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Sky high

What has common sense got to do with hanging from a cable and flying though the woods?

Rosebrook Canyon zip line at Bretton Woods. (Omni Mount Washington Resort) Rosebrook Canyon zip line at Bretton Woods.
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / January 30, 2011

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BRETTON WOODS — Jumping out of a tree 150 feet above ground attached to skinny wire cables to go careering past frozen, snow-encrusted treetops in the dead of winter didn’t seem to make sense.

Sensible or not, the view was worth it: The Presidential Range, including behemoth Mount Washington at 6,288 feet, gobbled up much of the horizon set against a North Country blue sky so bright it nearly hurt my eyes. The view was so captivating, I almost forgot where I was.

Then I saw guide Paul Ingersoll signaling me to brake slowly. I applied one of my heavy, leather-gloved palms to the bottom cable I was attached to, easing onto the tree stand some 830 feet from where I started my 30 mile-per-hour glide.

“Incredible, isn’t it?’’ Ingersoll said, unclipping me from my harness but leaving twin safety loops in place as I stood on the stand, absorbing the view.

Indeed. Whether it makes sense or not to zip line in winter, they do it year round here at the Bretton Woods ski resort, two or three tours a day, each lasting about 3 1/2 hours. Prime seasons are summer and fall, when two trained guides take groups of eight on the tour, sometimes 14 tours a day. They can be booked directly at Bretton Woods or through the nearby grand hotel, the Omni Mount Washington. And it’s pretty much a rain-or-shine deal, the only weather cancellations coming when there is excessively high wind, low tem peratures, or the threat of lightning.

“Booking well in advance is advised in the fall,’’ said our other guide, Jamie Cunningham. “That’s the most popular time, the last part of September and early October.’’

The tour starts at the Bretton Woods base, where you sign waivers you don’t really read, but which Ingersoll highlights in a safety speech, stressing the physical and emotional risks. Participants must be at least 12 and weigh between 90 and 250 pounds.

Though zip lines are rated to hold up to 12,000 pounds, Ingersoll said, “It’s not that easy to brake when you’re more than 250.’’

The emotional risk is getting to the zip decks 150 feet off the ground and letting your fear of heights hamstring you. But that happens perhaps less than 1 percent of the time, Cunningham said, adding that since the canopy tour started in December 2008, it has taken about 20,000 people zipping through the trees.

The tour consists of 10 cable zip lines and two adventure sky bridges suspended 50 feet above the forest floor. Each line varies in length, with the maximum being 830 feet long, some 150 feet above ground. Also included are three rappels, the first a short practice one, the last one about 65 feet, with that view of the Presidential Range looming in the distance.

At the end is the Williwaw Racing Zip, a dual, side-by-side zip line that lands you back at the ski resort base. It can also be ridden separately from the canopy tour.

We took a short chairlift ride and our first stop was a practice zip, about six feet above ground and 50 feet long. Here we clipped in, learned how to cross our feet and draw up our legs with an ab-crunch effect, and hold our hands, one over the other atop the trolley wheels that clip to the dual cable system. I’ve zip lined before and just hung onto the line attaching me to the cables, with no control. Here, you are in control. If you feel yourself listing to one side or the other, you grip the trolley and gently twist the opposite way, righting your path.

“It’s different here than most,’’ Cunningham said of the Bretton Woods canopy tour, which he said is nearly a mile long. “People like the control; they’re an active participant in the experience.’’

The need to be in some semblance of shape is evident in the walks between zip stations, around 10 minutes, which include, Ingersoll said, “the most dangerous part. The zip lining isn’t, but walking alongside and across busy ski trails can be, with people flying by.’’

This day, it wasn’t an issue, a midweek afternoon that despite being a perfect ski day, didn’t have a lot of skiers traversing the slopes we had to cross. On weekends, it’s another story. “We have to be traffic cops then, guiding our clients across the slope,’’ Ingersoll said.

The zip lines increase in length and duration the farther along you go, and throughout, Ingersoll and Cunningham pepper the tour with nature talks, explaining the importance of the ancient hemlocks found here, and noting that New Hampshire is the second most heavily forested state in the country after Alaska. They cited the state’s remarkable restoration and conservation efforts after nearly being deforested during the Industrial Revolution and subsequent population explosion of 1860-1920 that devoured much of its lumber for housing.

To me, the longest ride was the best. The Rosebrook Canyon zip is 830 feet with that view of the Presidential Range to my right. I torqued briefly to that side to grab some photos during the 10-second ride but then righted myself to ease into landing, with Ingersoll guiding me in. The other zips vary in length from 500 to 600 feet, some directly over Bretton Woods ski trails, the skiers below looking up when they hear a howling zip liner scream by above them.

Traversing the two sky bridges was an adventure in itself. They are slightly swaying, cable-strung affairs with wooden slats open enough to enjoy the plunging view below. The crossings prompted Ingersoll and Cunningham to launch into Indiana Jones jokes.

But safety is paramount here. If a guest exhibits any evidence of having been drinking, for instance, they are not allowed on the tour.

All ages take the tour, Cunningham said; he’s had people in their 80s participate, “and they do fine. They tend to be people who’ve been athletic their whole lives.’’

While zip lining can be scary to some, the fear is usually overcome quickly, he said.

“People push through that threshold, and we help them do that,’’ he said. “And when some are done, they say it’s one of the most defining moments of their lives.’’

The romance of the woods sometimes overcomes guests as much as the view.

“One guy set it up so he went down the Rosebrook Canyon zip first and waited for his girlfriend, where he was kneeling and asked her to marry him when she got there,’’ said Cunningham, who is also a professional photographer. “I was there, snapping away.’’

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe.com.

If You Go

Bretton Woods Canopy Tour
Route 302, Bretton Woods, N.H.
603-278-4947
brettonwoods.com/activities/canopy_tour/overview
$110 per person, $99 for guests of Omni Mount Washington; $129 winter package for back-to-back one-day canopy tour, one-day lift ticket at Bretton Woods.
Omni Mount Washington Hotel
Route 302, Bretton Woods
603-278-1000
www.omnimountwashington.com
Rates from $229 a night.