Carabiners clipped and fear only somewhat assuaged, the world starts to fall away as you plummet toward the valley floor.
In the distance, the Tetons slip back behind the veil of East Gros Ventre Butte, and the whir of the wire that suspends you ramps to a higher pitch. Pulling down on the handlebar you zoom past the rider next to you, legs pirouetting slightly in the mounting breeze.
After nearly a decade of negotiations and a year of construction, Snow King Mountain Resort finally opened its newest attraction — a multi-pitch zip line dubbed the steepest in the U.S. — to a small crowd of brave citizen testers on Friday.
A larger grand opening Saturday was called off due to weather, and there were no rides Sunday because of the rain.
The 60 mph descent of Snow King’s steep slope starts with a safety video at the base. During the five-minute briefing, which looks to be shot in Colorado or maybe a corner of the Swiss Alps, a cheery narrator roughly explains the basic zip line operating technique, boasting: “The most unique aspect of the ZipTour is that you can control your own speed.”
Snow King has made a series of major renovations to the mountain, transforming a once-colloquial Town Hill into a competitive resort with roller coasters and a treetop ropes course. Most recently it replaced the weathered chairs of its Summit Lift with a high-speed gondola and added a new chairlift to the back side of the King. A nearly 3,000-foot zip line from the summit is merely the cherry on top.
On Friday a couple from Las Vegas suited up as the first two visitors to take the $110 plunge. Paul Agrodny and his wife April Gasper were celebrating their third wedding anniversary with an inaugural trip to Jackson, and they were full of anticipation. As they rode up the gondola with one of the new Snow King staffers — who rode the lines repeatedly during a two-week training — she joked: “I maybe make it down nine out of 10 times.”
The couple laughed, looking only slightly uncomfortable.
At the summit, their training began with two runs on a short practice line. Staff again explained the basic controls: Once receiving the “boot,” riders must pull down all the way on a handlebar above their head to descend. Ease up on the handle, and you start to brake. Let the bar up all the way to come to a stop.
The technique is a bit counterintuitive and proved difficult for Gasper, who came to a halt midway down the practice line because she inadvertently eased up on the bar. The mistake didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows, even from the zip line installers, who stuck around to make sure the first rides went off without a hitch.
Terra Nova has installed its ZipTour infrastructure all across the country and world, from Russia to Mexico. One of its major selling points is the patented “trolley” device that customers carry in a backpack before staffers hitch it to the descent cable.
As Terra Nova notes on its website, the “dynamically controllable” devices allow customers to adjust their speed of descent to customize the ride experience. When used effectively the trolleys mean you can play tag with your partner as you both race down the mountainside.
The trolleys also mean it’s a rider’s responsibility to control the speed — and keep up momentum.
“Y’all ready for the big chungus?” a Snow King staffer asked after the two training rides.
“You bet,” Agrodny replied.
“I feel fantastic,” he told the News&Guide in a pre-flight interview. “I think everything is going to work out fine. And we’ll see each other at the bottom of the hill.”
On their ride down Snow King’s primary line, a 2,820-foot descent silhouetted by the Teton range, Agrodny and Gasper took off in spectacular fashion. But after 30 seconds of pulling down on the bar, Gasper’s arms were “gassed.”
She came to a halt well shy of the landing platform, and staff had to throw a rope to haul her in.
Signs posted at the start of the ride warn clients that “the ZipTour requires a moderate to high degree of physical strength and stamina.” The rides are not recommended for people with a history of back, neck or bone injuries, recent surgery or “any other current physical or mental illness.”
After the first major descent, Snow King’s zip line tour concludes with a shorter stretch over its alpine roller coaster. Paul Agrodny rode the line with ease, but again his wife got stuck, this time at the top of descent.
The lone employee at the top platform helped her climb out of the safety net and, suspecting a problem with the trolley, swapped it for what they both hoped would be a unit with less friction.
As Agrodny waited almost 20 minutes at the base for his wife to descend, he remained optimistic.
“We’re the first ones to try it,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll get it dialed.”
As for the $110 price tag he and his wife paid, Agrodny said it was comparable to a lesser quality zip line in Vegas.
When Gasper finally did start down the line, however, she only made it halfway before coming to a halt. As she dangled above cruising alpine coaster riders, the two young staffers at the base prepared to make a mid-line rescue. This was something they had practiced during staff training, but not while other customers whizzed past.
They tried to radio the alpine coaster operator to stop sending riders but couldn’t seem to reach anyone on the other end. Ten minutes elapsed, and still Gasper was left suspended.
Then, mustering enough strength to yank the bar down and swing forward, she managed to get the trolley sliding. Seconds later she was on the platform, visibly frustrated.
Snow King ended up refunding Gasper’s ticket after a bit of back and forth. General Manager Ryan Stanley said the ZipTour installers are making changes based on her experience.
“They’ve got a couple of different style brake pads that they use, and they had the most grippiest, safest type on there. So it seems like there’s a need to potentially dial it back a little bit,” Stanley said. “They’re going to be testing that out as soon as the weather clears up.”
Stanley said about 25 customers tried the lines Friday. The majority were “super stoked,” but a few got stuck like Gasper.
Through conversations with Terra Nova, Stanley said he realized they’ve had similar issues with launches at other locations.
“I probably should have asked a few more questions about how many from the general public to put down before a grand opening,” he said.
Ultimately though, the decade-long dream of a zip line on the Snow King slopes is still coming together. If he has to delay the grand opening a bit longer to get everything dialed, Stanley said it’s worth a bit more of a wait.
“We want to make sure it’s safe and a good experience for everybody,” Stanley said. “So we’ll do whatever we have to do to ensure that’s the case.”