Friday September 21, 2012

'Just wait til you get to the Leap of Faith," Trevor Rathbun said.

Rathbun, a guide and shift supervisor for the Aerial Adventure Park at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock led my friend Alisha Kavey and
me through "Blue 2," a suspended course containing cargo nets, rope cables and zip lines, among other challenges. At the end of this particular course, there's only one way
to get down -- an obstacle called
"The Leap of Faith."

"Walk off the platform," Rathbun said.

I looked at him with an eyebrow raise, "Just walk off?"

I looked down about 30 feet towards the wooden landing platform below. He may as well have been asking me to walk a plank.

I've been skydiving before, but I made that leap with the forces of gravity and the guy pushing me out of the airplane. Here, I had to push myself.

After a few counts to three and a some minutes of stalling, I walked off. Instantly, I felt the tug on my harness as the ropes and locks tethered me and slowly, gently, I lowered to the ground.

Aerial parks and ropes courses offer as much of an exercise of the body as of the mind, and they're growing in popularity.

"They're just popping up everywhere," said Joshua Ruprecht, Jiminy Peak's Mountain Adventure supervisor.

In addition to Jiminy Peak, Bousquet Ski Area's Adventure Park in Pittsfield and Catamount Aerial Adventure Park in Hillsdale, N.Y., offer nearby opportunities to get a high ropes workout. The Berkshire Outdoor Center at YMCA Camp Becket-Chimney Corners in Becket also books groups for its extensive outdoor ropes challenge course.

Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, about 30 miles from Pittsfield, offers zip line canopy tours peaking at 50 feet above ground over the Deerfield River valley. Berkshire East, also in Charlemont, also offers extensive zip line experiences which include zip racing and lengths of up to 2,600 feet.

Unlike outdoor attractions like giant slides, mountain coasters and ski lift rides, aerial parks are a little more demanding and much more interactive.

"For one, you have to have some sort of physical ability," Ruprecht said.

"It's not for everybody," said, Mike Halvorsen, a course assistant at Bousquet.

Staff at both courses, however, said they've had participants ranging in age from elementary school students to 80-year-olds.

My friend Alisha Kavey, who tried the Jiminy course with me, and I are both in decent shape. I walk, hike and go to the gym or a fitness class a few times a week, but I am by no means a super-athlete.

At Bousquet, I joined in climbing with a middle school-age group from the Montessori School of Wilton, Conn. If anything, they had a little more energy than I, but they were equal parts roused and scared by the obstacles.

I tested the courses at Jiminy and Bousquet a day apart, to give my body some sort of recovery time, which, in hindsight, was an excellent idea.

The courses provide all the equipment, from harnesses to gloves. Both areas require participants to go through a brief "ground school" training to learn how to use the locking systems and zip line pulleys. Staff is there to guide you if you need it, but for the most part, you climb and zip on your own.

Both areas offer multiple courses with varying levels of challenge, from beginner to advanced.

"Upper levels require more upper body strength. To be successful and complete them, you have to really be in shape," said Dave Johnson, mountain manager at Bousquet.

One trick that proved useful, which I learned from rock climbing, is to trust your legs. Suspended cables, planks and cargo nets might make you look like you're walking on Jell-O, but your leg muscles and harness locks ensure you won't fall down.

If you do, you will just dangle from your clip line while trained staff come rescue you. Fortunately, I didn't have to experience that.

Other tips: Keep hydrated. Take big steps and arm swings -- the shorter the length of your reach, the more you'll have to reach, and the more energy you'll exert, leaving you prone to fatigue.

For me, beginner-level courses were an easy walk, once I adjusted to the height factor. Jiminy's course gets as high as about 55 feet, while Bousquet peaks at 35 feet. Zip lines felt more like taking a ride -- you hang from the pulley, not from your arms.

The more challenging course features were the ones where I had to stretch my legs or arms out across gaps in a line of tire swings or hanging planks. With these, I felt the tightening of muscles in more arms and abdominal core.

Doing this for two to three hours at each course, I felt the workout in my muscles the next day and also found a few bruises from clinging too hard or flailing to grab some of the holds.

That aside, I loved the experiences that aerial parks offer. Not only do you get beautiful views and fresh air and sunshine, but I also earned the satisfaction of seeing a challenge, taking it on and succeeding, which is a great way to strengthen the spirit.

A special thanks to the staff members of Jiminy Peak (including Trevor Rathbun, Aaron Brassard and Drew Boudreau) and Bousquet (Dave Johnson, Mike Halvor sen, Jason Hassan and And rew Cornish) for literally hooking me up to this story.