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New rush on the slopes

Some ski resorts offering zip lines, indoor waterparks

By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2011
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Here’s the move: You slide down a column of water, then drop down a chute until you turn upside down and get catapulted into a large wave. You reach speeds of 54 miles per hour, completing a 282-foot course in less than three seconds.

As you go through this watery madness, observers peer down at the action from a 50-foot bar.

You’re on one of those cruise ship rides in the Caribbean, right? At a Disney waterpark? A Dubai pleasure palace?

No. You’re on a ski trip, to the northernmost reaches of Vermont at Jay Peak.

Or you might be elsewhere, harnessed into a zip line - a high wire - sliding along at 30 miles per hour. Or you’re on a sled-like vehicle riding a steel track high above the snowy trails, descending at around 25 miles per hour - which feels a lot faster exposed than it does in, say, your car.

They may be tagged aerial adventure rides or waterparks or mountain coasters, but make no mistake, ski resorts, which once competed for market share with snow quality, speedy lifts, and steaming chili, have added amusements that provide alternatives for the non-skiing hours at the resort.

At Sugarloaf in Maine, the zip line appeared in the summer of 2010 and has been a hit in the non-snow seasons, where riders have a new way to access and enjoy the mountain without skis or boards. The business started right away with a brisk response.

“People became really excited about it that first summer,’’ says Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin. “We sold out every single available time slot. It slowed down a little in the winter, but that’s only because of the weather. Some days are just too cold to go up on a zip line.’’

The addition has been a solid one with a winning formula that resorts discovered years ago when tubing became the off-piste fashion: low investment, high interest. “It’s a relatively low cost to install and operate,’’ says Austin, “and people really like doing it.’’

Ski area operators do not see such amusements as a replacement or primary reason to come to their resorts. But, says Austin: “We look at it as another amenity for after you’re done skiing. We run the tours all the way until eight at night. We’re doing it in the dark, with headlamps. That’s really kind of neat.

“But it’s just something extra to do while you’re up here, something after you’re done on the hill.’’

Sugarloaf has six zip lines that run from 160 to 240 feet, a course that takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours for a rider to complete. And while it doesn’t require the physical skills of skiing or snowboarding, nor is it like a passive amusement ride.

Prospective zip liners are instructed to wear helmets and hiking boots, and to approach the activity only if they are in good physical condition - as most skiers tend to be. Weight limits are between 60 and 275 pounds, and riders must be at least 3 feet tall.

Riders are required to do some hiking and climbing to get to the top of the zip lines, and then more climbing to move from one zip line to another.

At Jay Peak’s Pump House indoor waterpark, in addition to the Lachute vertical ride, there is also a double barrel standing wave, 8 feet high, made for surfing and kayaking. According to J.J. Toland, a spokesman for Jay Peak, an hour or two of surfing after work on a winter night is “a perfect ending.’’

The Lachute ride is well worth the adrenaline rush. “It was scarier than I thought,’’ Toland said after trying the new amusement for the first time this year. “You’re just flying. I was laughing like a fifth-grader. It hits your system like a speedball of adrenaline.’’

The Pump House, which can accommodate 900, is always set at 86 degrees and, he says, “May be the only place in ski country people come to take clothes off to have fun instead of put clothes on.’’ Jay is marketing one package that will include free ski lessons for people who come just to use the waterpark. Jay Peak will give guests a sneak peek tour of the Pump House over Thanksgiving weekend.

Another non-skiing toy in the White Mountain region is the Nor’Easter Mountain Coaster at Attitash. This is a ride that carries passengers 1,420 feet up Attitash Mountain on a sled-like car riding on twin steel rails. The top of the ride provides the spectacular mountain scenery of the Mt. Washington Valley, then plunges riders in a 2,880-foot vertical drop. Riders can control the speed; top speed is around 25 miles per hour.

Some other off-piste amusements around the region include the Bretton Woods Canopy Tour, which was the first one built in New England. The system has six zip lines and a 75-foot-long suspension bridge.

Then riders progress to the Sky Rider Zipline Tour, which features dual 1,500-foot zip lines that lets two riders race each other - a favorite among teenagers. Then, the grand finale is the “White Knuckle Pine’’ that has an 80-foot drop that gives riders a 50-mile-per-hour high as they tear over the tops of the trees.

“I don’t know what I expected - just some kind of ride,’’ said 34-year old Matti Abel after completing the final descent. “But that was one amazing rush. You don’t feel out of control, but you’re definitely on edge, and you really feel the speed. It’s amazing.’’

In Vermont, Smuggler’s Notch features a year-round ArborTrek Canopy Adventures, which gives riders up to 4,500 feet on a series of zip lines that cross sky bridges and provide access to “reaches of the forest canopy and views of the area otherwise not available to hikers and explorers,’’ according to the resort.

Also in Vermont, Sugarbush has an 800-foot zip line that starts at Lincoln Peak above the Valley House Lodge and sends riders through the air to a landing pad behind the Gate House.

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