Aspen Skiing Company’s new Lost Forest in Snowmass gives teens and tweens (and their parents) a way to find courage – hoot, hollar – and find themselves.
You should understand the inherent risks. The Lost Forest Canopy Run zipline tour in the Snowmass Ski Area opens with essential legal disclaimers covering everything from insect bites, to weather, to shoulder injuries. Our group of teen and preteen boys and girls and adults, wearing full harnesses, helmets and nifty clip-on water pouches answered with the requisite double thumbs up to show that we all understood.
Then off we went, giddy.
Honestly, at the moment, the biggest concern to everyone, including we adults, was the certainty that there would be no bathroom breaks for at least three hours, no way to unstrap from our harnesses if nature called, and yet we needed to hydrate. We doubled-down on assurances that everyone had, indeed, taken care of business, and we coached the kids to sip slowly – as the reality of our endeavor in the Lost Forest kicked in.
This isn’t a ride at Disney World.
Of course we could “get off of the ride” if we really needed to, but if we did, there was no getting back on. Saying Yes was committing to seven, progressively faster, higher and longer ziplines that criss-cross Snowmass. Plus swinging bridges, rappels and the only “Lateral Descent” zipline belay in North America. This excursion, this carefully planned, expertly executed trek offers a chance to see parts of the forest that you cannot see any other way. We would soar, reaching speeds of 45 miles per hour, and this promise wowed even our fast-skiing, fast-biking, backcountry-savvy teens.
From the beginning, this adventure felt altogether different than your typical thrill ride.
It started with Ground School in a sun-dappled clearing above Elk Camp, where our guides, Chris Pattillo and Conor Flynn trained us on zipline trolleys, carabiner-style lanyards and leather “bear claw” mitts for controlling speed.
Immediately, upon watching Lost Forest Aerial Course Manager Chris Pattillo as he unlocked a gate onto a deck to a swinging rope bridge at the start of our adventure, I felt the degree of professional-yet-extreme fun underlying all of Aspen Skiing Company’s operations. Pattillo and Flynn assured our safety – seeing us locked in, secured by two or three fail-safe measures – at each juncture of the course. Every feature of the design carried an equal measure of absolute safety balanced by the palm-sweat flush of perceived risk.
From the rope bridge, we reached a platform nearly 40-feet up an enormous Ponderosa pine. Imagine the tree house you dreamed of building at age 10 – part Ewok village, part Indiana Jones. We remarked about how hidden it was.
Lost & Found
“I am in awe of the design. It blends in so well that it hides in plain sight,” Pattillo commented, sharing stories about wildlife and mountain bikers who pass by underneath, rarely aware of people in the tress right above them.
This carefully-held experience took more than ten years of planning. Aspen Skiing Company worked closely with the U.S. Forest Service and Bonsai Design, a world-class adventure course provider. They created a program with minimal impact on the forest, a team of arborists, and a maintenance plan honed on the health of the trees upon which the course depends.
The Lost Forest starts with a rappel, lowering twenty feet to a launch pad for the first zipline. It had been years since my last belay. I had forgotten the feeling of that first backward step into the air – the trust fall and the quickened heart rate – a feeling that passes as soon as you feel your harness and know you’re held.
Here’s an adage given to me on my first day of rock climbing during my first week in Aspen. “Trust yourself, trust your partner, trust your gear.” These are words to live by when you’re making decisions at 30, 50, or 85 feet up. Before motherhood, back when I climbed all summer, that kind of mortal trust somehow felt less weighted by gravity than now. Yet there I was, in complete, relaxed, certain trust while my twelve-and-sixteen-year-olds launched into the unknown, not at all hesitant.
I asked outdoor educator and member of our group, “Ms. Soozie” Lindbloom, to pinpoint what made this experience unique.
“Nature,” she quickly answered. “Amusement parks are big fun, don’t get me wrong, but adventures in nature are multi-sensory. They are real – not protected from the weather. Just ask the kids on our tour about putting their noses right up to the bark of a Ponderosa pine and getting a big whiff of sweet vanilla. Or the way the trees swayed and how we swayed with them, or the sound the wind made through the aspen leaves, or the way the light turns a soothing green color in the forest.”
Respect for the forest is threaded into every detail – from platform supports designed to minimize impact on trees, to forest-stewardship materials, to the layout itself. You travel from deep evergreen woods, through aspen groves, and eventually out into a wide-open expanse of mountain meadow, quickly recognized as a favorite wintertime ski run.
The course also progresses seamlessly from the first short zip over a shallow pond to final side-by-side racing lines that run more than 1,300 feet to an observation deck nearly 100 feet above the ground.
“Progression is fundamental,” said Lindbloom, whose professional experience revolves around leading groups in wilderness team-building exercises. “Everyone has different levels of comfort around risk, and when there is progression, people can draw on their immediate past accomplishments and use them to overcome successive challenges. Progression also sets the group up for success as we all get to bear witness to how others grow and become more willing with each challenge. As trust builds with progression, those bigger experiences at the end become even more poignant.”
Finding Your Courage, Finding Yourself
The most daunting part, perhaps even more shaking than the run itself – stepping up onto a footstool while the guides snap the zipline trolley into place. You’re standing a head taller than everyone else, and you’re exposed. You’re in a place between knowing and not knowing, which early-childhood educator Jean Piaget described as the “liminal space where all growth and discovery lies,” because when you push past that line, the staggering edge of your own comfort, you feel your capital S Self.
In the moment, however, the big blue eyes of an eleven-year-old girl asked for less esoteric words. “You’ve got this,” our guide, Conor Flynn said to her. “I’m not worried about you. You’ve shown me that you can do this.” The unspoken truth: now you must show yourself that you can do it. And this, she did, hooting and hollering the whole way, landing with an enormous smile.
“We spend so much time building up walls in our lives,” her mother later reflected. “But these experiences break down our walls and let us tap into our true and open selves in a way that few other activities can. For this reason, I think that Colorado might just have the most-per-capita moon howlers. Our penchant to be outside and get simultaneously awed and pummelled by mother nature is really what we mean when we clink our glasses and toast to ‘Colorado living!’”
The Big LD
Another form of awe came over the group when we came to the element of the course called “the LD.” Ski Co has its own language of acronyms, the decoding of which can make you feel immediately like an insider. LD stands for Lateral Descent, an innovation in design that exists only here. In order to bring us from one tree stand to the next, which falls at too steep an angle over too short a distance for a zipline, the course designers came up with a belayed zip, in which a device is used, like in rappelling, to control speed. The engineering marvel of it, the ah hah experience of learning how pulley systems work by actually clipping into one – this deserves an insider name, LD.
Not surprisingly, the kids were starving after seven ziplines and the final rappel. Their adolescent bodies are rarely not hungry, but their appetite afterward was remarkable. After only a few seconds on solid ground (which felt startlingly still after an afternoon gently swaying in the trees) they raced for snacks. As they ate and chattered and ate some more, it became clear that all of this energy was meant for digesting the profound experience we had shared.
“What did we just do?” Ms. Soozie asked, drawing from her Outward Bound work. “How can this transfer into our every day lives?”
I admitted that my seemingly daring, too-fast landing early in the course was not at all an example of bravery. “I hesitated to use my hand to brake, unable to trust that I could slow myself down.” This metaphor for my busy everyday life is true and profound.
Lindbloom later went on to explain, “Most of us don’t go around having epic adventures every day, but epic adventures allow us to test our true mettle. So how can we harness these experiences to aid us on the real epic adventure that is Life? Did you take risks? Overcome challenge? Feel supported by the group? Do you do these things in your “other” life? Why or why not? These can be life-changing questions.”
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