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High Above the Forest (and the Food Court)

In North Park and the Pittsburgh Mills Mall, a pair of ropes courses offer adrenaline-fueled fun (and little else in common).




GO APE PHOTOS BY CHUCK BEARD; SKY TRAIL PHOTO COURTESY PITTSBURGH MILLS SKY TRAIL
 

I’ll admit that I agreed to a morning visit to Go Ape North Park without really thinking about what it entailed. I knew there were ziplines involved and some form of rope bridge. Honestly, I think I was picturing a more organic version of Discovery Zone (hi, ’90s kids).

That’s not what Go Ape is. Go Ape is a two-hour-long physical challenge and endurance test — and it is incredibly fun. And terrifying. After a thorough safety briefing, you’ll go through a low-to-the-ground practice round before tackling the four main courses. In each, you’ll scale a rope ladder to a treetop perch and then navigate increasingly difficult passages — think tightropes, swinging platforms and tiny wooden footholds — from one tree to the next.

At the end of each course, there’s a zipline waiting; hook yourself in and sail through the forest for a surprisingly long time (the longest line is 440 feet long). At two occasions, Go Ape also offers you the chance to tangle with a Tarzan swing; you’ll strap your harness into a rope and go hurtling off of one tree into a cargo net and then scale the netting to the next stop.

Make no mistake — it’s very tough. Aside from the inevitable fear you’ll endure when staring at the forest floor 40 feet below, the crossings require balance, strength and agility you didn’t know you had. But trust me: You’ll find the power to get it done. I am by no means a physical specimen, and on the first full course, I didn’t know if I’d be able to complete more than one. Nearly two hours later, I was proudly sailing down the final zipline. If you had explained the course’s challenges to me beforehand, I might’ve backed off; when faced with them in the moment, I pressed on, and I’m glad I did.

Now, a word on safety: If you follow instructions carefully, Go Ape is very safe. As long as you are more than 10 years old, weigh less than 285 pounds and are more than 4’7’’ tall, you’re qualified, and even a couch potato should be able to master most of the challenges with a little tenacity. (The hardest portion of the course probably is the cargo net, and if you fail there, staff can hoist you to the next platform; I’m not too proud to admit I took them up on that offer on the second net.)

But note the clause at the beginning of that last paragraph: if you follow instructions carefully. Because safety is on you at Go Ape. While staff constantly is supervising from the ground, it’s your responsibility to unhook yourself from each tree and onto the next crossing, and to set yourself up on the ziplines and Tarzan swings. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of safeguarding yourself — and it is easy if you’re careful but certainly not a responsibility to be taken lightly — consider another activity.

Like, for instance, the Pittsburgh Mills Sky Trail. Nominally, it’s a very similar activity to Go Ape — a series of crossings of varying difficulty leading to a zipline. But those are the only similarities. For starters, the Sky Trail, which celebrates its grand opening tomorrow, is located in the food court of the Pittsburgh Mills Mall; instead of peering down at trails and brush, you’ll be looking at diners and arcade machines.

The Sky Trail is a shorter experience, at 30-45 minutes (and the price reflects that; Go Ape is $55 for adults and $35 for 10-15-year-olds, while the Sky Trail is $14). It’s also a bit less challenging; while the balance and agility still are required, I didn’t find myself struggling nearly as much as I did at Go Ape.

And no, you are not responsible for your own attachments at the Sky Trail; a cord connects you to an overhead steel track, and there is no way to detach yourself from the beginning of the course clear through to the end of the zipline.

But that doesn’t mean that the Sky Trail isn’t a thrill of its own. I thought that after Go Ape, the Sky Trail would be a breeze; when I first stepped out onto a crossing, though, my knees began to shake. After all, Go Ape is a treetop course, and we’ve all climbed trees. But very few of us have hovered stories above a mall. It’s delightfully unnatural. And by the time I got to the Sky Trail’s signature spot, a walk-the-plank style outcropping that dead-ends with nothing in front of you but air, my heart was pounding.

And by the way, the Sky Trail can fit nicely into a night out. The course is open until 9 p.m. six days a week (closing a few hours early on Sundays). That means that you can get an indoor adrenaline rush before taking in a movie at the Cinemark Pittsburgh Mills, or limber up during a shopping break to scale the course.

So which to try? I’d actually recommend warming up with the Sky Trail before graduating to Go Ape. The mall version is shorter, and the added pressure of your own safety is off; it’s a good place to see if you have a taste for this kind of thing. If you do (and you will), book a time for Go Ape. And listen: Don’t be intimidated. I’m out of shape, I’m afraid of heights and I routinely make understandable yet potentially catastrophic errors. And I would go back to Go Ape right now.

Just, you know — be careful up there. You don’t want to be 20 feet out on a tightrope thinking, “I attached this one, right?”

 

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