I'm harnessed to a thousand-foot-long, half-inch, nylon-coated, galvanized-steel aircraft cable and about to launch off a 15-foot-high wooden platform at 45 miles per hour while the Sangre de Cristo and Wet mountains smear past, and cactus, bramble and twisted lodgepole pines get grabby below. And then, dammit, I'm going to do it eight more times across 100 acres.
It's all for that mid-ride feeling of my pulse thumping in-time to the vibrations of the cable trolley, locked to the line and gripped with gloved hands, right over left. And the screaming speed found when my legs are pulled tight to my body, leaving me dangling like a whooshing Christmas ornament.
Also, who wouldn't love the gearing-up process — a pre-ride tug and pull job from the course guides, when red plastic helmets become hummingbird magnets, tight harnesses are turned into support wear, and all that's missing from the romance is some tongue?
This is my first time launching myself off something while tied to something else, all at the invitation of Royal Gorge Zip-Line Tours (royalgorgeziplinetours.com) co-owner Ty Seufer.
"It's for everybody, you know," says the 42-year-old Boulder native, whose tours run from May to November. "Everyone wants to fly."
Seufer and partner James Whiteside created Royal Gorge Rafting in 2004, building it up to be the fourth-largest company in rafting-crazy Cañon City. Expansion followed, with the duo adding Royal Gorge Bridge helicopter tours, the Whitewater Bar & Grill and, in April, the zip line course, an adrenaline-crowd-pleaser with roots in "team building" challenge courses and rigging used by Costa Rican scientists studying forest canopy ecosystems. Seufer says he'll probably take 10,000 people rafting this year, with another 8,000 people, of all ages, signing up in groups of up to eight to pay $89 to $239 for different zip line packages.
The half-million-dollar course — the first of its kind in the state — was built by Grand Junction-based Bonsai Design Inc., a 19-year-old company that has custom-designed courses from Alaska to New York.
"If we're not the biggest, we're definitely vying for the title," says CEO Thaddeus Shrader, noting that 2010's revenue was roughly $3 million. "We've grown in the past two years from seven core employees to 58 on-staff now."
As you'd imagine, the success of Bonsai — which currently has teams building in Durango and at Copper Mountain, too — mirrors that of the industry as a whole.
"The market for zip line tours [has been] growing two, three hundred percent per year for the past five, six years now," says Shrader. "It's absolutely exploding."
Which means there's a lot of bizarre-looking work going on in a lot of green spaces. A 2009 Popular Mechanics report tells the story of Bonsai's construction of a course in West Virginia: "Workers shoot arborists' throw balls and crossbow darts that trail braided fishing line over the forest's thicket of rhododendron and understory. The fishing line is knotted to parachute cord, which is tied to 3/8-inch static rope connected to heavy steel zipline cables that workers pull by hand into the high canopy. ... By the end of the build, nearly 2 miles of 3/8-inch cable and a mile of 1/2-inch guy wire spider-web the woods."
Most of the tall, rough wooden poles holding Cañon City's zip lines are held by epoxy-anchored, 2-foot-by-2-foot chunks of cement, with several steel cables, literally screwed into the dirt, anchoring each side. The deepest anchoring is only 4 feet, while several sit on flat ground, the cables alone keeping them aloft.
The guides love to point that out.
A couple of jerks
Meet our guides: Fraser Fras, a scruffy 26-year-old New Yorker with a blond soul patch and earring studs; and 24-year-old Brian McLean, a quiet, dark-haired dude with fading striped shorts. Both are tan and leathery, and have an ear for highbrow humor.
"You're gonna sit down and weight the harness, and then cross your feet out in front of you," says Fras at "ground school," a 20-minute introduction where body positioning is taught on a mini zip line. Strapped into the line, but still hooked onto an anchor, Fras lets go and is stopped almost instantly. "So, I did that on purpose, guys: If you go before we say go, you're gonna get a pretty vicious jerk. And Brian and I can be pretty vicious jerks, especially this early in the morning."
And more, later, when demonstrating how to brake with the flat of your hand: "Don't grab [the line] — that's the last thing you wanna do," says Fras. "You'll stop dead, and your arm will be left there on the line, and someone's gonna get charged with armed robbery today." (Cue rim shot.)
Throw in the in-depth knowledge about local flora and fauna and the assurance that comes from having hit the zip multiple times a day for four months, and the pair adds as much to the experience as the flying does. That's no accident, says Shrader, whose company provides all the training for the course's 21 guides.
"Preparing those guides and giving them all that information and then teaching them how to convey it," he says, "is a huge part of making sure that you're providing the best experience for the participants."
Besides giving crucial anecdotal info — on the side of the path, there's a goddamn spider large enough to eat the mice that run into its hole — the guides act as safety officers as well. People can leave the tour at any time, as one panic-attacked woman proved, with a quick radio back to base bringing a van that handles the rest.
In the end, it would've taken a hell of a lot more to get me off the line. Even with my toe-curling fear of heights, I was reassured by McLean and Fras handling takeoff and braking; the other seven thrill-seekers around me on the platform; and the intermittent group hikes from line to line.
And even though each zip passes fast, maybe 25 seconds at the longest, it's not so fast that you miss the awesome giant rock formations, or deep ravines filled with old wood and game trails, or the gnome perched on one tree limb, throwing you a wink. (See our IndyBlog for video.)
Even my girlfriend kicking my ass in the dual racing line that ends the roughly three-hour day couldn't bring me down. I just wanted more, another chance to hear one guide radio back to the other: "Fraser to Brian — zip line is clear."
A place to gorge
With the acquisition of its license to brew just a few weeks away, three-month-old Royal Gorge Brewing Co. (413 Main St., Cañon City, 719/435-4141) will gain another reason to visit. Not that it needs much else, with a lunch as solid as the one we had in the large, wood-appointed dining room.
Beth and Colby Katchmar, who also own the neighboring Pizza Madness, dish a menu of standard American options, with a focus on Colorado meat, including steaks from Scanga Meat Co. in Salida, and sausages from Continental Sausage in Denver. Tired and sun-baked from zip lining, we opted for lighter lunch options: the Cañon Dip ($4.75), Rocky Mountain oysters ($7.75), a pulled pork sandwich ($7.00) and green chili ($3.50).
The dip impressed the most: Everything tasted fresh, from its roasted green chilies, tomatoes, garlic and melted cheddar to the accompanying veggies and pita bread.
The "oysters" — skinned, sliced, tenderized and fried in-house — were a first for me, and a good one. I hate to say it, but they do taste like chicken, or close enough. The house-made spicy barbecue and sweet chili sauces were great, as well.
I can't say the same for the green chili and the pulled pork. The former's disappointment lay primarily in the canned chilies used to make the oily mess — general manager James Whitt says fresh Pueblo chilies will be used next season — while the latter was too fatty and destroyed the bun, especially when combined with the coleslaw topping.
Still, the prices are right, and the brews forthcoming — look for a summer ale, a stout and a porter, initially — making Royal Gorge Brewing a steady stop on the way to the rafts.
— Bryce Crawford
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