Zipping at the top of the world

By Bryan Hall

Everyone says it, and mostly it’s true: “There’s never anything good on TV.” I’ve said it so many times I have lost count. Come on, admit it: you’ve said it too. It was one of those times when I accidentally stumbled across something worth watching. One of the actors from “The Living Dead” is also a rider, and he did a series where he rode to various places, meeting people and doing things along the way.

Kind of what I live for. In this particular episode, he was in New Mexico and rode to a place called Ski Apache, which looked just interesting enough that I decided I needed to check it out…especially since I was planning to be in Roswell for a few days as part of a two-week long road trip this summer.

Ski Apache is the southernmost ski area in the United States, opening in 1961 as the Sierra Blanca Ski Resort. It was an immediate success, carrying over 25,000 skiers in its second season. Ownership and operation of the resort was handed over to the Mescalero Apache Tribe in 1963, and in 1984 was renamed Ski Apache. Known as nomadic hunters, the Mescalero traveled the Southwest where the men were extremely skilled horsemen and experts in warfare; and the women were known for their ability to find and prepare food from many different plants. Because they gathered and ate the mescal plant, the tribe was given the name “Mescalero.”

Today, the community is comprised of three “sub-tribes”: Mescalero, Chiricahua, and Lipan. Well known Apache ancestors of the tribe include Geronimo and Cochise. The Mescalero Apache Reservation, 463,000 acres of land that was originally the heartland of the people, was created in 1873 due to an Executive Order by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Purportedly the best skiing weather in North America due to the geographical location, Ski Apache gets over fifteen feet of snowfall per year, with an elevation at the top of 11,500 feet above sea level.

Since I was going to be there in June, skiing was not going to be an option (which is OK, I’m not a skier!).  Ah, but all was not lost:  Ski Apache is also home to the Wind Rider Zip Tour, an 8,890-foot zip line (in three sections).

My friend Mike and I started out from Roswell and rode west on US-70 for roughly eighty miles or so into the village of Ruidoso. A right turn took us through the picturesque township at the base of the Sierra Blanca Mountains and the Sacramento Mountains. Home to about 7,800 people, Ruidoso sits at 6,900 feet above sea level. We turned north on County Road 48 and a little over three miles later made a left onto County Road 532.

This is where the fun began. The next twelve miles up the mountain was a never-ending series of turns, twists, switchbacks and amazing views that will work your cornering skills to the limit! This road was a lot of fun, but also a lot of work, and we barely got out of second gear the entire way. Thankfully, there was not a lot of traffic the day we went up, with only five or six other vehicles coming down, and none going up.

We made it to the Welcome Center (elevation 9,600 feet) and checked in for the Zip Tour. Bright blue skies, no clouds and a temperature of 78-degrees made for a perfect day on the mountain. Will and Dave were the guides assigned to lead our group on the tour, and they were extremely knowledgeable, professional, funny and friendly. The Zip Tour starts out at 11,500 feet above sea level, making it the highest zip line in the world, as well as the fifth longest. We watched a short video presentation and got suited up in our gear: a harness, helmet, and backpack containing the zip line rig. Will and Dave explained how everything worked, then took us out to a “trial run”: a short line of about thirty feet or so where we could practice and get a feel for the equipment. From there we climbed aboard a tramway for a slow ride almost 2,000 feet further up the mountain to the starting point for the tour.

The views up there were breathtaking! The day was so clear we could see White Sands National Monument (more than fifty miles away as the crow flies), the Mescalero Reservation, and the small speck that was Ruidoso. Looking east, we felt like we could see all the way to Texas!

Once we were at the beginning point for the zip line, our guides hooked us up to the harnesses, explained where we were going, and when we were ready they gave us the signal to release the brake. Immediately gaining speed and sailing over the trees, the first section of the Wind Rider Zip Tour is right at a mile long, and the journey down the mountain takes less than a minute! Since we were flying along at almost 65 mph, the guides had told us where and when to apply the brake before coming to the base.

Once all the people in our group had come in, we prepared for the next “leg”; an (approximately) 1,700-foot ride down to the next base station. Again, due to the angle of the line down the mountain, the ride took less than thirty seconds! Our third and final leg was next, at 1,900 feet long, with our guides telling us to apply the brakes when we crossed over the parking lot. As this section was not as steep, the ride took a little longer, about 45 seconds, but was no less a rush than the other parts of the ride.

After taking pictures and talking with our guides, we walked the short way back to the welcome center to turn in our gear. Dave told me that he had done over 400 trips on the zipline since working there, but unfortunately was off the day the film crews were there for the TV show.

We rode back down the mountain, stopping in Ruidoso for gas, a well-deserved frosty beverage and a good steak before heading back to Roswell, our base for the night. About twenty miles into the ninety-mile trip, we were longing once again for that 78-degrees on the mountain, as temperatures in the valley were pushing 104 degrees.

The Wind Rider Zip Tour is open seven days a week from 9:00 am to 3:45 pm and is weather dependent. Definitely worth adding to your bucket list!

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Bryan Hall is an experienced rider and author based in Nampa, ID; and his stories have appeared previously in Quick Throttle.  His book “Life Behind Bars” was published in 2013. You can read more on his website at “hiwayflyer.com”

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