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Climbing in the home of the braid


Our intrepid reporter tries the rope course among the trees at Catamount

COPAKE–It’s like being in a tree house with a network of bridges that allow travel from tree to tree, like walking on a wobbly balance beam, tree limb or a swing. And remember what fun it was to climb on a jungle gym? Swiss Family Robinson meets Avatar at the Catskill Adventure Park, where I went Monday morning to check out the Catamount Ski Area’s new, non-ski attraction.

Last year, when it opened its high ropes aerial forest challenge park and mountain biking trails for use in spring, summer and fall, the ski area morphed into a year-round adventure park. I wasn’t sure about trying the ropes course, because years spent as a reporter had not left much time for extracurricular athletics. But I was assured by Rich Edwards, the park’s marketing director, that one doesn’t need to be ultra-fit to maneuver through the course.

“Good balance, agility and an average amount of strength are all you need. It’s an intuitive process. You catch on pretty quickly,” he said.

I’m hooked.

On Monday morning, instructor Will Degaramo from Alford, Mass. outfitted me with a mountain climbing harness equipped with two clips, or caribiners, on straps attached to the harness and gave me a brief course in how to proceed. Stay clipped in to your safety line at all times is the basic message. I practiced on a set-up in the lodge before heading out.

“Your time here is all about thrills and chills, but no spills,” says the park’s website, “Stay attached,” say signs posted throughout the park. “We’ve hardly had to put a bandage on anyone,” said Mr. Edwards.

I was soon 12 feet up a tree standing on one of the park’s 115 wraparound tree platforms, ready to enter an aerial wonderland of 120 rope, cable and wooden bridges, or “elements,” as the park calls them. Each element offers a slightly different mental and physical challenge. Since the course grows progressively more difficult, you learn as you go, gaining confidence and skill.

Guides stationed on the ground to help if needed say that although they are trained to perform rescues most of the help they administer is verbal. Frequently climbers are so focused on how to take their next step that they don’t even notice what’s below. Many have learned here how to cope with heights, says Mr. Edwards.

In two to three hours I traveled on three of the park’s eight courses, which range in difficulty from basic to advanced. On the difficult trails bridges become less stable and require more balance, agility, focus, arm strength and sheer will power. The beginning courses are located 10 to 20 feet above ground, while the advanced courses are up as high as 60 to 70 feet.

Not everyone will be ready on a fist visit to climb the Commando course marked with a double black diamond (the designations mirror the codes used to mark ski runs). These challenging trails have longer, more vertical climbs, rope ladders, suspended plywood climbing walls, a rope web, long loops tunnels made of slats.

“One step at a time,” becomes my mantra.

“You’re doing great,” Rich Edwards told me.

“You are doing terrific. There’s nothing you can’t do,” I hear a mother shout to her young son negotiating a far more advanced trail than the one I’m on. (Kids really seem to shine in this environment, maybe because of an advantageous size to strength ratio.) Later, she reminded him to be patient, a useful skill here.

After grappling with a series of elements featuring logs and planks, some with space or wires between them, some more wobbly than others, I find myself on a tightrope cable with nothing more to hold on to than another horizontal cable at shoulder level. Weight distribution and where I held my head turned out to be my keys to success. Of course, my harness securely attached with two clips to the upper wire would have prevented a fall.

After reluctance my first trip, I find I really like the zip lines that enable one to glide from one tree to the next. Your harness comes equipped with a clip that hooks you firmly onto the zip line. As you progress, zip lines become longer and faster. They provide a nice break from climbing, and add speed and variety to the experience.

While 24 of the bridges in the regular courses are zip lines, there are more in the pipeline. Later this summer, the park plans to open a new course with 8 long zip lines strung high up that cross the ski trails in a zigzag course 400 feet long. You’ll soon be able to travel all the way back to the lodge in the open space, exposed to all the scenic vistas one can see in winter from the chair lifts.

Climbers range in age from 8 to 80. Most come from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York City, Long Island and points in between. A family from California was there on Monday. Group rates enable scout troops, friends, and families to climb together. Some parents remain on the ground to coach their kids, while others climb along with them.

“It’s a self guided adventure. Each time it’s possible to do the same course differently,” said Adam Peck, a guide on the course and a native of Copake. “We see scout troops engaged in team building helping each other get through the course in the best way. It’s always encouragement that I hear, and cooperation. People go farther than they thought they would.”

That was certainly true in my case, and I can’t wait to come back with friends and family.

Rich Edwards tells me that ropes parks originated in Europe in recent years, and are now catching on in the US. The Catamount course, designed by Swiss Alpine Mountaineers to the standards of the American Challenge Course Technology (ACCT), is inspected regularly. Last summer, without even advertising, the park attracted 12,000 climbers. The Internet gets the word out to people who Google “ropes course” or “adventure,” he said.

“We’re expecting a 50% increase this summer,” he said. “People aren’t looking to lie on a beach anymore, this is different and healthy.”

While some courses, like the one at Hunter Mountain across the Hudson River in Tannersville, are built on telephone poles out in the open, and can get hot, the Catamount course, situated under the tree canopy, remains cool, comfortable and bug free. Thought to be one of the largest courses in the Northeast, it’s still growing.

The park is also promoting its mountain bike trails, which are open for their third year. These sport specific trails offer a high quality riding experience on a range of terrain including logs and rocks to a small highly skilled group of extreme sport enthusiasts. If you don’t have your own body armor and bike equipped with disk breaks, think twice. You might not belong here.

The park is a great example of a sustainable, green business. Unlike ski slopes, which rely on chair lifts and snow making machines, or an amusement park, once the tree course and bike trails are built, they consume no energy, and having the park open all four seasons allows the business to retain a core staff year round.

Sneakers or hiking shoes, well fitting flexible clothing are recommended.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and weather permitting through September 10, then weekends through October 31.

The price for a 3-hour pass is $46 for ages 12 and up; children are $29 to $35.

To contact Catamount call (518) 325-3200 or (413) 528-1262, or go to

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