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Go ahead, scream your head off. Zip lines are part terror and all thrill.

December 02, 2007|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

VALLECITO, CALIF. — As I step off a 25-foot-tall wooden platform, a shrill scream nearly drowns out the high-pitched zipping sound of a metal trolley spinning along a half-inch metal cable just above me.

Legs flailing, hair blowing in the wind, a white-knuckle grasp on a harness, I fly at 40 mph toward a tiny tower, barely visible in the distance. A blur of trees, shrubs and hiking trails flies past my feet. It's all happening so fast that it's hard to take in. If only that annoying girlie scream would stop.

Wait a minute. That falsetto is mine.

Then it's over. Somehow I miraculously slow down and swing to a stop, and I'm standing on the other tower, ready to do it again.

This is a zip line, the high-thrill, high-wire act that's currently sweeping through wilderness and ski resorts across the country, and once you've ridden one, it's easy to understand its popularity. Zip lines can be built in a few short months, they appeal to adrenaline junkies of all ages and are completely carbon-neutral, relying on simple gravity instead of internal combustion.

But it's the heart-pumping rush and high-altitude dread that I'm interested in. Eager to get my fix on, I trekked to this tree-shrouded canyon in Calaveras County to check out the dual zip lines at Moaning Cavern, a tourist attraction outside this former mining town in Northern California.

It's a brisk Saturday morning, and only minutes after the place opens, a gray-haired couple is strapping on safety harnesses and helmets. Senior citizens jumping on the early-bird special? No, it's the owner of the cavern, Steve Fairchild, and his wife, Linda, testing the line before the morning tourist rush. It's routine for them.

Fairchild looks like the last guy you would expect to run a zip line. He's a 68-year-old retired engineer and physicist from Los Angeles. He set roots in the Sierra foothills in 1972, when a friend offered to sell him a cave in Kings Canyon National Park. Fairchild loved exploring caverns as a kid, so he bought it and eventually snapped up four others nearby, including Moaning Cavern.

The caves provided a pretty good living, but Fairchild wanted to make the most of his investment. He will tell you, though, that the idea for the zip line came to him when he recalled an episode of an old radio program. Tom Mix was trapped on a mountaintop, surrounded by desperadoes, and, to escape, he flung his neckerchief over a power line and zipped down the mountain to safety.

Fairchild launched his zip lines in June -- complete with his own braking system (a series of weighted chains attached to the cable) -- and already he wants to add more. The existing lines are 1,500 feet long. The new line, says Fairchild, will be a mile and a half long, surpassing what's said to be the country's longest at 5,400 feet in Icy Strait Point, near Glacier Bay, Alaska, which opened in May.

The angle of descent, the length of the cable and your aerodynamic form all go into the speed and length of the ride. Call it the thrill quotient. The zip line at Moaning Cavern lasts 35 seconds and reaches a top speed of 40 mph. (At $39 for the first ride, that's about $1.10 per second.) On the Icy Strait Point line, riders get a 90-second adrenaline flight (about $1 a second) that rockets over treetops at up to 60 mph.

We can thank our thrill-seeking, carefree neighbors in South and Central America for first popularizing zip lines. In the last few years, however, U.S. resort owners have jumped on the bandwagon as a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of tourists visiting isolated caverns and snow-deprived ski resorts. The biggest advantage of the zip lines: Weather is not an obstacle. Gravity operates through sun and snow.

In May, Tamarack Resort in central Idaho added eight lines that hang over the resort's ponderosa pine forest. In July, Wildcat Mountain Ski Area in New Hampshire added a dual zip line ride that flies 2,100 feet over trails, trees and the Peabody River. Later this month, Heavenly Ski resort in South Lake Tahoe plans to open one, and next month the Kapalua Resort in Maui -- best known for its golf course -- is adding 16 zip lines to its new adventure outpost.

At Moaning Cavern, I climb a wooden bridge to the platform for my second ride. But before I can take my turn, I have to wait behind six tourists who happen to be in the area exploring the small towns. This is, after all, Gold Country.

No athletic ability is needed here. In fact, no need to even hang on. The harness wraps around your legs and torso and hooks onto the zip line's metal trolley. The Moaning Cavern zip lines can carry a rider as light as 70 pounds or as heavy as 260.

On the line ahead of me, Balagi Srini, a tall, broad-shouldered native of Chennai, India, lifts his feet off the platform and flies down the line.

"Aaaaayyyyyyyiiiiiii!" he yells as he streaks to the other platform. Later, he insists he was not scared.

Yeah, right.

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