On the Ropes at Blue Mountain

Blue Mountain’s high ropes course, now in its third year of operation, represents an explosion of the sport in North America. Formerly a niche pastime mostly practiced by teenagers at summer camps, high ropes are now front-and-centre in the middle of Ontario’s largest resort – and proving to be a huge green-season draw.

A five-minute hike up from the base of Smart Alec stands the Timber Challenge, an elaborate structure that soars up to 50 feet high, with 75 aerial elements – suspension bridges, ladders, cargo nets, zip lines and much more – built into the tree canopy. It calls to mind a massive Ewok defense position from Return of the Jedi.

ANGELA BISBY PHOTO. Courtesy Toronto Star.

Blue brought in aerial park design-build firm Absolutely Experiential to create the Timber Challenge High Ropes along with the kid-friendly Woodlot Low Ropes at the base of the hill. “Blue Mountain is probably the largest park we’ve built,” says AE owner John Ireland from his office in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. “If you include the two courses, it’s about the same size or bigger than Catamount [a park in the New York Appalachians].”

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A few of the Timber Challenge elements – including The Hundred Mile, a long, continuous bridge, and The Hallway, a series of rope doorways – exist nowhere else in North America.

Ireland begins each of his park designs by making sketches after visiting the proposed site. “We spend several days marking out tree and pole locations,” he says. “After I form the park in my head, I start putting it on paper.” Arborists make assessments of all trees in the area and pinpoint which ones are strong and high enough to use. Ireland then hammers out the final plan with structural and geo-tech engineers.

The Blue Mountain site demanded special attention due to the proximity of the Niagara Escarpment. “We had to show the impact a park would have on the area,” says Ireland. “Our design didn’t mandate the removal of any large healthy trees. And I think they saw that there would be very little impact on the ground area. Where the main tower and the poles are was a developed area already.”

MARC LANDRY PHOTO. Courtesy Blue Mountain Resort.
MARC LANDRY PHOTO. Courtesy Blue Mountain Resort.

The park’s seven courses boast three difficulty levels which guests must graduate through: Green (beginner), Blue (intermediate) and Black (expert). While on the ropes, every guest wears a five-point harness, helmet and gloves. “We use a smart belay system,” says Blue’s Graeme Dugale. “On each harness are two lanyards… it allows only one of the claws of the lanyards to be unclipped at any given time. Staff have different equipment which allows them to move around more freely if they need to coach someone through an element.”

For a structure that encourages humans to dance through treetops like squirrels, questions of safety inevitably arise. What if you slip? “You’re always attached to the belay cable,” says Dugale. “If you slipped off, your belay cable would catch you, and your lanyards would catch you. You’ll also have a trolley attached to you. There are about a dozen zip lines and the trolley is used for zipping. If you fall, you’ll only be a foot or so from the main belay cable so you can either pull yourself back up on one of the elements or pull yourself back onto one of the platforms.”

The Woodlot, for children aged 6 and up, operates with a continuous belay system. “Once kids are on the trolley system, they don’t come off,” says Dugale. “When they come to a post or platform, there’s a bracket that takes the belay cable around it, so they’re never unclipped.”

For those who might be uneasy with heights but want to try the Timber Challenge, Dugale has this advice: “Being a little afraid is natural, but once you get up there and start walking on an element, the fear goes away. You’re forced to be in the moment. Once you learn the equipment and learn to trust the equipment, then you’re on your way. You feel good when you finish a course – you surprise yourself.”