Don't Look Down!
Kapalua's Mountain Outpost takes adventure to new--gulp!--heights.
Photos by Matthew Thayer
Heart pounding and palms sweating, I climbed to balance alone atop a thirty-two-foot-tall telephone pole. My only lifeline was a single rope secured to a harness at the middle of my back as I stood on the ten-inch-diameter pole and took aim at a trapeze hanging seven feet away.
The Kapalua Adventures activity called Leap of Faith is aptly named. It takes faith in yourself, the equipment and the guide to leap off that pole when there’s nothing but the ground below. No nets, no pond. Just dirt—and the upturned faces of your expectant family and new friends. I’ve learned not to hesitate in these situations. Each second to think makes it that much harder. I gathered myself to jump, then stopped to rebalance. Gulp. “These guys must know what they are doing,” I thought as I flung myself into the mountain air.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Kapalua was known worldwide as a place where well-heeled clientele landed in search of quiet relaxation. Paradise was poolside mai tais, and lying in the coco-buttered sun until your tan sizzled to perfection. If you had suggested back then that guests strap on a harness, climb to the top of a tall pole and leap off, they would probably have given you the same look as if you had asked them to hold a live chicken on their lap while dining on chateaubriand at the Bay Club.
How times have changed. Many guests now arrive looking for thrills. They long to explore, to get off the beaten path and experience Maui’s hidden spots. High in the meadows and forest above Kapalua is the seaside resort’s answer to this relatively recent travel phenomena.
Kapalua Adventures’ Mountain Outpost includes eight state-of-the-art parallel zip-lines, a ropes course, four-station climbing tower, swing, a lift system called the Zipperlifter, and the longest suspension bridge in the State of Hawai‘i. Picture a layout that thrill-seeking kids might dream up in their wildest imaginations. Zip-lines crisscross deep gulches and skim above fields for nearly two miles. Guests are challenged with the Leap of Faith and Giant Swing.
It was a bright, sunny day when wife Kelly and I took our kids here to celebrate son Mark’s sixteenth birthday. We had all heard about the new eco-adventure tour and were eager to try it out.
The sense that this gallivant would be unique set in about the same time we climbed aboard an ungainly Mercedes-Benz Unimog for our twenty-minute ride from the Adventure Center to the Mountain Outpost. The tall, all-purpose German truck, complete with an opening in the roof for a gun turret, may have served the military or a farmer in its past life, but has since been converted by Kapalua Adventures into a twenty-person carrier that runs on biodiesel.
Rolling and rocking under our helmets, we felt a little like extras in a World War II movie, heading off to shoot an alpine scene as the low-geared truck bounced along old pineapple roads to the 1,500-foot elevation of the High Ropes Challenge Course and the first part of our four-hour tour.
Kapalua offers various activity packages on the mountain, at prices ranging from $60 to $350. (Kama‘aina rates apply for isle residents.) We chose a tour that combined the ropes course, the Leap of Faith and four zips.
Our first stop was the ropes course, whose six spans challenged us to tightrope across different styles of cable and rope bridges suspended forty feet from the ground. The continuous belay system prevented us from falling. Mark tried going “no-hands” on a cable and when he toppled, he barely dropped a foot before the harness and rope tethered to the line above him pulled taut. He clambered back up to continue.
We navigated the course with no further troubles, but one of our tour mates was overcome by fear. Our guide calmly talked the young California woman back to the central tower. After a pause, and a fair bit of whining, she went on to finish the course.
We later learned that, while most visitors enjoy the ropes course, there’s the occasional person who needs reassurance to complete it. More rare are guests who are paralyzed by their fear. Our guide confided that most of those cases involve reluctant people who are persuaded by friends or family to “just give it a try.”
My advice is this: If you are deathly afraid of heights, and not interested in sweating your way through shock therapy, this is not the activity for you.
I thought the rope challenge was a blast. The professionalism of the guides and redundancy of the safety systems were reassuring. When I considered the liability exposure, I figured these guys must know what they are doing. Maiming guests is generally considered bad for business.
Statistically, all the activities in the ropes course are low risk—safer, I was told, than riding in a car or flying in an airplane. But the perceived risk made my chest pound when we moved from the ropes to the Leap of Faith, and I climbed to stand atop that thirty-two-foot pole.
In Kelly’s pictures, I miss the trapeze by less than an inch. In my mind, the trapeze is merely a prop, an opportunity gladly missed on the day that I had the guts to climb to the top of that pole and leap off. The safety rope stuck on my way to earth, so I had the dubious pleasure of hearing everyone tell me how brave I was—while I hung there.
The ropes course was the most active part of the tour, while the zip-lines were a rush of speed and amazing views as we reclined comfortably in our chair-seat-harness contraptions and let gravity rocket us downhill.
The length of its runs, the innovative equipment and the ambitious nature of its other challenges set Kapalua’s course apart from other activities we have tried. That’s the way it is supposed to be, says Adam Quinn, Kapalua Land Company’s director of resort activities.
“We are the biggest, baddest, fastest zip-line in the State of Hawai‘i,” Quinn says. “We are a magic carpet ride, just without the carpet.”
You’ll have to forgive Quinn if he gets a little excited talking about his pet project. Three years ago, he submitted an eco-tourism list to his bosses, outlining ways the resort could expand its scope of activities for families. Somebody circled “Zip-line,” and the next thing Quinn knew, he was tromping the mountainside above Kapalua. He spent the next two years laying out his vision for the Mountain Outpost course.
Kapalua brought in zip-line builder Todd Domeck of Louisville, Kentucky, to turn Quinn’s vision into reality. Domeck, owner of Experiential Resources Inc., says he has built many zip-lines, but never one on the scale of Kapalua’s. “It is the longest tour in the United States, and maybe the longest in the world. It was a very challenging location to build in.”
Kapalua’s challenges to create a course in the area called Wao Akua, or Place of the Gods, began long before the construction phase. There were plenty of cultural t’s to cross and environmental i’s to dot.
“We spent a great deal of time working with the local kupuna (Hawaiian elders) to make sure the processes we were about to employ were aligned with cultural sensitivities,” Quinn says. “Not only did we have kupuna come up to perform blessings, our guides ask permission to enter daily.”
Kapalua Adventures is also following through on a commitment to reforest the area in native plants. Mirroring the whole resort’s move to recycle and go green, the mountain is kept free of litter and garbage. Quinn says that 10 percent of the adventure program’s profit is donated to the Pu‘u Kukui Watershed Preserve.
The protected mountaintop tropical forest at Pu‘u Kukui provides an intriguing parallel to the terrain where zip-lines were conceived. “It started as a way for researchers to access the forest canopy in Costa Rica,” Domeck says. “It wasn’t long before someone recognized the opportunity. There are now more than 300 zip-lines in Costa Rica.”
Domeck adds that the first zip-line tour in the United States was Skyline Eco-Adventures, founded in 2002 and based on Haleakala Ranch. My family had so much fun at Skyline on one of Mark’s previous birthdays, we decided to give Kapalua a try.
After the ropes course, the zip-lines seemed tame. Of course, Mark and his buddy Ikaika made their bodies as streamlined as possible to maximize their speed. “Penciling” is what the guides call it. When the wind is right and the body mass is heavy enough, it is possible to eclipse speeds of sixty miles an hour. I hit at least forty mph, while Mark and Ikaika may have reached fifty while streaking over gulches, meadows and a bit of former pineapple field.
As we neared each landing area, the guides waiting there motioned for us to perform a “starfish” maneuver to slow down. By spreading our arms and legs wide like echinoderms, we increased wind resistance before our trolleys hit the sophisticated block-and-spring braking system that brought us to stops smoothly and evenly. Each arrival was announced with a loud clack that put an exclamation point on the ride.
The zip-line trolley and harness systems used by Kapalua Adventures are a big part of what makes it so fun and comfortable. Each person’s trolley uses two six-inch-diameter carbon-fiber wheels. Imagine a pair of industrial-grade skateboard wheels. That makes for a smooth and quiet ride down 2,500 feet of steel cable. Zip-lines are set up in pairs so family members and friends can take in the scenery side-by-side, or even hold “pencil” races.
In its effort to cater to a new breed of traveler, Kapalua has responded to the challenge with a business based on boldness and perceived risk. So far, the oldest zip-liner to accept their challenge was an eighty-six-year-old woman. Ridership has grown “exponentially” each month since the soft opening at the beginning of this year. It makes you wonder what the folks at Kapalua Adventures will dream up next.