Hanging by a Thread

From The Travel Book I'll Never Write - Gondolas, Cable Cars and Trams can take us to new heights. Just don't look down!

It seems to me that the more rugged and beautiful the natural landscape the more resolute man becomes to access the terrain. Three particular examples from the far reaches of two continents come to mind from our travels. Each involved traveling high above the ground in a metal box suspended by a wire cable. The only thing separating us from a certain death was the ingenuity of the engineers, the quality of the construction and the diligence of the maintenance crews. For some the journey was exhilarating, for others terrifying. In all cases, whether you call it a tram, a cable car or a gondola these little capsules transport you from safe and familiar ground to places of extraordinary beauty.

Montserrat - Catalonia, Spain

Montserrat means jagged mountain in Spanish, no further explanation necessary. Near the top of this 4,000 foot mountain outside of Barcelona sits a beautiful monastic enclave. It houses a Basilica, a publishing house (first book produced in 1499), and a world renowned choir. When we boarded the Aeri de Montserrat (the cable car that would bring us to the top) we could never have imagined the breadth of the community that has been created among the crags of the mountain over the course of centuries. The ride up is a combination of incredible views ahead and terrifying rocks below. Once at the top my collective memory of Montserrat is one of wonder of how the monks built the settlement, an incredible 20 minute concert in the Basilica, and some of the best cheese on earth sold by a merchant in front of the church.

Peak 2 Peak Gondola - British Columbia, Canada

Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, located side by side in Western Canada are a skier's paradise. We are all familiar with the concept of ski lifts that bring us from the base to the summit of a mountain. What about a gondola that goes horizontally across the top of one mountain to another? Sounds crazy, right? Well, they built it. Here are some stats:

  • The entire gondola run is 2.73 miles across the mountain tops.
  • The longest span between supports is 1.88 miles.
  • At the highest point you are dangling 1,427 feet above the valley below (and about a mile away from the nearest support tower).

Once again the views are incredible but you can't help but think of some scary stuff. Leaving the horrific thoughts aside what about simple concepts like, what would happen if this thing breaks down? How would they get us out of here? Almost all of the cabins are bright red but a handful are painted silver. If you get the silver cabin it comes fitted with a glass bottom so you can look straight down over 1,400 feet at Fitzsimmons Creek (if you dare).

Dursey Island - West Coast, Ireland

Believe it or not this was scarier than the Peak2Peak. Dursey Island, located off of the coastline of County Cork is about as remote as it gets. The island has less than 10 residents. It is separated from the mainland by a channel with strong currents and a jagged rocky reef. It is simply too challenging and dangerous to run a ferry. Instead, the only access to the island is by the Dursey Island Cable Car. There are no shops or any retail activity. The only industry is farming. How do the animals (including cattle) get on and off the island? The same way as the people, on the cable car.Click here to see the rather inefficent system in action http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cWU1M2GmRY. Sadly, I recently read they are trying to prevent livestock from riding the cable car. The counter argument is that this would end farming on the island entirely which seems plausible.

On the day we visited Dursey we took the scenic route and bobbed and weaved our way along the scenic Beara Peninsula. This trek left us precious little time to explore the island. When we arrived the attendant let us know the last run would be in about an hour. I forget the exact numbers but I think the capacity of the cabin was supposed to be eight passengers. There were at least ten of us. Since there were a few kids he said not to worry about it. The cable car is old, it is rusty, and it is very rickety.

Everyone was a little nervous about the whole thing but we were in a rush so we just rolled with it.  Unbeknownst to us, the weight of us passengers lowered the car on to a concrete pad so when the attendant started the process in motion the car dragged along the pad making an awful grating noise. Then just as that terror was sinking in we were dragged off the pad and the cabin dropped straight down a good 10 or 15 fifteen feet giving us the feeling we were going to tumble and plunge into the icy Atlantic. At least half of us screamed.

Once we realized we weren't going to die it was a spectacular ride. You travel over the treacherous channel to the tip of the island. From there we explored ancient paths, the small ancient cemetery and admired the isolation of the island. When you leave the island there is no attendant. He is back on the mainland. It is up to the passengers to make sure everything is in order. The whole thing is flat out strange but that's part of the adventure.

Hanging by a thread is an exhilarating experience. I would recommend each of the three experiences to anyone who gets the chance. If you ask me, all of them provided more thrills than any rollercoaster you can ride.

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