2011 July – Ziplining

About a year ago a friend of mine asked me to go ziplining with her.  San Francisco was having an event downtown and had rigged a zipline 80-foot up, across a plaza.  I thought about the line breaking and me plunging 80ft to the concrete below and bursting open like a ripe watermelon, and declined.  But the thought of ziplining stayed with me.

The zipline course

Then I saw a short piece on local TV about ziplining in the Redwood forest and decided that it sounded like fun.  I had images of gentle movement through the forest canopy – like the scenes in the movie Medicine Man with Sean Connery.  I can do that, I thought!

So when my son Bryan was visiting for a week, I signed us up for a Sunday 11:30am gentle, swaying browse thru the Redwood canopies, ala Medicine Man.


Good Grief!  I had no idea it could be so terrifying.  There are 9 ziplines, and you travel from the one to the other until you rappel down 80ft from the last platform to the forest floor.

We were in a group of 6 because 2 didn’t arrive.  I said to Bryan that if I turn really white he should take that as a sign that I was REALLY out of my comfort zone.  A dark-skinned lady in our group interjected – No, if I turn white then it is REALLY scary!

We were taken to the Visitors Center where we waited for our guides to arrive.  As we sat in the shade of the Redwoods the earlier groups zipped overhead, and every so often someone would go by accompanied by their blood curdling scream as the zipped over.   I smiled to myself – this was going to different.

We had 2 guides for each group and our guides were just darling.  The male guide, Jesse, went across first every time and then received us as we flew over.  The girl guide, Alexis, prepped and secured us and sent us off.  She was always last off the platform.

The first zipline is easy, just a short quick ride alongside the mountain, about 40ft off the ground, and at a slow angle.  Also you are on a platform attached to a rock solid Douglas Fir, that stands tall and straight and nothing will budge it.  So that is fun.  And the ride is over so fast that you don’t really have time to think about it – maybe 5 seconds.  Bryan and I went last of the group of 6.  I can do this, I thought.

Bryan in zipline gear (and T-shirt)

Bryan in zipline gear (and T-shirt)

The second zipline is also short, a slightly steeper angle, and to a tree off the side of the mountain, so you zip across about 100 ft off the ground.  Short ride, a little faster but over before you know it – maybe 8 seconds.  Bryan and I went second in the group of 6.  I can do this, I assured myself.

The third zipline disappeared into the trees in the distance!!  It is steep and long and you reach speeds of 30 miles an hour!  I took one look at that, and BAULKED.  The guide Alexis is not stupid – she didn’t even react to my panic, but calmly and quietly connected up my son, and sent Bryan over as the first of the 6 of us.  I watched in horror as he disappeared into the trees in the distance.  Then she tied me up as I protested, knowing this dumb mother would blindly follow her offspring.  The birth bond thing.

I locked my eyes on the distant trees where I expected to see my son, and stepped into space hundreds of feet above the forest floor.   I think my heart stopped.

By the time I reached the platform and Jesse untied me, my eyes were popping with fright, I was hyperventilating madly, and my heart pounded at a speed that I was sure was calamitous for my health.  I clung to the trunk of the tree and howled – I WANT MY SON!!   Bryan prized my arms off the tree, and held me close as I sobbed out my terror.  I heard him saying to Jesse – “She is fearless on her boat?!  Nothing fazes her, not storms, not big seas, nothing?!”    But dangling hundreds of feet ABOVE the Redwood canopy at high speeds completely unnerved me.  And we had 5 more to go!

Added to that, the platforms were no longer on Douglas Firs, but on the more pliable Redwood trees that swayed with the zipline forces applied to them.  Nothing is more unnerving that standing on a tiny platform, way up on a Redwood tree that is swaying!!

Standing on a Redwood platform before scooting across this valley

I was still too shook up to notice that Alexis made sure that Bryan was first across every time after that – we me right behind.  She didn’t give me time to stand on the swaying platform contemplating the next run and losing my nerve – she urged me off right behind my son.

The next zipline was a short hop, not very steep, and relatively close to the ground.  I actually enjoyed it.  I was smiling as I zipped across.  I should have known it was just their bait-&-swap setup for the looooooong run across the valley!

The next zipline was a long run; so long in fact that the guides are worried that we will run out of speed and stop short of the platform.  So Jesse showed us how to lie back, and tuck up, so that we maintain enough speed to get all the way across.  The run takes about 35 seconds across the valley  and you are above the canopy with the trees waaaaaaay down there!  Again Bryan was sent over first – at this stage I was compos mentis enough to register that Bryan was ALWAYS being sent first – with me shoved off in hot pursuit.   I was wryly amused.

And way down there is the tops of the trees - as we balance on a tree platform

Actually, much to my huge surprise I enjoyed that longest run immensely.  Firstly I was getting used to ziplining, but most importantly, the angle of the line was slower so that I didn’t get that “rushing headlong to destruction” feeling.   I even took the time to look down and around me as I scooted along, all tucked up.  When I reached the platform Jesse said – You know, considering that you are so afraid you follow orders precisely, and you do it exactly correctly every time.  Well, that was more because I was deathly afraid to NOT do it exactly correctly in case I stalled in the middle of the run, and hung there frozen with fright!!

As Alexis the guide came over last she totally unnerved me by letting out a loud blood curdling yell on the way over.  I wondered what she knew that she hadn’t told us!!  I looked at Bryan in horror, but he grinned and pointed down.  We were at the platform over the Visitors Center so the guides were yelling for the effect on the waiting tourists!  By this time I was enjoying the ride so I got the joke.

Then you have to climb up a 30ft circular staircase securely bolted around the Redwood – not too scary.  And cross 2 swaying sky bridges – also not scary because you are not too far off the ground.  Nevertheless I moved with extreme caution.  Then a quick zipline to the last platform before rappelling off.

Okay, I have seen rappelling on the Discovery Channel and when someone else is doing it, it looks easy.  Jesse went first and assured us that even if we literally faint from fright (I didn’t want to hear that) then he would control our descent from below and bring us down safely anyway.

I wasn’t fussed about this part – I thought – but I refused to go first.  I was done with the “going first” thing.  And Alexis seemed to know that if Bryan went first then when it was my turn I would baulk and refuse to move altogether.   Then I would spend the entire weekend on that platform 80ft up in the air.

So another of our group went first – the bravest one – and she stood on the edge of the platform, suspended 80ft above the ground, and smiled happily for the camera.

While I protested and hung back, Alexis calmly and without any fuss, connected me up.  I refused to step off the platform into space and started crying again.  I CANT DO THIS, I wailed as tears ran down my face.  Sure you can, urged Alexis as she patted me gently, the way I did to my kids when they were small and baulked.

Staircase up the Redwood

Air bridge

Hanging 8 storeys above the forest floor

Her patting was really just gentle urging and pretty soon I was standing on the edge of the platform refusing to look down.  Then I somehow stepped into space.  I know the guide didnt push me because any slight pressure on my back and I would have backed up hurriedly until my rear was securely stuck on the tree trunk!   So somehow they managed to urge me over and out.  I dangled, frozen with fright.  Bryan whipped out the camera and urged me to lower myself so he could take pictures.  But I had a death grip on the line and didn’t move an inch – I just dangled there.  Eventually, with gentle urging from Alexis and Bryan I let up the death grip and slid down a few inches.  Then I stopped again, and dangled, utterly frozen.  More urging, another few inches.

Eventually I had hung up there for long enough without falling to a horrible death 80-ft below, that I gained a smidgen of confidence.  So I slowly released my death grip on the rappel line and gently slid downwards, in a very slow controlled descent.  I kept my eyes fixed on Bryan with an unwavering stare.  No mongoose ever stared so fixedly at a cobra.

After what seemed like ages and Bryan seemed very far away, I yelled up at my son – How am I doing?… thinking I was just inches from the ground.  He assured me I was dropping just fine which caused me to inadvertently glance down.  To my horror I was less than a quarter of the way down the tree!!   The forest floor was still forever away, hidden down there in the gloom.

reaching the forest floor - terrified

I fixed my eyes on Bryan again and loosened my death grip on the rope and slid faster.  I was in a hurry to hit terra firma – or in my case, terror firmer.

When I reached the ground Jesse reached to unclip me but I said, Wait.  I need to cry first.  And burst into tears again.  He was so sweet and patiently held me while I bawled out my fear against his chest.  He didnt rush me and when I finally calmed down he unclipped me.

Those guides are Saints!!

We walked back to the Visitors Center to remove our zipline gear and overhead a person let off a loooooong, bloodcurdling scream.  Alexis, our guide said nonchalantly – Oh, that’s Kate, she has the best scream.  I noticed that all the tourists waiting their turn to gear up, looked up nervously.

I can honestly say, without a shadow of a doubt, that I have ZERO intention of ever ziplining again!  And that goes for rappelling as well.  Medicine Man never did it like this!

Overall the trip through the trees took about 2.5 hours.  At each (tiny, swaying) platform the knowledgeable guides would assemble us and explain the forest, the trees around, and the eco-system (did you know that the forest system in the 1800s was so extensive that a squirrel could jump from tree to tree from New York to the Mississippi?).  The pauses on the platforms between ziplining were interesting and informative, and more importantly gave my adrenalin a chance to stop SQUIRTING at high speed into my system.  My body was in high gear for fight-or-fllght, and since the fight option was eliminated that just left me with flight mode which, since I was hundreds of feet up in the Redwood Canopy, really meant FRIGHT mode.

Bryan said he thought I was very brave.  He said he can still clearly remember when he was about 5 years old and I decided to take him up Table Mountain in Cape Town.  I remember that I stepped into the cable car confidently enough and it slowly took off.  Suddenly the ground dropped sharply away from us as the cable car climbed almost vertically to the table top 3000-ft up.  My legs gave way in horror and I slid to the floor in shock.  Little 5-year old Bryan (and Kevin my 7-year old) stood at my shoulder patting me with their tiny hands and saying soothingly – It’s alright Mommy, it’s alright Mommy – as I sobbed my way up the mountain.

So now as a 6-ft adult Bryan said he was very impressed when I signed us up for ziplining.  He thought by doing so that I was showing that I was over my fear of heights.

Clearly not.  I just forgot!

Bryan thought ziplining was an amazing experience.  He thoroughly enjoyed every second and said he would return with his family in tow.  He was ready to do it all over again.

Not me!  I realize now that you will never see the job description on my resume called: “window cleaner on a high-rise building”.

Here is how the Sonoma Canopy Tours explains their rides – it reads as pretty innocuous:

Here’s what you’ll experience while you zip from platform-to-platform:

Platform 1 – 2
Get comfortable at the starting deck known as Victory Circle. This junior zip will prepare you for the ziplining experience ahead as you enjoy your first breathtaking view of the forest.

Platform 2 – 3
Gain confidence on this longer and faster zip that will speed you along at heights around 80 feet off the canopy floor.

Platform 3 – 4
Now the real adventure begins. Look down if you dare: you’ll see the deep natural ravine almost 300 feet below, along with the camp that’s also part of our grounds.

Platform 4 – 5
Take in the panoramic views from high above the ancient Redwood forest.

Platform 5 – 6
Ready for a full 800 foot zip? Our tour’s longest zipline rockets you straight into an old growth forest—trees more than 700 years old that make the Coastal Redwood forest a timeless experience.

Platform 6 – 7
This quick change-of-pace zip lets you explore the forest views surrounding you and the creek below.

Platform 7 – 8
Get ready for a little workout on our one-of-a kind majestic spiral staircase. You’ll climb 30 feet in the air—just don’t forget to enjoy the view on your way up.

Platform 8 – 9
The pace slows a bit to enjoy the fern-lined ravine below. Suspended high above, enjoy the natural sway and undulation on our 175′ long sky bridge. Along the way, you’ll get to see “Walter,” the oldest tree on the property.

Platform 9 – 10
Take a breath and enjoy the view of Walter from another sky bridge as you prepare for the final zip.

Platform 10 – 11
Relish every second of this short zip to the final platform, where you’ll come back down to Earth.

Platform 11
From this last platform, you’ll rappel 80′ to the forest floor, while you see a large redwood burl “close up and personal.”

Complete your journey with a leisurely, 50-yard stroll back to Sonoma Canopy Tour’s Welcome Center.

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