Written by: Hayley Swinson
Fifty feet is the highest point on the Cape Fearless Extreme course, according to Chris Sherry, co-owner with Ron England. Standing on the ledge looking down, it’s hard to fathom that I’m five stories up. From here the ground looks far away, but there’s nothing to compare it to for scale. The surrounding forest has been left to grow up and around the course, giving the impression of seclusion. This “green wall” was intentional, I later learn. While many parks will spiral or wagon-wheel upward, reusing the same trees or poles, the Cape Fearless course zigzags through mature woods. This prevents visitors from anticipating what’s ahead, giving them a greater sense of discovery. Looking up from halfway through the course, I’m thankful for their decision. The zigzag style also provides ample shade, an important factor on this hot summer day in the Cape Fear region.
Chris and Ron came to the Cape Fear after spending years working at a big outdoor resort in Pennsylvania. They’d both gotten promoted into desk jobs, away from the outdoors they loved. “We used to joke that it would be perfect if we could just pick up the treetop course and move it south,” Ron told me. In Pennsylvania, they had to close the course during the winter, a problem they’d be less likely to experience down south. Eventually, their joke turned into real planning—several years’ worth. Their first order of business was to decide where to build.
Ron, a former combat medic in the Army, had spent some time in Fayetteville and knew he liked North Carolina. They searched for a place that would be accessible to Wilmington, Myrtle Beach, the Triangle region, and Fayetteville. But since opening in Riegelwood in April, they’ve been surprised by how many people consider it too far to go. “It’s only about 25 minutes from downtown Wilmington,” Chris told me. “You can’t even get to some places in Wilmington in 25 minutes.” To Chris and Ron, it was important to have plenty of acreage with mature tree growth to create the experience they envisioned. “You have to be this far out to get that,” Ron said.
Up in the trees, I follow along behind a group of teenagers—two visiting from Germany—as they leap nimbly from challenge to challenge. They’re not shy about leaving each other behind, seeming to view the course as a competition. Luckily, the course is designed to allow guests to proceed at their own pace, without the need for a guide at every turn (though Chris is nearby the whole time). Cape Fearless uses a system called CLiC-iT Adventure, a pair of connected carabiners designed so that only one of the pair can be opened at a time. This prevents guests from accidentally removing both carabiners from the cables and ensures they are always secure throughout the course. It also changes the guide’s role from course policeman to instructor and motivator.
“How do you help people who are afraid of heights?” I ask Ron.
“We’ve had a number of people who’d swear they were afraid of heights,” he says, “but once they settle in with being comfortable with the equipment, they discover that the height isn’t as big of a factor as they thought it would be.” Luckily, I no longer experience heights as a jolt in the stomach; after years of rock climbing, I’ve learned to trust my gear, but I remember the fear of leaning back, of getting too close to the edge, of believing that this thin rope is going to keep me from tumbling fifty feet down to the ground. As it turns out “this thin rope” is rated at 22 kiloNewtons—equal to nearly 5,000 pounds of impact. Five thousand. And Chris assures me that all aspects of the park and equipment are inspected on a regular basis.
Sometimes, though, people do freeze up—whether from fear or from exhaustion. The four-level course increases in difficulty and typically takes three to four hours to complete. While guides want to see guests push their limits, they encourage them to end on a good note. That often means descending at the start of the third or fourth (red or black) course rather than pushing forward and getting stuck in the middle. But guides have the capacity to lower a guest at any point during the course, as Chris effortlessly demonstrates when one of the teenagers in our group gets too tired to continue. The guest is attached to a “descender” and slowly lowered to the ground, at which point they can follow the trail back to the front office.
I ask Ron and Chris about their most interesting experiences at Cape Fearless, and they laugh and exchange a glance. “We’ve had plenty of guest experiences that wouldn’t be suitable for print,” Ron tells me. He says that guests often learn a lot about themselves—and each other—when they do this course. People who come as friends leave as more than friends and couples sometimes see the rough sides of each other. “Back in PA, we had a proposal on the course once,” Chris says. “He was waiting at the end of the zip line with a ring.”
Cape Fearless has that Swiss Family Robinson appeal—the feeling of being lost in the treetops among the butterflies, birds, and dragonflies. All around you is the sound of grasshoppers and cicadas buzzing, and in front of you is a puzzle that engages both your mind and body. For a moment—or a few hours—it’s easy to forget you’re only 25 minutes from Wilmington. Because right now, you’re on an adventure.
Cape Fearless Extreme is located at 1571 Neils Eddy Rd, Riegelwood, NC 28456. Passes for the adult course (ages 10+) are $39.00 on weekdays, $44.95 on weekends. Passes for the kids’ course (ages 7-11) are $20.00. Group rates are available. Reserve at capefearless.com.