Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Wonders of Winter Zip Lining

Alpine Rush Zip Line at Copper Mountain - photo by Tripp Fay
It’s all about the rush, the sense of flying through the towering treetop canopy, with a bald eagle’s view of the immense whiteness of a winter wonderland. Winter zip lining started spreading around North American ski resorts in the mid 2000s, adding yet another activity-based après ski alternative.

Winter Ziptrek at Whistler - Courtesy of Ziptrek EcotoursWinter Ziptrek 
This was part of the ski industry’s push to diversify, appealing to a wider demographic, keeping visitors on the hill longer into the evening, and providing a menu of non-skiing options. Zip lining also adds a significant cool factor and helps provide all-season appeal for ski areas.

Jori Kirk
One of the early pioneers of zip lining in Canada is Jori Kirk, who started Cypress Hills Eco-Adventures Ltd in 2010 after graduating from the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. “If I'm not mistaken, the first commercial canopy tour in the U.S. was built in 2005 in mainland Ketchikan, AK,” says Kirk. The first in Canada was at Grouse Mountain, Whistler.

Super Fly Ziplines at Cougar Mtn
Since the early days, there has been some confusion in terminology between canopy tours and zip line tours. “Canopy tours are guided, with a series of zips and suspension bridges through the natural canopy of trees,” Kirk explains. Zip line tours, on the other hand, take participants through a series of manmade structures. However, even the industry has used the terms interchangeably. 

The wide appeal of zip lining, says Kirk, is the “storytelling factor” as well as the social aspect: it can be enjoyed by any age-group, both genders, and in relatively large groups of family or friends. “It is also very inclusive as it takes very little expertise to conquer a zip line tour,” Kirk adds. Although most winter zip lines were originally summer structures, it is relatively cheap and easy to winterize them and keep them running year round. “People are already there, the zip line course is there, staff are there. Close it down or make incremental revenues? I would choose the latter 10 times out of 10,” says Kirk. “I don't believe the places that do this are expecting to operate at full capacity, but it is a great way of offering another option for guests.”

Zip lines vary considerably from resort to resort – some have seats, some dangle participants from ropes and hooks, some are single, others double lines, and some have more of an assault course set up with climbs and platforms.

Take off at Copper Mountain - photo by Tripp Fay
Copper Mountain’s ‘Alpine Rush’ is a village experience with dual zip lines strung 30 ft above West Lake, enabling tandem riders to traverse the ice rink between condos, shops and restaurants. The Guided Canopy Tour at Crested Butte Mountain Resort has five lines ranging from 120 - 400 feet long, connected by three wooden suspension bridges and massive platforms designed for winter use with tough grips and snow grates. “It’s about a two hour tour, with two guides, that make it fun and interactive,” says Director of Innovations, Erica Mueller. “It is something different for people to do on a day off from skiing or after skiing and really attracts all age groups,” she adds, although participation is limited to those weighing between 70 and 250 lbs. It is open summer, fall and winter, with some weather-friendly modifications in the colder months.

Vail’s all-season, four-line, 1,200-foot-long zip line provides another après ski experience, next to the tubing hill at Adventure Ridge. The Purgatory Plunge at Purgatory Durango Mountain Resort drops zippers on two lines off a massive tower, offering vertical as well as horizontal plummeting. Gunstock MountainNew Hampshire has five ziplines, the longest 1.5 miles, with speed control and opportunities to stop and appreciate the scenery and wildlife.

Dual seated Zip Line at Park City - photo Dan Campbell/Courtesy Park City Resort
The longest zip line in Utah is at Canyons Resort with two different routes over mid-mountain pine trees. The Flying Eagle Zip Line at Park City, Utah is a two-person circuit, 110 feet above the resort, starting and finishing at the same spot.

Ziptrek Ecotours Twilight Winter Tour
Two companies operate zip lines at Whistler Blackcomb, Canada. Ziptrek Ecotours runs a network above Fitzsimmons Creek between the two resorts offering Twilight Tours in winter. And the Adventure Group has multiple side-by-side Super Fly Ziplines connected by trails and boardwalks at Cougar Mountain.

So is zip lining here to stay? “I really do not know. I don't seeing it going away any time soon,” says Kirk. “There will likely be less development of new tours and closures of poorly managed ones as the profitable one rise above the rest. If the current zip line companies place their focus on providing a great experience, it is doubtful that they will disappear from the scene.” Kirk’s company was named the 2014 Canadian Tourism Small to Medium-Sized Business of the Year.
Super Fly Ziplines at Cougar Mtn

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Slovenia’s skiing has been put into the international spotlight by Tina Maze, the most successful female ski racer in Slovenian history. Multi-tasking Maze is one of the few winter athletes who competes - and regularly wins on the international level - in all five skiing disciplines: Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G, Downhill and Combination.
Kdranjska Gora: Courtesy of Kranjska Gora Tourist Boar
In her own country, Maze is a superstar: five-time winner of best Slovenian athlete, a fabulous fashion model and a pop star with Slovenia’s most watched You Tube music video. Born in 1983, Maze grew up in Crna na Koroskem, in northern Slovenia less than two hours drive from the country’s top ski resort, Kranjska Gora which hosts the men’s World Cup Slalom events every March.

Kranjska Gora: Courtesy of Kranjska Gora Tourist Board
Tourists come to Kranjska Gora from all over Slovenia, Germany, Croatia, Italy and also Great Britain. According to Kranjska Gora Tourist Board Director, Mirjam Žerjav, out of a total of 177,398 overnight stays in the resort during the 2013/14 season, domestic visitors accounted for 81,429 and foreign visitors 95,969. Of the international visitors, the majority was from Croatia (21,117) followed by Italy (17,416), Britain (13,997) and Germany (3,634).

LTO Kranjska Gora
British ski operator Inghams has been bringing skiers to family-focused Kranjska Gora on and off over the past 20 years. Their numbers have ranged from year to year, from a maximum of around 3,000 to about 300 predicted for the 2014/15 season. This is in line with national ski visitation numbers which reached a peak in 2008/9 at 207,790 but were down to just 128,296 skiers in 2013/14 - reflecting the slow recovery in the European economy since the recession.

LTO Kranjska Gora
Compared to typical ski holidays in Switzerland and France, prices are low in Kranjska Gora. During the 2014/15 season, for example, a week’s stay with Inghams in a four-star hotel in February cost around £579 per person (including flight, resort transfer, accommodation, breakfast and dinner) and was discounted to £429 by the end of January.

In the past two decades, there has been considerable investment in hotels, new apartments and sports facilities, says Žerjav: “All the lifts are practically new - the investment in the past ten years was over 20million EUR. And all hotels have been renovated, an investment of around 50 million EUR.” Hotel beds have increased from 1,384 in 2006 to 1,905 in 2013 and apartment beds have risen from 1,384 in 2006 to 3,054 in 2013.

LTO Kranjska Gora -
Set near the Italian and Austrian borders with the spectacular Julian Alps as a backdrop, the affordable ski resort with 30km of skiable slopes appeals particularly to novice and intermediate skiers. As the most forested country in mainland Europe, the scenery is also highly rated. With a good variety of ski trails and the challenging World Cup run at Podkoren, this is one of Slovenia’s most popular ski resort for families, says Zuber Sameja, Inghams’ product manager for Slovenia. Snow cannons, producing more than 500.000 m3 of artificial snow, supplement precipitation on 85 percent of the ski terrain.

Factors which encourage skiers to try Kranjska Gora include family facilities, novelty, affordable skiing, good value après ski, the blend of Austrian and Italian cuisine in traditional inns, and the friendliness of local people. “Skiers want to try something else and also Kranjska Gora holds the World  Slalom and Giant Slalom Cup every year,” Zuber adds. The town of Kranjska Gora, set in the Zgornjesavska Valley is picturesque, attracting domestic and international visitors summer and winter due to its mountain and lakes appeal.

LTO Kranjska Gora
As well as the ski hill, winter amenities include a snow park, cross country trails, ice climbing, night skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, ski touring, and kids’ activities. Hotels are equipped with triple and quad rooms, most with door-to-slope skiing. There are many family-friendly events throughout the winter, including in December a live nativity scene which is constructed in the Ice Kingdom. As well as the Vitranc Cup (part of the World Cup series), the Planica World Cup Finals, a ski jumping event, is held each March.

Night skiing at Kranjska Gora - photo by Aleš Fevž
The national profile of Slovenia’s ski industry received a boost when ski racer Tina Maze burst onto the World Cup scene around 10 years ago, winning in all five alpine disciplines, as well as nabbing two Olympic gold medals at Sochi. Awarded best female athlete of the year for 2005, 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014, she is a Slovenian national heroine. “We’ve yet to see internationally but certainly she is a great ambassador for ski Slovenia and she is present at many U.K. events hosted by Spirit Slovenia,” says Zuber.

“Slovenia tourism is working very hard and, as a frequent visitor, I have seen many changes that are positive - especially new German ownership of the main airport of Ljubljana, quite a few gateways from Croatian airports, too, so more possibility of improving numbers,” Zuber adds.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Crashed Ice

Tim Cimmer flying high - both in competition and the business side of Ice Cross
Dynamic and dramatic, dangerous and daring, Ice Cross - alternatively named Ice Cross Downhill - could be the next Olympic sport. A combination of skating and jumping on a fast obstacle course, the sport was christened ‘Ice Cross’ in 2014 by Tim Cimmer, a Canadian entrepreneur and Crashed Ice competitor. 

Watching Red Bull’s televised Crashed Ice events back in 2008, Cimmer dreamt of becoming an ice racer himself. When the chance to try out came four years later in Saskatoon, he was thrilled to make the squad for a Niagara Falls fixture. As the fastest skater on his hockey team and a daring motor cross racer, he assumed he was well set up for podium potential. “I thought that with the racing and skating experience I had I would be one of the best,” says Cimmer. “But I found out that flat ice skating has nothing to do with it. My debut on the turbulent track, I felt like a two-year-old kid, skating on ice for the first time.”

Despite this setback Cimmer persevered with intensive core training and in 2013 became one of the first North Americans to qualify for a Red Bull Crashed Ice competition in Europe. “I made it through a qualifier in Airolo to go to Lausanne, Switzerland only to find the track started with a large jump called a spine. After finding out the hard way what a spine was, I was still determined to do this sport,” Cimmer recalls.

A natural businessman, Cimmer began researching how to make the fledgling winter sport official. He consulted with another athlete and various business associates in March 2013, launching an innovative business plan to promote Ice Cross. “I knew it would be challenging and that making these courses affordable was a must,” he says.

He went on to create simple, fast and cost-efficient strategies for engineering both outdoor and inside tracks. In 2014 he got the opportunity to put his new ideas to the test. Qualifying for a Red Bull contest in Jyvascula, Finland, he met former world champion, Arttu Pihlainen, who was building a practice track. In order to save time and money, Cimmer enlisted the help of nearby ski hill, Laajis Laajavuori, using their snowcat and groomer to carve the rollercoaster track and also to make obstacles. “Six hours later and with the help of four people we had a designed track with one sheet of ice for a cost of under $1500. It was a breakthrough,” Cimmer says. “We could now build a track on a ski hill with enough elevation, an easy way up the hill using the existing ski lifts, and very cost efficient.”

This gave Cimmer – known as the Audacious Cowboy - the confidence to set up his own race in conjunction with Laajis ski hill, demonstrating that Ice Cross was a viable sport in its own right. Using his business model, the first world race was held Feb 15, 2014 under the umbrella of the brand new World Ice Cross League. “It was a huge success to all, young and old, with a crowd of over 5000 spectators,” Cimmer recalls. “Later that spring came the formation of the associations, international federation and the registrations of all that would be needed to formalize the sport of Ice Cross."

Since Feb 2014, Cimmer has been founder, director, board member and owner of World Ice Cross Inc. which is dedicated to expanding the sport, educating participants and organizing events. Investing tens of thousands dollars and countless man hours into the sport, he is also director and board member of both the Canadian and US Ice Cross Associations and the International Ice Cross Sport Federation. Since 2014 he has been President and CEO of the World Ice Cross League.

Currently, four Red Bull Crashed Ice events are held annually: in the USA (St Paul), Finland (Helsinki), Ireland (Belfast) and Canada (Edmonton). Four ‘Rider Cups’ have been added to the schedule this year, also in the USA, Austria, Finland, and Canada. A women's only division was added in Canada in 2009. The last stop on the Crashed Ice Tour is at Edmonton this weekend, running Friday March 13 and Saturday March 14, marking the tenth year of Red Bull fixtures in Canada. The city centre tracks involve downhill skating with tight turns and dramatic drops over a fast-paced course, attracting hundreds of thousands of spectators. Red Bull says that each year the ice track is completely redesigned to challenge athletes' endurance, skills and nerve in exciting new ways. This year there will be nine turns over the 415m track with a 45m vertical drop. A 50-strong international crew works for more than three weeks building the track and setting up audiovisuals for the massive production.

His first season appearing in all the tour fixtures this year, Cimmer is ranked 46 in the world and is looking for a strong finish in Edmonton to keep him in the top 64 overall. Gabriel Andre, 2006 world champion, and William Dutton, an Olympic speed skater, are also hometown favorites. The threatening threesome are hooking up for a great team competition race on Friday followed by individual events on Saturday.  

Going forward, Cimmer wants to take the sensational sport indoors, too, using NHL-scale arenas with existing flat ice both for events and practice. Plans for this year included opening up Ice Cross to additional global sponsors and international media in order to support and spotlight what he hopes will be the next Olympic sport.

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