Author’s note: This post was updated May 29 to add one area high ropes course and to mark hyperlinks clearly.
The city Parks and Recreation Department is about to enable Triangle residents to taste adventure in an otherwise sleepy neighborhood.
Construction of the new Discovery High Ropes Course at Bethesda Park wrapped up this spring. The amenity graces a 21-acre facility that already featured covered and lighted tennis and basketball courts, a disc golf course, a playground, an open play field, walking trails and restrooms when it debuted just last fall.
The park is located at 1814 Stage Road, its entrance tucked between homes on a quiet residential street. But the new feature is noteworthy. Google indicates that Bethesda Park will have just the third second high ropes course in the Triangle to be open to the general public. (The other is others are at Cary’s Fred G. Bond Metro Park and Efland’s Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center. In addition, at least one area Girl Scout camp has a course.)
While the official opening of the ropes course is scheduled for June 8 at 4:30 p.m., staff and visitors have been trying it out for some weeks. The department recently let a few reporters test the course’s towering array, which exceeds 50 feet.
Kim Oberle manages adventure programs for Parks and Recreation. She’s climbed high ropes courses on and off for more than 20 years, and she helped bring the new course to Durham.
“Some like it because they have this little thrill bone that likes going up high, because you don’t really get to do that,” Oberle said.
Others find these courses rewarding in other ways. In Oberle’s words, some older climbers say: “I really can do these things still. I’m not old.”
Purveyors also promote so-called challenge courses for team-building. And there’s evidence that high ropes facilities and their cousins do improve self-esteem and group dynamics. A 2005 survey by N.C. State professor Aram Attarian found that challenge courses can boost self-esteem, decision-making, group cohesion and family dynamics.
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Each visitor to Durham’s course is outfitted with an adjustable helmet, a climbing harness and a pair of “lobster claws,” a Y-shaped heavy rope contraption. The claws’ single arm loops around the harness. The other branches’ lengths are adjustable. Also, each ends in a snap hook, a carabiner that must be squeezed on both sides in order to detach it from a wire.
A climber’s entire weight is easily supported by the lobster claws, even with just one hook attached to a safety wire. A visitor can lose his grip and his footing and still fall no more than a foot or so.
But it’s one thing to know about the safety rig and something else entirely to trust it. When I stepped on a wire or plank suspended 25 feet above the ground, I definitely didn’t want to fall.
The one time I lost my balance came early in my climb while traversing a single wire and clinging to a guide rope. Despite keeping my feet on the wire, I struggled to lift myself high enough to regain proper footing. (This was humbling evidence of my puny biceps and my extra weight.) My sense was that a spill could cause a bad bruise or possibly a torn muscle or tendon.
Despite all the safety precautions that I knew would prevent serious harm, I still found the prospect of falling terrifying.
For me, the high-altitude crossings were definitely harder than they looked. I was unnerved several times by the amount of sway on both the obstacles and some higher platforms. The course made me much more appreciative of mountaineers and circus aerialists.
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That said, the ropes course was great fun — guaranteed to get most anyone’s pulse racing.
On the first few obstacles, simply taking a first step required heavy doses of concentration and courage. I felt a sense of accomplishment each time I completed a crossing. I was even proud each time I managed to take a step without flailing wildly on difficult traverses.
“This is one of the situations where it would be great to have big clown feet,” I said as I stepped along the dual-wire crossing known as shaky legs. “Or maybe grippy bird feet.”
Over the course of more than 90 minutes, I crossed most of the features. A couple I skipped, and one defeated me — the bosun, a.k.a. footloose.
But I enjoyed getting a bird’s-eye view of Durham. The course’s peak, the crow’s nest, is even with or above all but the highest trees.
Ryan Sailstead, the adventure facilitator for Parks and Recreation who guided me through the Discovery course, called the new facility’s open, varied plan an asset.
“A lot of other courses are very linear — people are forced to go in one direction,” he said. “This allows them to customize the experience for themselves.”
The course was definitely a workout for me; I soon knew that I’d be sore the next day. And I later wished that I had worn gloves.
Apply sunscreen in advance and bring sunglasses. The staff had water on hand for visitors when I tried the course, but you’d be smart to bring your own. Don’t drink too much before climbing, though — the park restrooms are a fair hike from the ropes course.
(See below for more information about using the course.)
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It cost about $200,000 to build the new ropes course, part of the $3.1 million overall price for the park. Funding came from a 2005 bond.
The city has yet to peg the course’s annual operating expense; they should come in well under $100,000. Because Durham self-insures, there aren’t any insurance premiums that might be affected by potential liability concerns.
The Discovery High Ropes Course will mainly be open by appointment. Groups of at least eight people will be able to reserve four-hour slots on the course. The city’s fee schedule is located here. There should be no more than six climbers per facilitator at any one time.
Department of Parks and Recreation facilitators — there are currently nine — will be recertified annually.
Protocol calls for the course to be inspected thoroughly prior to each use for frayed ropes or wires. (Those components are expected to last 10 and 20 years, respectively.) Each inspection should include facilitators climbing the poles anchoring the zip line system to check for kinks and other issues. The builder, Challenge Towers Inc. of Todd, is expected to conduct an annual check of the facility.
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Durham will hold occasional “discovery days,” in which members of the public may be able to try the course for free, depending on demand. The June 8 grand opening will be such an occasion; department officials warn that only some visitors will likely be able to get on the course.
The Discovery ropes course should become even more accessible to the public in the fall, when staff will be trained to accommodate users with a variety of physical issues.
Can the city maintain a spotless safety record and stay on budget with the ropes course? If so, then I’d say that this new ropes course gives Durhamites an excellent new opportunity to live the DPR motto and play more.