by John Robert Lafleur
Every weekend I manage to tear myself away from the smog and snarled traffic of Los Angeles and make my way up to my mountain cabin in beautiful Big Bear – Southern California’s only four season resort community.
With a pristine three thousand acre alpine lake, two ski resorts and countless hiking trails – for adventure seekers and fun addicts like myself – Big Bear offers just about every summer and winter sport imaginable.
And since 2010 Big Bear has officially offered Ziplining!
What is “Ziplining”, you ask?
A Zipline is a sturdy steel cable mounted between two points of different heights. A rider wears a harness which is securely connected by a pulley to the cable suspended high above the ground. The rider begins at the higher point and gravity takes care of the rest as they glide (or “Zip”) from the top to the bottom of the inclined cable.
If you have difficulty following that description, here is Maxwell the Pig enjoying Ziplining: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TlNOwwQQJk
So, that is what I set out to do for my 52nd birthday with my friends Dwayne and Peggy – active seniors always ready for a challenge – when they joined me on a beautiful, sunny May morning.
Big Bear’s Action Zipline Tours (the only ACCT accredited and permitted Zipline tour in all of San Bernardino County) offers 4 start times per day: 8am, 10am, 1pm and 3pm. Taking off from launch decks we would be experiencing nine different Zipline rides ranging from 120 ft. to 860 ft. in length and would be reaching speeds of up to 45 mph. There is also a suspension bridge to traverse on foot.
Their website states “The three hour tour includes an off road ride…” Hmm, I thought… A “Three hour tour”? – wait a minute, that didn’t turn out so well for the Skipper and Gilligan, as I recall. Better take a life preserver along for good measure (but if I see the Howells joining our group, I’m bailing!).
They ask you to arrive at the departure center 20 minutes before your start time in order to watch a safety video and to sign release forms. You are advised to wear comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing and shoes (so, unless you’re James Bond or one of his femme fatales, you can leave the tuxedos, stilettos and diamond necklaces at home for this mission). When I was deciding on what pants to wear I was torn between jeans and sweats. I finally opted for the jeans since I would be sailing down the Zipline feet first (figuring that a blast of air might give me an extra thrill up my leg).
Joining our group was Bill, 69, a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel who lives in Dana Point. With him was his charming 19 year-old granddaughter Heather, a Saddleback College student.
The city of Big Bear Lake is 6,750 feet above sea level (the town motto is: “Big Bear — A Mile and a Quarter Closer to Heaven.”). But that was just our starting point. Preliminaries complete, we boarded the van that would take us the first 17 miles of our journey. The weather was superb, sunny with a slight breeze. The mood in the van was light and kept so by our driver Mike and his wry sense of humor as we drove along Big Bear Blvd. (the main drag), hugging picturesque Big Bear Lake for part of the way.
We drove out of town and the mountain view was incredible as we began climbing Highway 38 until we crested Onyx Summit which is around 8,500 feet high.
We soon turned off the paved road, parked and changed vehicles. We boarded their Pinzgauer, a high-mobility, all-terrain military utility vehicle, which – like Arnold Schwarzenegger – was originally developed in Graz, Austria. This bad boy looks like it could climb a vertical wall and sneer at slopes that would make a bighorn sheep whimper. We were told that we might see all manner of animals on our tour: Black Bears, Coyotes, Raccoons and, of course, Western Grey Squirrels. There is also a private facility near the starting point which is owned by an animal trainer who works with Lions and Tigers and Bears (Oh My!). It’s not uncommon to hear lion roars in that neck of the woods. But, not to worry, they hardly ever escape…
There were 5 folks in our group, but Action Zipline Tours can accommodate up to 18 people at a time and in special circumstances, groups of up to 50. The Pinzgauer began climbing the bumpy, rocky, off-road terrain and we were soon at our starting point of 9000 feet of elevation where we suited up (harness, helmet and gloves) and received instructions from the company owner, Belinda Bain.
The main thing to remember, Belinda explained, was to keep your hands on top of the pulley as you take off (so that you don’t begin to spin). You put your dominant hand (in my case, my right one) over your non-dominant hand, step off the launch platform, let the harness take your weight and enjoy the ride! When you approach the landing platform you raise your feet and lightly press on the cable behind the pulley with your gloved, dominant hand. This acts as a brake and slows you down. We were taught a few hand signals which the instructors would use as we approached the landing platform. The hand signals included “Brake”, “Don’t Brake” and “Raise your feet”.
Our first run was the “Bunny Line”, a short run that was close to the ground to allow everyone an opportunity to not only get used to the feel of the Zipline, but also hanging in the harness and trying out braking for the first time as well. Belinda was very specific about the braking part: Make sure to grab the cable behind the pulley and not in front of it (unless you want people to call you “Lefty” for the rest of your life). The Bunny Line also has an angled launch platform (like a boat ramp) that you walk down instead of stepping off of a high platform which we would do on subsequent Zipline runs.
Above: Here Comes Heather! Good Form!
Everyone did great on their first run. It was fun, exhilirating and easy.
Next, we had to traverse a suspension bridge with a beautiful view of Johnson Valley. I’ve done a lot of travelling and backpacking, but I’ve never been on a suspension bridge. Just one look at it immediately conjured up visions of an Indiana Jones adventure.
Dwayne went ahead of me.
“Hey, Dwayne, if you don’t make it can I have your chainsaw?” I asked straightfaced.
His smiling response involved a single digit on one hand. Fortunately it was the “thumbs up” sign…
“Is that a ‘Yes’ ?” I asked.
It was a little shaky walking across, but everyone did fine again. Watching the others, I soon realized that the easiest way to cross is to keep your footsteps as centered as possible, as if you were walking a tightrope and to not hold on to the side rope which throws off your center of gravity. Better to only hold on to the overhead line. (In the unlikely event that you lose your footing you’re in no danger of hitting the ground because your harness is hooked to a safety line).
Once across the bridge, we arrived at our next Zipline launch platform. This one was longer, higher and we had to take the proverbial leap of faith when stepping off the platform.
What a thrill, with the wind in your face as you soar above and through the trees with panoramic views of the mountains all around! I figured that this is how Spiderman must feel when he swings in feet first to prevent a crime and save the girl.
Peggy was having a little trouble braking because she had broken her wrist last year and it was still a little weak, so they hooked her up with a braking system and she did great from then on.
I should add here that even though they want everyone to have a thrilling time - and we all did – “Safety First” is their priority at Action Zipline Tours. For instance, when you land on a platform they will hook a security cable to your harness even before unhooking your pulley so that your are always secured and in no danger of falling off the platform.
(In the photo directly above, in the background to the right is a 30 foot rock climbing wall in the final stages of construction. It will be in operation by the end of May.)
The field staff wear many hats as instructors, Pinzgauer drivers, tour guides, photographers and Launch/Landing platform “Senders” and “Receivers”. The entire staff is very professional and encouraging. One of our group braked a little too hard once and therefore stopped a few feet short of the landing platform. Not a problem. We were taught beforehand how to perform a hand over hand technique to pull ourselves in the last few feet if that should happen. If you are unable to pull yourself in, or if for whatever reason you stopped yourself in the middle of the Zipline (which never happened with our group), one of the instructors would come out and get you using the same technique.
By the way, the steel cables can support up to 60,000 lbs, so you could have a whole school of Sumo wrestlers hanging from a cable without danger of it breaking.
On the first couple of runs, as you might expect, everyone was holding their pulley very tightly when they stepped off the launch platform, but we all soon learned to relax, to trust the equipment and to fully enjoy the ride. On my third or fourth run I was taking a running start off the platform to pick up extra speed. Dwayne was soon fearless as well doing all kinds of acrobatics in midair. He even had them twist the harness before launching so that he would spin!
The longest run of the day is called the “Big Daddy” at 860 feet, which is the length of about 3 football fields. It’s also the highest run of the day at 75 feet off the ground.
I went before Dwayne this time, so of course now it was his turn to josh me.
“Any last words?” he called out smilingly.
“Yeah, I have two last words for you and they aren’t ’Happy Birthday’ “, I respond cheerfully before stepping once more unto the breach.
What a fantastic run!
At this point in the day you are totally relaxed and able to completely enjoy the speed and the height of the run. Below you, as with all the runs, one of the staff is taking high resolution photos. (A word of advice: If you want to avoid having “Chipmunk Cheeks” in all your photos, don’t cinch your chin strap too tightly. I made the mistake of tightening mine the way I used to my hockey helmet and I looked like I was storing nuts in my cheeks. Bill had the same result.)
At the end of our ninth and final run we unsuited and were driven back by Pinzgauer to our rendez-vous point where Mike awaited us, then back to the main office. Obviously, the duration of the tour is dependent upon the number of people in your group since you go down the Ziplines one at a time. Because there were only five of us in our group, from the time we left the office until we returned was about 2 1/2 hours.
Back in the office, all the photos of the day are displayed and scrolled through on a large TV screen for your perusal. Absolutely worth the purchase price of $5 a piece and a nice memento of your Ziplining experience. FYI, Action Zipline Tours operates year round – even when it’s snowing lightly (I’ll definitely return to try that!). The only time they shut down operations is during snowstorms or when the winds get too strong or when there is lightning.
Back at my place for an afternoon barbecue, invigorated by our morning of Ziplining, Dwayne, Peggy and I came to the conclusion that this would make for a wonderful “Teambuilding” experience. (So much nicer than walking through hot coals barefoot!)
We also wholeheartedly agreed with what Maxwell the Pig says about Ziplining in the commercial: “Pure… Adrenaline!”
The all-inclusive tour costs $99 per person, but there are discounts for Groups, Seniors & Military. You can contact them for more information.
Restrictions: No cellphones or cameras are allowed for safety reasons. The minimum weight of riders is 80lbs and the maximum weight is 260 lbs.
Action Zipline Tours
41647 Big Bear Blvd.
Big Bear Lake, CA 92315
Phone: (909) 866-0390
Action Zipline Tours Video (1 min.): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezNrQvNiO5c
ABC News Video (2 mins.): http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/video?id=7283854
John Robert Lafleur’s Skydiving Article & Video: http://ocactiveseniors.com/career/too-busy-to-grow-old-gracefully/on-a-wing-and-a-prayer/
John Robert Lafleur is a writer and fitness trainer who specializes in training seniors in their homes. He splits his time between Beverly Hills and Big Bear, CA. He can be reached at 310.262.3060