Choose your thrill at Whistler, from Peak 2 Peak gondola to Canada’s longest zipline

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      Suited up in harnesses and helmets, nine of us stand on a sturdy wooden platform, joking in nervous anticipation. We watch as the attendant hooks the first two people in our group onto two parallel zipline cables. From the platform on Rainbow Mountain, the lines slant immediately down over an expansive valley, where nothing but a whole lot of air pads a forest of triangular tree tips. In the distance, the craggy beauty of Mount Weart’s Armchair Glacier distracts us for a few minutes with an irresistible photo op. Then our focus returns to the ziplines, and we look directly across at Cougar Mountain, squinting at what appears to be a postage-stamp–size landing platform. The line is 1.16 kilometres long—and it’s not even the longest one we’ll ride today.

      We’re 15 minutes north of Whistler on a Superfly Ziplines tour. Adding to the four existing lines in the area, the company launched two new lines on July 1. One of them is the longest in Canada, at 1.26 kilometres, and we’re about to traverse the second-longest. “It’s as long as 773 mountain bikes, or 96 school buses,” says our guide, Jen Black, on the shuttle ride up. It’s not so much the length of the line that daunts me, but the height: 195 metres above the valley floor. That’s nearly half as high as the Peak 2 Peak gondola, which traverses Whistler Blackcomb at 436 metres above Fitzsimmons Creek. Bragging rights aside, here’s what really matters: there’s a big gap between leaping and landing, and it’s a long, long way down.

      At the sound of tandem yelps, I turn to see the first two zipliners zooming down the cable. Going… going… going… I lose track of them at about the two-thirds mark.

      “Who’s next?” Black yells.

      This is our third of six lines today, and Black has made it clear that each one is “challenge by choice”. That is, if you decide at any point that you’d rather return to the circuit’s home base by land rather than air, she’ll summon up a way to get you back. But since we started gently—with two “bunny hill” lines under 300 metres—I’m comfortable with the drill. It’s actually not as terrifying as I thought it would be, since there’s no skill required. At each launch station, an attendant simply clips your harness onto a trolley attached to the cable. You lean back, and your harness transforms into a hammock-like seat that puts your feet dangling above the platform. When you’re all buckled up and it’s safe to go, the attendant releases a lever, and gravity does the rest. You don’t need to muster the courage to jump off the platform yourself, and at the other end, you don’t need to operate a manual brake—it’s all automatic. Since there are no split-second decisions required, the experience feels more like an amusement-park ride than an adrenaline challenge like skydiving.

      But still—the fact remains that a naked cable links you to possible eternity.

      That makes ziplining thrilling, as does the speed; depending on your weight, you can reach up to 100 kilometres an hour (heavier people go faster). While I do my fair share of screaming over the course of the route, overall, I find the experience oddly relaxing. Perhaps it’s because of the downtime at the platforms, soaking up the wilderness views and mountain air. But it’s also the moments, mid-zip, when I let go of my death-grip on the handlebar, unfurl my arms, and dare to let my palms cut through the wind. That’s when a sense of wonder replaces the fear.

      While zipping is all well and good, the following day I’m happy to have the protection of a steel gondola. I’ve done the Peak 2 Peak crossing before, but now I have a renewed appreciation for strong cables. With a three-kilometre unsupported span, this is the world’s longest continuous lift system, anchored by just four towers. It’s certainly not one I’d want to zip across harnessed only in a hammock contraption.

      Before boarding the gondola on the Whistler side, head up a short flight of steel stairs to the overhead viewing platform. (While the Peak 2 Peak has been operating since 2008, this vantage point just opened to the public in June.) From here, you can look down on the whirling, spinning belts and wheels that propel the cabins, and get a look at the cable system’s haul and track ropes.

      Next door, in the alpine theatre at the Roundhouse, part of a short video looks at the history of the lift system on Whistler Blackcomb. Back in the 1960s, it says, workers transported equipment for chair-lift construction by pack horse, and helicopters took up concrete in beer kegs. The Peak 2 Peak project was considerably more technologically advanced, but when you stop and think about it, the whole idea of moving people through the air between mountains is quite a feat.

      For some, the Peak 2 Peak—never mind ziplining—is more thrill than they can handle. Later, on the patio of the Roundhouse Lodge over a barbecue dinner, I share a table with an Australian woman and her husband, who have just finished an afternoon of sightseeing. While they both enjoyed the open-air chair lift to the summit of Whistler Mountain, she elected to have a glass of wine while he crossed the Peak 2 Peak span. “It’s just so… high,” she points out, gazing down at the sparkling speck that is Whistler Village.

      High, indeed. But even when you’re sitting still, the view is spectacular.

      You can follow Carolyn Ali on Twitter @carolynali

      ACCESS: Superfly Ziplines operates year-round out of Whistler Village. A three-and-a-half-hour roundtrip tour with six zips costs $129 for adults and $99 for kids aged seven to 12; for weight restrictions, see superflyziplines.com/. For prices and hours on the Peak 2 Peak gondola, see whistlerblackcomb.com/. The writer was a guest of Superfly, Whistler Blackcomb, and the Westin Resort & Spa Whistler.

       

       

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