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I agreed to go ziplining at Ruby Falls' High Point ZIP Adventure after the originally assigned writer balked. Apparently, after some preliminary research, he remembered his fear of heights. It wasn't until the night before my appointment that the thought occurred to me, "Wait, am I afraid of heights, too?"
Located on Lookout Mountain, the ZIP Adventure features two ziplines, totaling 700 feet and soaring four stories above the rocky mountainside. Ruby Falls first launched ziplining in 2010, but this year, the iconic tourist attraction partnered with High Point Climbing and Fitness to upgrade its course and introduce a new 40-foot climbing wall.
"The goal [of the partnership] was to put more focus on physical activity," said Ruby Falls President Hugh Morrow, who, along with High Point partner and co-founder John Wiygul, met me at the course.
If you go
› Hours: Until May 19, High Point ZIP Adventure will open only on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Starting May 25, it will open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for most of the season, which runs through Oct. 27, though some days feature limited hours.
› Cost: ZIP Adventure (access to the zip course and climbing wall), $19.95 per person; ZIP Adventure plus Ruby Falls admission, $39.90 per adult and $31.90 per child (up to age 12)
Visit rubyfalls.com for more information.
The climbing tower offers multiple routes of varying difficulty. Though, Wiygul told me, it is designed to help introduce beginners to the sport. That day, I was there to zipline, a new-to-me experience, and I wasn't sure how to mentally prepare. After all, I have mixed emotions about high places. While I am not bothered by bluffs or steep hikes, I loathe Ferris wheels and merely tolerate ski lifts.
"Certain types of adventure make me nervous," Morrow said, perhaps sensing my ambivalence, "but this isn't one of them."
As we waited for the ZIP Adventure team members to complete their final course inspection, which they do daily before opening, I watched as more and more participants arrived, nearly all with elementary school-aged children in tow.
High Point ZIP Adventure is geared for families, though children under 10 must be accompanied by a parent. Moreover, zipliners must weigh between 60 and 275 pounds.
"The bigger you are, the faster you go," Wiygul told me. "You can get up to about 20 miles per hour."
Once the course had cleared inspection, a group of seven, which included myself and Wiygul, who would also zipline that day, were ushered to the trail-side for a brief orientation. The rules were straightforward: No smoking, no drinking, no intoxication and no loose items in your pockets.
"Safety is your responsibility," the young ZIP Adventure guide told us.
Next, it was time to gear up with helmets and harnesses, which were checked and double-checked by different team members. Then, we climbed a spiral staircase to the "send" tower, where, one at a time, we would be clipped into the course's pulley system.
The basic mechanics of a zipline are simple: A stainless steel cable is connected between two points in a downward sloping fashion. The pulley system, which runs along that cable, is designed to minimize friction, helping the rider accelerate as he or she descends. The distance between a cable's two points varies from course to course.
The longest zipline in the world, for example, is located in Puerto Rico and stretches 7,234 feet, more than a mile, in length. High Point ZIP Adventure's two courses, in contrast, include a 300-foot and 400-foot long line. My plan was to do both.
At the top of the platform, once clipped in to the cable, I peered down at the budding treetops and felt no nervousness at all. I trusted the equipment, but, more importantly, I trusted the staff, whose professional but laid-back nature made me feel as secure as the industrial carabiner that fastened my harness to the pulley.
"Whenever you're ready, just sit down and lift your legs," the guide on the platform said to me.
And just like that, I was off.
It's hard to describe the sensation of zipping. The free-flying feeling was reminiscent of being on a swing set — but with only a forward momentum and without that uneasy stomach-drop — while going really fast. I had only seconds to ponder the experience before the zipline's metallic brakes clanked overhead.
"Lift your legs!" the next guide called to me as I swung onto the "transfer" platform.
There, the guide set my gear to run the second course. As he worked, he nodded over his shoulder where there unfolded an expansive view of the city and beyond.
"You can even see the Smoky Mountains from here," he said, pointing to a distant blue ripple shrouded by smoky mist. "And you can see where they get their name."
And then, I was off again.
Seconds later, the brakes clanked. I had arrived at the "catch" platform, where the ride ends.
As I made my way back to the climbing tower to return my gear, I noticed how busy the course had become. More families had arrived. Some waited in line to climb, others geared up to zip, but all of them wore a similar expression of giddy anticipation.
Ruby Falls' High Point ZIP Adventure, after all, is a fun challenge — not just for beginners and families, but even for those who might hesitate and ask, "Wait, am I afraid of heights?"