Letting Go (and Holding on Tight) in the Treetops

Pushing the envelope at TreeUmph! treetop adventure course. Photo by Alisson Clark.

My tween is clinging to a ladder 60 feet in the air. Watching from the ground, I see that there’s nothing beneath him but the wind whistling through pine trees. Normally, this is the stuff of nightmares for me, the risk-averse mom of a fearless climber. But not today.

Over the past three hours at TreeUmph!, a treetop adventure course that opened this year on Florida’s Gulf coast, I’ve witnessed how carefully my daredevil 12-year-old has listened to the staff’s instructions, clipping his carabiners into the safety loops that are the only thing between him and that long, long fall. His silhouette gets smaller and smaller as he nears the top of the tower leading to a 650-foot zip line. If I squint, I can see how he precisely places the carabiners on the metal cable that will keep him safe as he flies through the air, attaching them so their openings face in opposite directions, just as we were instructed.

Our adventure didn’t start out this smoothly. Upon arrival, we trained on a ground-level course, where a 15-minute overview described how our safety equipment would, if used correctly, get us through the meandering 14-acre attraction intact. The only things keeping us safe, our trainer explains, are the two carabiners, which must be detached and re-attached properly on each obstacle to avoid any, um, unplanned departures from the course. There will be no guides on the platforms to clip us in, test our harnesses, or give us the go-ahead. Staff watches from the ground, but up there, we’ll be on our own unless we yell for help.

I’m listening ardently, but my son seems more interested in chatting with a fellow climber during the lesson, which culminates in a test where each of us demonstrates our understanding of the equipment and its role in keeping us alive. During the test, he twice commits the ultimate no-no: unclipping both carabiners at the same time. I reiterate that if he does this on the actual course, there will be nothing keeping him on the tiny, sky-high platforms connecting the elevated obstacles. He seems unimpressed.

Walking to the first course–adults and kids 12 and older can climb through five progressively harder and higher courses–I tell him that he’ll need to wait for my go-ahead before setting off on each obstacle, so I can make sure he is clipped in properly while navigating the Tarzan swings, wobbly bridges, and dangling ropes.

As soon as we ascend the first course, however, I see the flaw in my logic: I can clip him in before the obstacle, but once he crosses the yawning space between platforms by triumphing over the hair-raising device that separates them, I cannot be on the other side to clip him to the next platform. He’s 12, and his survival depends completely on his retention and execution of instructions I’m pretty sure he ignored. Oh my.

As it turns out, I’m the one with something to learn. After struggling to properly attach my own safety equipment, I look across the swinging footbridge to see him clipped in to the next platform, smiling and waiting for me to catch up. He has done everything right. Next obstacle: Same thing. I realize I was wrong to think he couldn’t handle this. I start to wonder, as I cling to the safety rope and squeal as I lose my footing on the suspended log I’m crossing, what other ways I might be underestimating his abilities, his maturity, his capacity for independence. Twelve seems young, but the teen years are near, and with them, driving, dating, college. Those days feel as far away as the distant platform at the end of the rope bridge I’m shuffling across, but I realize they are closer than they seem.

We clamber through two entire courses, but at the end of the third course, we reach the first obstacle that stops me in my tracks: A rope swing that ends near a cargo net, requiring the rider to jump off of the rope and cling, spider-like, to the net on the other side. I’m buffaloed, but he attacks it without hesitation, my fearless boy, who, as it turns out, has just enough fear to double check his carabiners before flinging himself off of the platform. The next thrill is the 650-foot zip line, which will require not only the two carabiners but the metal pulley that’s strapped to each of our safety harnesses. (The zip line is the final leg of the junior ticket for ages 9-11, but older climbers can tackle two additional, advanced-level courses.)

I don’t like the looks of that ladder, but my son sure does. The normal me would be panicking as he climbs higher and higher, but I feel calm, trusting him, shading my eyes from the sun to follow his progress. Then he clips in, gives me a thumbs-up, and flies.

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