A Day of Adventure at Gunstock Mountain
I write for the Laconia Sun in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. The following is a piece I penned about a day spent in the Adventure Park at Gunstock Mountain. It was invigorating!
Gunstock Mountain Resort has been a staple in my life for nearly a half century.
I spent many days riding up on the chairlift and zooming down the alpine slide as a teen in the late 1970s. I learned to ski at Gunstock. I’ve hiked on dozens of the mountain’s trails.
Not long after the Zip Tour became an offering in November 2011, I emerged from the woods onto the summit via the Orange Trail and spied people flying down the mountain on a cable.
“No way would I do that,” I told my hiking buddy as we watched people get clipped on and literally zip off. “Way too scary.”
I had also pronounced I would never do the Aerial Treetop Adventure Course either. Nope, no way.
As I’ve gotten older, though, my taste for adventure has increased along with my willingness to have faith. When invited to experience the Gunstock Adventure Park earlier this month, I took a big gulp and decided it was time to conquer that fear of heights thing.
A friend and I signed on for the Premium Adventure, which allows one to choose between the Zip and Segway Tours and to also experience the Mountain Coaster, Aerial Treetop Adventure Course, the kayaks and paddle boards, and the Discover Zone, complete with a stunt jump and bungee trampolines. (This package is a deal in my mind at $88 midweek for an adult. See www.gunstock.com/summer/adventure-park/ for youth and weekend/holiday pricing or to learn more.)
Rachel Templar, Gunstock’s marketing manager, told my friend Mary Harrington and I as we began our exploration, “As adults, we sometimes forget how to just live life and have fun. Kids are great at this. As adults, it’s great to have an opportunity to get back to playing!”
This is the story of the most exhilarating play day we’ve had in decades.
We got our anxiety systems started slowly by choosing the Mountain Coaster first. Rachel—who is as energetic and perky as a summer camp counselor—came along as our guide. Mary and I were a little jittery, but we were excited too as we each climbed single-file in our carts, Rachel in the front, then me with Mary picking up the rear.
You ascend the mountain in your cart, pulled along by a cable. It’s peaceful and gives you a nice chance to peer around as you move through the pristine woods. Once at the top, the cable releases your cart, and your speed becomes your call; you push your hand controls forward to accelerate, pulling back to slow or stop.
While I love speed, I was cautious, testing the brakes frequently as I began my descent; I could no longer see Rachel. She was an experienced rider with no fear!
The coaster feels much like a roller coaster as you fly around sharp turns and take steep dips. It can reach speeds of up to 25 miles an hour.
“That was a blast,” Mary and I both told Rachel as we climbed out of our carts at the base of the mountain.
We parted ways with her and headed over to keep our 11 a.m. appointment to get harnessed up for the Zip Tour. “Nervous?” I asked Mary.
“Yeah,” she said, as if that was a stupid question.
I was running with the mantra that had been suggested to us by friends and Rachel: “Trust the equipment.” Rachel had told us the equipment was tested annually by an outside firm and daily by staff. My fear level was manageable at a two on a one-to-10 scale.
Two guides helped our group of about 15 harness up. We were handed backpacks that held the pulley system and clips we would need to ride down; we all put them on our backs and walked in a clump toward the first two sets of zip line.
A guide explained some safety protocols—don’t touch the line, for instance—and he told us how to accelerate and how to brake. Then, two at a time, we zipped down the first set of training cables, which were only about 50 feet long. Simple. Easy. Likewise, with the second training set, which was twice as long and had a steeper grade.
“That was fun,” I exclaimed to Mary when we got to the other side.
We headed to the chairlift, and as we walked, my fear level inched up from a two to a three. Guides had told us you can fly at speeds of up to 65 miles an hour on the zipline, and the course is over a mile long.
I thought about that little pulley, the skinny little cable as we boarded the chairlift to head up to the summit, but I held the mantra: “Trust the equipment.”
On the way up, my anxiety spiked to 25 when we caught sight of the dual cables running down the mountain to our left, hundreds of feet above the tree line. “Oh my God,” I said to Mary. “We’re coming down on those.”
There was nervous laughter, talk of hiking down. We had to force ourselves not to think about it. “Trust the equipment. Trust the equipment. They test it daily. Trust.”
The third set at the summit was not too daunting; you could see the platform where you would brake down below. Mary and I easily zipped off.
Climbing the metal spiral stairs for the fourth of five sets was where panic set in. The sight of the cables disappearing all the way down the mountain into trees took our breath away. Mary repeated, “I don’t think I can do this.”
I wasn’t giving in, but the thought that we might die passed through my mind. I could not hear the trust refrain, only thoughts about survival. We told the guides we were freaking out and asked them to check our equipment, panicking as we allowed them to clip us both on, breathing rapidly as we waited for them to get the all-clear signal from down below.
I bounced in my harness on the cable, testing the pulley.
“One, two, three, go,” the guides told us. Defying our minds, we released our brakes and began to speed down.
The next five minutes passed in a blur of emotions; there was panic, as I spun to the rear continuously as I flew down the mountain, shifting back to face forward only when I gently applied the brake, but there was also pride and joy and a sense of accomplishment and “Oh-my-God-look-at-me!”
After our feet were on solid ground, over and over, Mary and I said things to each other like, “I can’t believe we just did that,” and we laughed, and we trembled and hugged each other to prove we were still alive.
The final descent seemed like toddler fodder. We could see that we would zip right over the parking lot and the pond, landing near the hut for the treetop adventure.
We were ready for an adult beverage when we landed. But it was only about 1 p.m. on a hot, sunny day, and we had more adventure to tackle, so we settled for water instead.
After a brief rest to let our hearts and minds recover, we went down the mountain coaster a second time, thinking of it as akin to a sorbet between courses to cleanse the palette. Both of us felt far braver than on our first run. I wanted to zoom down without brakes, but I did end up using them a few times.
In the Discover Zone, Mary videotaped me doing back flips—harnessed in—on a trampoline. I felt as fearless as I did in high school gymnastics. I backflipped and backflipped until I worried Mary was growing bored.
While there were multiple attractions to try in the Discover Zone, we had a treetop adventure to try.
Aerial Treetop Adventures Course
There are 91 activities on the treetop course—a combination of bridges, ropes, swinging obstacles, and mini ziplines that you navigate independently as you pass through the trees, ascending higher and higher as you make your way through five levels that gradually become more difficult.
Zachary Downs, an aerial treetop adventures guide, led the demonstration for our group of six. Again, we got harnessed in, and then we learned how to clip ourselves on to the cable that traverses the obstacles in the trees and to use other equipment we would encounter on the courses. We learned that if you slip or fall, the clip and the cable hold you until you get your bearings and clamor back onto the obstacle that tripped you up.
I resurrected the “Trust the equipment” line, and felt brave enough to go first on the demo level of the course. It was only about five feet off the ground. We crossed a bridge, maneuvered around a tree, leapt on a rope swing over an open area.
Then Mary and I headed into the first level on our own. Here, we were roughly 10 feet above the ground, in the trees, and I mostly loved every moment of it, except for walking across a series of about a dozen swinging wooden dowels; that sent shock waves of panic through my limbs.
I enjoyed the challenge of clipping myself in and managing the pulley on my own when I needed to zip between two trees. I liked figuring out how I would tackle each set of obstacles and forming a plan in my head. I felt like I was in the starter-kit version of American Ninja Warrior.
It took Mary and I about an hour to complete two levels of the treetop adventure. We had hiked the Lockes Hill Trail in the morning, before heading to Gunstock, not realizing what a physical day we were about to have. So, we were weary and emotionally drained, and the next three levels were too challenging for us to forge ahead. I imagined how easy it would be to forget to clip yourself in, and in the latter levels, you can fall from two-story heights.
Our day ended with a third and final run on the coaster. Then we catapulted balloons at one another in the Discover Zone and toasted with a beer on the outside deck.
We had conquered our fear of heights and had oh so much fun in the process. What a great way to feel like a kid again, challenge yourself, go all-in. I would do it again, and I recommend the experience to anyone with even a glimmer of desire.