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European-style aerial park built at the base of box canyon near Salida

June 1, 2014 Updated: June 1, 2014 at 8:51 am
Caption +
Trudy Meyer, from Eagle, NE, clutches onto a wire after missing a step while traversing obstacles at the largest aerial adventure park west of the Mississippi at Captain Zipline's Canyon Aerial Course Thursday, May 22, 2014. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

SALIDA - Monty Holmes surveys his domain - 30 acres of rugged canyon land in the heart of the Rockies - and sees, well, zombies. Ziplining zombies, to be exact.

It's the plot of the movie he recently helped script, wherein a zombie miner bites a rafter who goes on to infect a group of campers, or something like that. The undead pursue their prey into the Lost Canyon and the web of Captain Zipline's high-flying adventure park.

"It's called 'Zipline Zombies: Hang Out to Die,'" says Holmes, whose campy, low-budget horror flick will be shot, with a local cast and crew, inside the park he opened east of town 10 years ago. He envisions an early fall premiere, complete with a zombie crawl through Salida. "Keep in mind, I don't really like zombies, but these aren't normal zombies. They're colorful zombies with IQs. They can learn."

Point being, it doesn't take a whole lot of braaaaiiiiins to learn to fly down a zip line or spider across a rope bridge dangling from a crow's nest.

"Pretty much anybody can do it and have the time of their life," Holmes says, and promises: "You'll never be the same."

Holmes pulls away from the guide house parking lot, nosing his big truck over a blind rise and down a steep service road that trickles along the canyon wall. We're heading in for a closer look at Captain Zipline's newest addition: a $950,000 European-style aerial park built at the base of a box canyon.

"Are you ready for this? I bet you're not. You're not ready for this," Holmes says, as he parks the truck.

He's right. Suspended from dozens of 60-foot telephone poles, the aerial course offers over 120 swinging, swaying, muscle- and nerve-testing "elements" - interconnected ladders, bridges, catwalks, rope and cable swings, which visitors can negotiate while clipped to a safety cable. The eye-level view is reminiscent of a busy harbor, crowded with masts and rigging,

"Building the zip lines was like a kindergarten class. The aerial park was like a Ph.D. curriculum," Holmes says of the nine, high-wire courses of varying difficulty that snake through his monstrous jungle gym, the largest of its kind in the western United States.

"I told you you weren't ready for this," he says.

'Lemonade from lemons'

A Florida native, Holmes moved to Salida in 1973 and, for a while, operated a downtown shop that modified traditional bicycles for mountain terrain.

"I did mountain bikes before mountain biking existed," says Holmes, whose tales of youthful adventures include stints tagging sea turtles off the Costa Rican coast and selling salt and tobacco to headhunters in New Guinea.

Holmes, who's now 65, then got into homebuilding, a pursuit that lasted three decades and led, if somewhat by accident, to his current venture. The $1.5 million adventure park was constructed on land originally intended to house three rental cabins.

"This is my lemonade from lemons," he says.

For centuries, gravity-powered cable-and-pulley systems have allowed people to breezily traverse difficult vertical terrain, from gorge to rainforest. Commercial jungle "canopy tours" - and movies that showcased such action, such as the 1992 Sean Connery vehicle "Medicine Man" - marked the flashpoint of a growing global trend; the first zip line course in the United States opened in Hawaii in 2002. Holmes' park was close behind.

"This is the oldest zip line tour in Colorado and the third oldest in the U.S.," he says. "When I first Googled zip line back in 2004, there were 193. Now, there are 193 million."

With cables sweeping hundreds of feet over rocky terrain dotted with mining and historical heritage sites, the year-round park's zip line tours have been lauded by USA Today and Outside Magazine, among others. Along with the aerial course, new Via Ferrata courses let climbers safely scale a mountain along an "iron highway" of rungs and cables.

"We've reached 'destination' status," says Holmes, whose park is rated "excellent" or "very good" by 91 percent of Tripadvisor reviewers. Holmes bills the adventures as part "eco-tour," with mini-lessons on the area's flora and fauna, as well as its ore-rich mining history.

Construction is wrapping up on a new Captain Zipline visitor's center just inside the parkland; tour groups meet in Salida and are transported to the site by van. Holmes is considering a Groupon to draw in the local and regional crowds. And of course there's the zombie movie.

"I am the man with the vision," he says, for the benefit of all in earshot - one of whom is Josh Spomer, who's worked with Holmes about four years.

Spomer's wearing mirrored shades, but his eye roll is not in doubt.

Thrills for regular folks

The beauty of aerial adventure courses, Holmes says, is they let regular folks experience adrenaline-goosing thrills and breathtaking views normally reserved for elite athletes - if people can make it beyond the first step.

When it comes to thrills that pick a fight with gravity, brains often represent a first-timer's greatest obstacle.

Meaghan Scheffler surveys the ground 100 feet or so below the first zip line platform and sees . well, based on her look of terror and hasty retreat, we don't want to know.

Scheffler is here with family from Omaha, Neb., and she isn't the only one with jitters. Even the nervous laughs are in short supply among this group of 10 harnessed-and-ready adventurers, about to take the plunge after a basic lesson and a few minutes gliding along a practice cable several feet off the ground.

That thing? Clotheslines are more intimidating. The real thing - stop No. 1 along a six-route course of progressively longer cables strung between vertiginous canyon perches - is no clothesline.

"This one's slow and mellow. It's called Mellow Yellow," Holmes insists, working the group's anxiety like a maestro. "There's only 2 seconds of terror, and then 2 hours of fun."

Who wants to go first? asks guide James Sanchez.

Heads pivot - to the ground, a tree, a bird! - to avoid meeting the guide's gaze.

Kae Goodman, visiting from Gig Harbor, Wash., with her husband, Dave, ultimately steps forward and allows herself to be clipped in. With a deep breath, a nervous sigh and three quick steps, she's gone, soaring over the chasm to a platform perched like an aerie on the far rock face.

By the time Sanchez turns to ask who's next, he doesn't have to.


Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364

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