Pushing the limits at Arizona Zipline Adventures | By Jeff Atwell
For twenty-odd years, the south side of the Santa Catalina Mountains has been in view—an awesome site every time I step outside in Tucson, hike the foothills, or drive the hairpins up to Mount Lemmon. During a visit with friends from Florida, I finally had my first up-close encounter with the north face.
My friends and I are pushing 50, and ziplining, we agreed, seemed the most strapped-in way to catch an adrenaline buzz. On the drive out to Arizona Zipline Adventures in Oracle, just north of Tucson, views of the massive rock face of Pusch Ridge and the saguaro-studded valleys of Catalina State Park set the theme for the day: Nature calls the shots here.
Give in to gravity
From the platform of zip one—the “bunny slope” according to our guides Kyle and Karly—it sunk in that a 1/2-inch “super-swaged galvanized steel” cable was the only thing protecting us from the craggy desert below. We all cinched up our gear a little tighter, and when Kyle and Karly gave instructions we tuned in. Left arm up means pull the brake. Two arms X’d means pull down on both cords and lean back. And like with most things, the first step is the most difficult.
Kyle showed us how to get into a crouched position before we step off. Gravity will do the rest, he said. Karly demonstrated by effortlessly zipping to the first landing pad to catch the rest of us. At 400 feet, the first zip looked plenty long to us first-timers, but we’d soon learn 400 feet was fodder for mere mortals.
None of us stuck the landing on the bunny slope. It takes time to get the hand signals down and honestly, when we pulled the brake it did very little to slow us down. Leaning back with legs out straight and pulling back hard on both straps put us in the best position to land without an abrupt, flailing clack.
By the second zip, our form improved. By the third, fourth, and fifth zips, we started to fly. We learned that tucking into a ball generates speed, and that taking one hand off the grips quickly turns our bodies 90 degrees in the opposite direction. Some in our group turned that new skill into zip circles and backwards zipping. But we noticed all that really did was slow them down. We were here to go as fast as we could.
Freefalling over the rugged Coronado National Forest, no matter how strapped in and supervised we were, caused everyone in our group to scream like lost goats with each launch. At each landing pad, we’d pull it together and hike up to the next launch platform, giddy to do it again.
From the final platform, the line dropped at 45 degrees for what looked like more than half of the 1,500-foot zip. From way up there, it looked like the line evened out where the scrubby foothills met an outcropping of boulders, and beyond that we had to squint to see the landing.
It was cool to discover that the longest zipline in the state is actually the two longest ziplines in the state. From the final platform, we launched in twos as side-by-side zips turned the biggest thrill of the day into a race. After topping 60 m.p.h. on the final zip, I still lost the race by getting into landing position too early and ended up dangling short of the platform. No worries. Kyle was there to reel me in.
Back at the starting point, we got out of our gear and had a round of high fives and hugs all around with strangers who had become fast friends. We hung out on the patio while we came down from the rush, comparing dopamine levels and reminiscing about cheating death.
Weeks later, I get butterflies on demand. When I look at the serene south face of the Catalinas towering over the metro, I now know what’s on the other side. Just the thought of the exhilarating ride on the north face takes me back to flying out of my comfort zone.