olympics; when we were there, the luge track and some of the other equipment were still set up.

In June, at that altitude, it’s a little chilly in the mornings, so bring a jacket.

The company that does the ziplines at Whistler is a group called ZipTrek EcoTours. They’ve been around for the last several years, and they have several locations around North America and one in New Zealand.

Basically, the zipline course that we did at Whistler could be best described as a nature walk on a high-wire.

British Columbia is home to some of the last remaining bits of temperate rainforest in the world. And the forests, like so many other forests, are working to rebound from the effects of pollution and other damage over the last several decades. Several of the platforms along the line course have placards detailing the local wildlife and flora, plus the effects of pollution over the decades and recent advances in conservation and green energy.

Interpretive signs along the platforms, describing the local ecology.

Interpretive signs along the platforms, describing the local ecology.

*

On the morning of our zipline tour, we made the trek up Rt. 99 from Vancouver to Whistler, following the coast of Howe’s Sound and taking in all the gorgeous scenery.

It was our first visit to the province; we’d flown into Vancouver from Newark the day before, with a connecting flight out of Chicago. Our trip, it should be noted, coincided with Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, Bruins v. Canucks. And the riots that followed. (But that’s a story that deserves its own posting.)

Arrived at Whistler, parked the car, wandered around the grounds for a little bit and watched the ravens dive-bomb people at the open-air coffee shop (one of them stole a lady’s pumpkin spice muffin right from in front of her!) before it was time to assemble for the tour.

At the main lodge, we met up with Padraig and Melanie, our guides for the day, and the rest of the group. There were about nine of us in total.

We got a safety briefing, filled out what I like to call the “I promise not to sue” forms and took a walk out to the ZipTrek cabin, where we got kitted out with our helmets and harnesses.

The harnesses cover your torso and shoulders, with a strap near the waistline that hooks you up onto the line itself. There is another line, a safety rope, which hooks onto the line with a carabiner clip.

A few tips. Don’t carry anything loose in your pockets. I was carrying a small camera with me, with a Velcro strap on the case, so I strapped it to my harness. You’re not allowed to carry backpacks or purses or anything else extraneous on the trip – small bags can get locked away at the ZipTrek cabin, but you’re advised to leave most stuff back at your hotel.

*

Every now and then, someone asks me just why the heck I wanted to go zipline riding.

I’m usually the kind of person who likes keeping her feet on terra firma. I don’t enjoy air travel anymore, and I never liked thrill rides or roller coasters that had steep drops. I tend to get a little squeamish up at high heights – just ask me sometime about my experience on the Plexiglas floor in the CN Tower in Toronto sometime.

So based on that, I should have been the last person to want to go up on a zipline.

But somehow, the itch to go up on the wires was there.

Maybe it was that short story I read in a high school literary magazine years ago, about a nervous girl getting ready for her first zipline ride while away at summer camp. Or maybe it was seeing that one story in the New York Times travel section about a zipline course out in Pennsylvania, and thinking, “I SO want to do that…”

*

There was a short line – probably no more than 10 or 15 feet off the ground, by my reckoning – that you take a practice run on – before going up to the course itself.

The guides asked, “Who’s going first?”

Nobody moved at first. I’m not sure whether it was politeness or nerves. Could have been both.

So I went ahead. Melanie got my harness hooked onto the line, and I started walking down the wooden stairs off of the platform and…

“Wooo-hooo!”

Yes, it was only 10 feet or so off the ground. But I couldn’t believe how giddy and exhilarated I was when I came in for a landing.

After that, there was a scramble as other people went climbing up.

Then we piled into a mini-bus with tank treads for the climb up the mountain to the main lines.

Our intrepid band.

Our intrepid band.

You have the option of doing three lines on the course, or doing the full 10. (We went with the full 10.) (Author’s note: The courses have probably changed a little bit over the last three years. But there are different line courses for the different skill levels and tastes, from the family-friendly, or the squeamish, to the hell-bent-for-destruction.)

The platforms that are up in the trees have a network of bridges and walkways joining them. Other times, when you’re down on the ground, you take a walk through the woods to get from line to line.

You could see the other lines criss-crossing out over Fitzsimmons Creek. Every now and then, you could hear the zooming whirring noise, and see the flash of an orange or white helmet, as someone went sailing down.

*

So there you are, on the platform.

The line, a steel cable at least an inch and a half thick, stretches down, way down, ahead of you. There are a couple of steps leading down off the platform and into thin air.

The sound of the harness trolley gliding against the line – it sounds like a jet plane taking off, only not quite as loud.

When it’s your turn, and when the guide gives you the signal to go – like I said, either you walk until you can’t anymore, or you just “sit and go.”

So what’s it like?

If you’ve ever ziplined, you know that words really can’t do it justice.

You’re zooming down the line, high over the ground, at what feels like 30 miles an hour or so. The trees are speeding past, you can feel the vibrations of the harness and trolley against the line, and the wind’s whistling in your ears.

It’s one of the closest things there is to sprouting your own wings and taking off. To put it another way, a zipline course is a REALLY big playground ride for adults.

You may be a little nervous at first. But once you’ve done it once, you’re hooked.

Once we were a few lines in, Padraig and Melanie began challenging people to try hanging upside down in the harnesses.

If you want to hang upside down, you’ve really got to throw yourself into it – so to speak.

I had trouble managing it at first. But a try or two later, I was able to swing my legs up and wrap my ankles around the harness straps.

And for most of the last line, a long steep run back down the mountain toward the main lodge, I just let my head hang down toward the valley, my feet pointing up toward the sky.

And that’s how I rode until just before I came zooming into the landing platform.

 

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