There’s something a little bittersweet about a ski area in summer: the light green trails threading down the dark piney slopes, the magic carpet lift standing alone in the grass, and all those parking places…. If you’re a skier, you can’t help but think, wow, what would it be like in winter? For almost as long as ski resorts have existed, so have their off-season attractions — golf, scenic gondola rides, lumberjack shows, alpine slides, and much more. In recent years, many New England ski areas have upped the ante with exciting new attractions such as ziplines and aerial adventure parks. An example: Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vermont, which has taken its “off season” offerings to the next level with the new Adventure Zone at Jackson Gore, which includes a disc golf course, indoor pool, bungee trampoline, climbing wall, big air bag (to jump onto), miniature golf, Segway tours, a mountain coaster, and zipline course. Okemo’s sister resort, Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire, has a similar Adventure Park that includes a great zipline adventure that some of the EasternSlopes.com crew have already tried.
My 15-year-old daughter Doris and I were curious (and maybe a little nervous) about the ziplining in particular. Skiing? Sure. That’s in our comfort zone, but a zipline course, which sounded doable a few weeks earlier when I’d signed up for it, began to seem daunting as our date with destiny in the trees drew near. According to the FAQ for Sawyer’s Sweep (that’s the name of Okemo’s zipline course) the only stipulations were that you needed to be at least 10 and weigh between 80 and 250 pounds. Check and check. There were no requirements for abs of steel or lack of fear of heights.
So one Saturday afternoon, Doris and I headed out to try some adventure Okemo style. (My husband Jed and 18-year-old daughter Loretta would have happily joined us but were busy earning paychecks that weekend.) We arrived at Okemo’s Jackson Gore Inn on Saturday afternoon. It was drizzling outside but the Timber Ripper, Okemo’s mountain coaster, operates in rain, sleet, and snow — just not in thunderstorms, understandably. We had never tried a mountain coaster, so we walked over to check it out.
A mountain coaster is a kind of sled on rails that you control through hand brakes. It’s similar to an alpine slide, except that instead of rolling along in a chute, your sled is on rails. There are some age and height restrictions, but other than that, anyone can do it, or so Okemo seemed to imply. So we did. We sat down in our respective sleds, buckled up, and were towed to the top. The people coming down the mountain didn’t look especially nervous, so I wasn’t either – until I found myself tootling up the really steep incline near the end. As you get close to the summit, a sign tells you to let go of the brakes at the top and reminds you that “you’re in control.” On a roller coaster, you’re not in control, but you figure the ride’s designers have that covered. On a mountain coaster, if I’m in control, does that mean I could be out of control? No time to ponder it. The sled got to the top; I pushed the brakes forward as instructed to let her rip and wheeeeeeee!
Going down that first time, I held back quite a bit on the curves. Silly me. So when we got to the bottom, I wanted to ride again, even though it had started raining harder. “It’s faster when it’s wet,” the attendant told me, with a smile. And it was. I had a better ride, too, because I was more comfortable letting the Ripper rip. You can buy single rides on this coaster, but they are cheaper by the 3-pack, and I highly recommend the latter option because the Ripper is more fun once you get the hang of it. Not only is it fun for anyone, I think it’s a great way for the nonskiers in your family (and we have some in our family) to get some thrills on the mountain.
After the Timber Ripper, Doris and I had dinner in the Jackson Gore Inn‘s comfortable Coleman Brook Tavern. Many of the tables have wingback chairs, which Doris thought were cool. I had local goat cheese and berries with a salad and Doris had macaroni and cheese. Then we went for an after-dinner swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool. It was still raining, and it was fun to swim with rain drops falling on our heads and to watch the mist settling into the surrounding hills. Jackson Gore also has a great indoor pool in its Spring House activity center that you can use with your Adventure Zone pass. Finally we went back to our room for the night. The Jackson Gore Inn has a lot of great slope-facing accommodations, and ours was a suite with a full kitchen and dining room. A family of four could stay here very comfortably. We changed into our PJs, microwaved some popcorn, and settled down to watch the Olympics on television.
A Zippy Morning
The next morning, we had breakfast in the Coleman Brook Tavern. Doris’s buttermilk pancakes were just about the best we’d ever had, with crispy golden edges… I could go on. Suitably fortified, we got ready to head to the Sawyer’s Sweep Zipline for our morning adventure. It wasn’t raining, but the sky was gloomy and rain was in the forecast, so I suggested we wear our rain jackets. “Not wearing my rain jacket,” said Doris. Earlier in the year, I had bought her a great rain jacket – high-end brand, proven water repellency, excellent price. Admittedly it was an in-your-face shade of pink that probably accounted for the price. “So you can wear my raincoat,” (an inoffensive shade of eggplant), I said, “and I’ll wear yours.” (At what point in life do we start caring more about staying dry than looking good? I don’t know but it’s a middle-aged milestone of some kind.)
At the zip line center, we met our guides for the morning, Evan and Nate. We also met the folks who would be accompanying us on our zipline tour. There were nine of us in all, including a couple in their 60s, a couple in their 30s, and three 30-somethings who were at Jackson Gore that weekend for a wedding. They seemed regular enough — if they were incredibly fit adrenaline junkies, they were hiding it well. We fit right in.
Our guides had us put on helmets, then talked us through the donning of our harnesses, which consisted of two leg loops, a shoulder harness, a latching area sort of over the belly, one piece of heavy duty yellow webbing, and two heavier-duty blue braided cords. Right before we put on our harnesses, Doris said, “I don’t need a raincoat.” She took off my purple raincoat. “You’re going to get cold,” I said; “you’re going to get wet.” “I’ll live,” she said. As I buckled my harness, I couldn’t help but notice that the pink rain coat bunched and wrinkled under it. I also noticed that everyone else on the tour was in tanks and T-shirts. “They’re going to get cold,” I thought. “They’re going to get wet.” Once a Mom, always a Mom I guess.
Heading out to our van, carrying our hefty cables in front of us, we felt like horses in harness, or perhaps deep-sea divers. We all loaded into a small bus, and rode to the top of our course. At that point, I was starting to get a bit apprehensive, and I wished the ride were longer. But there we were.
Nate opened a gate and indicated that we were to cross a bouncy, Indiana-Jones type bridge to the first zip platform. First, though, he clipped our trolly cable to a cable overhead, which was sorta-somewhat reassuring. Doris was not a fan of this bridge; in fact it turned out to be the one thing on our adventure that caused her real trepidation. I kind of enjoyed the bounciness – I felt like I was in a movie.
Once we had each made our way to the zip platform, we all huddled around the central pole to which Nate had tethered us. We were secured, but the platform had no edges, and we were many, many feet above the ground. Then one of the 30-somethings walked out to the edge of the platform and leaned back, letting the harness and the safety cords support her. “We have to start trusting the gear,” she said. “I trust it,” I thought, “but why test its good nature?”
We all watched admiringly as Nate hooked onto the zipline and flew over to the next platform, landing with aplomb. Who was going first? Not us! But you can’t not go, so, eventually, I took my turn at the edge of the platform. I don’t know what I expected but I thought I would be doing something other than just jumping off. You just jump off! Really.
I was holding the trolley cords for dear life as I took off, but gravity and good gear design settled my body into the harness, and there I was, whooshing through the trees. I was surprised and a little concerned at first to find myself going backwards, but I lifted my legs as instructed when I got to the platform and landed with more or less grace and agility, and a little help from Nate, who said, “Welcome.” He told me that to keep from turning backwards, I should hold the cords higher, and twist them in the opposite direction that I was turning in. Or I could just not worry about it and enjoy the flight . . .
Doris came next, and ended up going backwards too. But she seemed to enjoy herself. We were tentatively ready for more. As we moved from platform to platform, the routine took on a rhythm. Evan would remove the trolley from my gear loop (after I hoisted the hem of my pesky rain jacket so he could reach it) and attach it to the zip line. He would yell, or radio, depending on the distance between the platforms, “Clear to zip?” Nate on the receiving platform, would reply, “Zip clear.” Then Evan would detach my blue safety cables from the center platform pole and hook them to the zipline. And I would jump off the platform and fly. On the far end, Nate would remove my trolley from the line, and attach it to my gear loop (after I lifted the hem of my pesky rain jacket). Then he would attach my blue safety cords to the center pole of the new platform. This process was repeated the same way each time; it reminded me of how a surgical team follows the same procedures for every operation so that there is no chance for errors. In fact, said Evan, the zip line guides do have to stay “really, really focused.” But they also get to do all that zipping. They certainly seemed to be having fun. As we all were.
Okemo’s zipline tour has seven zip runs. After the first couple, they get longer. They also begin in the trees and end up out in the open at the bottom of the mountain. Just as you think you’re comfortable, something new gets thrown in. But that keeps it interesting. If you weren’t a bit nervous about doing this, you might as well be taking the subway in Boston. As someone whose fear of heights is probably a “4 to 6 out of 10″ (this metric comes from my husband) I would say that ziplining is manageably scary. The hardest part is stepping off the platform. Once zipping, I wasn’t scared at all – it’s just fast and fun. I think that’s how it would be for almost anyone who tried this. They make ziplining pretty darned easy, fun, and safe at Okemo.
Something I hadn’t expected was how social ziplining is. You and your fellow zippees spend a certain amount of time waiting on a small platform together, and you’re all at least a tad nervous, so barriers break down quickly. Our group was friendly and fun and I would say it definitely adds to the experience to get to meet some new people along the way.
At about our third platform, I started to feel warm. The fog had lifted off the surrounding mountains and Evan pointed out the great view. Maybe I didn’t need that pink rain jacket after all. There was no place to stow it, though, and I was all harnessed up. Nothing to do but sweat–and, of course, not tell Doris.
Our second rappel, an automatic one on a kind of spool, proved to be my scariest moment. I didn’t mind the first rappel, when we descended braced against the platform pole, but in this instance we were attached to a pulley and line at the edge of the platform and had nothing to brace against. Doris went first, stepping off the platform with the insouciance of Wile E. Coyote strolling off a cliff. I walked up, and my legs just refused to walk off the edge. My knees buckled, and I said, “I cannot do this.” Then I stood up and did it. I was slowly lowered to the ground. No big deal. Nate and Evan acted like this was all in a day’s work for them. They were never anything but kind and helpful. I think if you did a zipline tour and ended up being really, really nervous about the whole thing, they would definitely get you through it in style.
It’s a Bat, It’s a Plane, It’s …. Mom
The last two ziplines were the longest and the best. The final one soared over the mountain coaster and down to a platform towering over the base of the Adventure Zone. On this run, you can get up some serious speed. Doris went first, and zipped lickity split.
Coming down that last run, I felt great. I was zipping along, not twisting backward. It’s cool to zip through the trees like a jungle ape, but zipping through thin air high above the grass really gives you that flying-like-a-bird feeling. I noticed that the people already waiting on the platform below seemed to be watching me with unusual interest. To me, it felt like an exhilaratingly fast, well controlled zip, so I wondered if they were looking at me with admiration. It turns out that due to the high speed of my descent, the pink rain jacket flared out in such a way that it created a bizarre silhouette. Doris, waiting on the platform below with the others, heard Nate say, “Who IS that?” Doris said they were all trying to figure out if I was doing some kind of complicated aerial maneuver. The people behind me on the higher platform said I looked like a giant pink bat. I wish we had a picture of it, but you will have to use your imagination.
After we arrived at the last platform, we rappeled down to where Nate awaited us. It had been a two and a half hour trip, but went by much more quickly. We did it! And would be happy to do it again. I highly recommend ziplining to almost anyone. If we can do it, so can you! In fact, the more nervous you are about it, the more exciting your time will be and the prouder you will be of yourself afterwards.
Let’s just say Doris and I were plenty proud.
If you go:
Wear closed-toed shoes. Sneakers are fine.
Use the bathroom before you harness up. There are no facilities on the course, and you’re in a harness.
Trust the equipment—you’ll have more fun.
Bring a camera, but make sure you have a secure place to put it. Pockets work well.
Don’t let a fear of heights deter you; in fact, a zip line tour is a good way to confront that fear in a safe, controlled, manageable way.
To find out more about a zipline tour and the rest of the Adventure Zone at Okemo, visit the Adventure Zone page.