WHITEFISH – As the forest floor rushes up and the metallic purr of wheels on wire rises in pitch before peaking at 50 mph, the initial jolt of adrenaline ebbs just enough for visitors to soak in the mountain vistas.
Laughter and squeals echo across the valley as they race through the treetops on Big Mountain, suspended by webbing, clips and harnesses. Those attach to a trolley that straddles the high wire, which hangs up to 300 feet off the ground.
And then, after zip guide Chris Thompson’s command – “Zip three, fliers are ready” – it’s time to zip again. They build speed in the “pencil” pose before striking the “starfish” pose, splaying arms and legs to slow down before leaning back and tucking knees to chest to prepare for the abrupt crash into a spring-loaded (and padded) stop.
“Wow. This is pretty cool,” Matt Marchal said on a recent tour of the ziplines strung over the terrain at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
This month, a new zipline joined the six already hung across Big Mountain, allowing visitors to choose between five-zip or seven-zip tours.
Marchal, a family practice doctor from Richmond, Va., and his wife, Kelly, opted for the seven-zip tour, which can take up to 2 1/2 hours but usually is shorter. Afterward, they considered prolonging their stay on the mountain by signing up for a Walk in the Treetops, a journey on a canopy boardwalk suspended 70 feet above the forest floor.
“We hadn’t put it on our schedule, but now that we’re up here, why not?” Marchal said.
Combined with the scenic lift tour, the alpine slide, the hiking and mountain biking trails, and the soon-to-open aerial adventure park, Whitefish’s ski resort is doing big business after the snow melts.
Last year, 13,000 summertime visitors flocked to the resort specifically to ride the zips, and with the added zipline this season, as well as the brand-new aerial adventure park, resort employees expect to see even more visitors.
“We added the seventh zipline because we thought we had a really good profile and view corridor, and we thought it would be very cool. I don’t really have a better statement than that,” said Bill Cubbage, zipline director.
The new zipline, called Inspiration, is 1,900 feet long and 200 feet high, and warms up riders for AdrenaLine, which is also 1,900 feet long, but hangs 300 feet off the forest floor. The seven-zip tour eliminates much of the hiking required of visitors who signed up for the six-zip tour, and Cubbage said the lengthier tour actually requires less time.
“We’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and I think the aerial adventure park is going to be a real game changer,” Cubbage said.
The aerial adventure park, scheduled to open Aug. 1, is comprised of five courses that take adventurers over suspended bridges, cable walkways, nets, ladders, trapezes, tube traverses, ziplines and barrels. Rather than rely on a guide to lead the tour, however, visitors rent a harness, receive some training, and go through the course independently.
Riley Polumbus, public relations manager at Whitefish Mountain Resort, said the mountain has been building on its popular summertime activities for the past three seasons.
Last year’s bustling summer season was one of the busiest on record, despite the summit chairlift being closed for repairs, thereby eliminating the resort’s popular scenic lift ride and closing the Summit House. But the mountain biking trails and huckleberries helped compensate for the lack of a lift, as did the ziplines, which opened in 2009 and saw the most use last summer.
With the new line installed and plans to gradually expand mountain biking trails in the coming seasons, the resort expects the trend to continue.
“It really has been in the past three summers that we have been capitalizing on the summer crowds, and everyone is just loving it,” she said.
The new zip, which is also the longest, takes about 35 seconds to cross. That’s 35 seconds at 300 feet off the ground, which turns the scenic valley vistas into a blur of blue skies and green pines.
Cubbage recently clocked a 230-pound person riding Inspiration at nearly 47 mph.
“And you could get going a lot faster than that,” he says reassuringly.
The 32 guides who lead the tours have not yet settled a debate about which provides the fastest ride, the standard “pencil” pose or the unorthodox “cannonball.“
“I don’t think they’ve clocked the cannonball yet, but some of the guides swear it’s the fastest,” Polumbus said.
It was plenty fast for Rob and Farley Bucholz, who were visiting Whitefish from Edmonton, Alberta, and learned of the zipline tour on TripAdvisor.com. It’s their first family vacation without their grown children, identical 20-year-old twins and world curling champions, and zipping through the treetops was just the thing to bring out their inner child.
“It’s quite something. The stringing of the high wires is a science,” Farley Bucholz said, admiring the parallel lines at the intersection of zips four and five, which serves as a starting and landing point.
Without warning, Rob Bucholz dropped off the landing platform and raced away.
“See, he just wants to beat me,” Farley said before launching off the platform in hot pursuit.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photographer Meghan Nolt is an intern from the University of Montana School of Journalism studying photojournalism, she can be reached at 523-5270.