Tour Guides and Zip Lines in the Canadian Rockies

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Banff, Alberta

The desk jockies here are knocking out a lot of work now on the subject of guided tours in the Canadian Rockies, and that’s got the old mountain man thinking about his first guided tour experience.

The Canadian Rockies are beautiful, and sometimes best experience with a guide.

The Canadian Rockies are beautiful, and sometimes best experienced with a guide.

I’ve only recently come around to the idea of using guides to get around in the Canadian Rockies as a way of learning about activities I’ve got no prior experience with. Used to be, I’d turn my nose up at the very idea of a guided tour. Mountain men, like myself, are rugged individualists by nature, and so I always assumed I’d be better off going and figuring things out on my own, rather than have some expert guide show me how things are done.

This lead me to some experiences that, while interesting in hindsight, are not ones I’d like to repeat.

Like the time I set up my own self-guided zip line tour a couple summers back. I’d been hearing tourists and locals alike talk about how awesome zip line tours are. From their conversations, I gathered it involved some sort of line strung down a mountain and across a river that you could somehow ride down.

Around that time I was out shopping for new socks at local garage sales, when I came across the home of an old sailor, who was selling a block and tackle set with an enormous pile of rope for only a few bucks. At the moment, I didn’t have an idea what I’d use it for, but just thought it was a pretty low price for such an enormous pile of stuff.

So I snatched it all up, and hauled it back to my mountain man cabin, where the rope and pulleys took up half my floor space. A few days later, after I’d tripped over the rope several times, I heard someone bring up zip line tours again, and I hit upon just what I’d do with all that rope.

Next morning, I woke up bright and early, gathered it up, and drove off to a secret little mountain and riverside Canadian Rockies spot near Banff. I tied one end of the rope off to a tree on the side of the river opposite the mountain, then waded across and started hauling the rope up.

This was no fun, whatsoever. That rope was heavy, and the mountain was steep. But as I went, the load got lighter, and soon I was standing a long way up from where I started, looking down over the slope.

Before going any further, I want to stress that no one should ever attempt what I am about to describe. The results should make that clear.

I tied the other end of the rope off to a tree after stringing it through one of the pulleys that came with the block and tackle kit.

Before descending, I took a good look around at my beautiful Canadian Rockies, and then looked down to where the line descended. The rope took off at a pretty steep angle. Nearly straight down, really, but I figured the old pulley wouldn’t have a lot of speed in it, and anyway, the rope flattened out across the river, so that’d slow me down.

Guided raft tours are a great way to see the Rockies, with the benefit of expert knowledge.

Guided raft tours are a great way to see the Rockies, with the benefit of expert knowledge.

I grabbed the pulley and put my weight on it, but nothing happened. The pulley didn’t budge. I reached into my mountain man bag of tricks and pulled out a small can of WD-40, which I liberally applied to the pulley, and then I put all my weight on it, and gave a good kick. Still, I didn’t go anywhere.

To my right then, I saw the edge of a nice cliff, and thought that maybe if I started there, at a steeper angle, I’d be able to get this old, rusted pulley moving.  So I untied and retied the line to a tree just above the cliff, with the pulley right at the cliff’s edge. I put the pulley’s hook through my belt loop, thinking it’d be nice if I could let go and just sort of fly throught the air, and then I put all my weight on it again, legs dangling over the steep ledge. But I still didn’t go anywhere.

At that moment, I looked up and noticed a little switch on the side of the pulley. Without really thinking it through, I reached up, and, with a little effort flipped it. My memory of what happened next is a bit hazy.

I knew I was moving fast, but my eyes were closed tight, and I had pulled myself up into a ball around the pulley, clutching it for dear life, as I got whacked by tree branches I’d unwittingly strung my rope through.

The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than a minute, but, of course, it felt like a lifetime.

My speed lessened just slightly, and the trees stopped hitting me, so I opened my eyes and saw the river beneath me. I looked up, just in time to come face to face with the tree I tied the rope to. I don’t remember actually hitting it, but my face had the bark imprint of a Douglas fir for two days after.

I came to a few seconds after hitting the tree, smelling smoke and hearing the river rushing beneath me. Above, the rope was on fire, apparently something to do with all the friction heating up the pulley and catching that WD-40 on fire. Before I could think what to do, the rope snapped, and I fell backward, landing on the cushiony surface of a guided raft that happened to be floating the river beneath me at that very moment.

That marked my very first guided tour, but was certainly not my last.

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