SOUTH EGREMONT — The first five minutes on an aerial adventure course are a little unsettling, as you try to figure out all the equipment attached to the harness around your waist. Tethered to a cable by two carabiners, you must learn to open and shut the devices around a plastic bolt before proceeding. Want to sample that zipline? Add a third contraption that rolls atop the cable.
I was with my family on one of the easiest courses at Catamount Aerial Adventure Park, the yellow-dotted Snapdragon. After getting the feel of my equipment and learning to do the limbo under cables that wrap around the trees, we crossed over wood and rope bridges, one more challenging than the next, while ziplining down three lines.
“It was exciting,” said Isabel Erwin, 10, of Falls Church, Va., after finishing the course. “The rope bridge was a little wobbly, and I wanted to come down, but the zip-lines were fun.”
Call it a treetop obstacle course or an aerial adventure park, these thrills above ground are proliferating across New England. On the border with New York, Catamount unveiled its design in 2009 and has steadily grown to attract close to 25,000 visitors each spring, summer, and fall. It boasts the largest aerial adventure park in New England with 12 separate courses, 170 platforms, and more than 50 zip-lines. Yet Catamount’s Rich Edwards was quick to point out that this is no canopy tour.
“We don’t want to be known as a zipline park. This is a self-guided experience where each individual has their own unique experience,” Edwards said.
Catamount’s course is based on the Swiss model, where depending on level of strength, courage, and expertise, you choose between the easy yellow course or head straight for the double black Commando. Much like a ski area, courses proceed in difficulty from yellow to green to blue to black. My children have had experience with the sport at Adirondack Extreme in Bolton Landing, N.Y., which is built on the French model. That course is one long loop beginning with the easiest challenges and progressing in complexity until you tire and choose to leave.
What’s nice about Catamount’s design is that, like a ski slope, every member of the family can choose the level that best suits them. My daredevil son, Jake, 16, can challenge himself with Commando, while my wife, Lisa, and daughter, Melanie, 14, can hit one of the greens like Mountain Trail and Forest Run. With my extreme fear of heights, I can stick with the pre-adolescents on the yellow trail.
The young staff is extremely professional, helping you slide into the harness, then delivering a 10-minute introduction on how to use the equipment. From the base lodge, it’s an easy uphill walk to the lower slopes of the ski area and the start of the course. Nestled into the tall birches and maples of the forest, the setting is ideal.
The novice-oriented Snapdragon, slightly more challenging Mountain Run, and the Commando all start from the same spot, a three-story wooden treehouse-like structure in the middle of the park. As you advance to the harder courses, the heights of the platforms increase along with the effort it takes to overcome each obstacle and continue onward. For example, the log bridges are relatively stable in Snapdragon, but move with every step on Mountain Run.
I looked up to find Jake clambering up a high tree on Commando. Next up was a bridge made of wood cylinders, like walking on rolling pins. He had to lean back onto the long cable to try to cross, trying not to slip with each step.
“I’m tired,” yelled Jake, from atop the trees. Unfortunately, the next obstacle was arguably the most challenging of the entire park. Long single ropes dangled down from the top cable. At the end of each rope were stirrups you would find on a saddle. Jake had to grab onto each rope and get his foot into the narrow stirrup before continuing on to the next rope. But first he had to wait until a boy tried and failed twice to get across.
Jake’s reward for mastering Commando was a long zipline course that zigzags through the trees and open fields before reaching the base lodge. Climbing out of our harnesses, we realized we had worked up a sweat after playing in the trees for more than three hours.
As we dined on burgers and salads at a picnic table outside, a boy who had just descended on the zipline high-fived his friends and shouted, “That was amazing.”