Billy Penn reporter Mónica Zorrilla braved Treetop Quest Philly

When I started my position as a reporter for Billy Penn, I came in with a rudimentary understanding of what was expected of me. Quick turnaround, strong writing skills, social media chops, the ability to understand Philadelphians — or deal with them, anyway — and if need be, the will to eat a plethora of tacos during a 10k were among some of the requirements.

Walking a tightrope 60 feet above Fairmount Park’s forested grounds was not in the job description.

And yet, I found myself accepting the assignment after my colleague Michaela (who had previously reported on Treetop Quest) passed the opportunity along to me to try the aerial adventure park in West Philly before it’s grand public opening on May 12.

It was a knee-jerk decision, the effusive, overly-positive type with zero hesitation that only an office newbie still in her probationary period would have made.

This emphatic “yes” was given, of course, before my war flashbacks of an unforgettable ninth grade field trip. Treetop Quest wasn’t my first ropes course, and my only previous experience as a 14 year old was far from pleasant.

Let me break the scene down for you: 73 awkward teenage girls — all of whom smelled bad, looked terrible and, due to suffering from out-of-whack hormones at a single-gender Catholic school, had atrocious attitudes — forced into three hours of “team bonding” exercises in blistering Miami September heat. All while suspended high above the ground.

With nowhere to go, nowhere to hide and no way to opt out without failing P.E. (this was before things like “feelings” and “phobias” and “debilitating anxiety disorders” were taken into consideration at school).

If I recall correctly, four of my peers nearly fainted (or did), one girl had a full-blown panic attack and many tears were melodramatically sobbed.

No one left happy.

Credit: Glen de Villafranca / for Billy Penn

Mental preparation

So, full disclosure, I found myself driving to 51 Chamounix Drive (the location of Treetop Quest) for the preview tour yesterday with a mixture of foreshadowed dread and acrophobia-fueled heebie-jeebies lining my stomach. Picking up an iced coffee along the way did not soothe my predicament.

After arriving promptly at 10:30 a.m. and signing our liability waivers, my climbing partner and I went towards the “Chickpea Level” area (aka the baby obstacle course) for the rules and regulations briefing given by Treetop Quest staff.

To get used to the equipment that could make or break our falls, we were fitted and harnessed in a contraption that can only be described as a robot diaper.

Fastened tightly around my waist and snuggly on each thigh, harnesses came with two integral instruments for our adventure: hooks and clips.

The main takeaways were that the red steel hooks, which had an opening that was just small enough for easy sliding through the “speed bumps” on the rope course lines, always had to be facing away from you. The clunky, three-pound magnetic clips, on the other hand, were to always face toward you. Hooks were to be clasped to the supporting rope for every obstacle, while clips were only used for zip-lining.

Other safety measures included making sure that only one person is trekking across either one of the 65 ropes obstacles or 19 zip lines at a time. Two people were allowed at a time on the platforms between each test of endurance or feat of amateur acrobatics.

Level of physical and mental challenge at Treetop Quest ranges from one through four, with the first capping at 10 feet and the last at 60. Level Four is recommended for children over the age of 12. Each level should take roughly 30 minutes to complete, depending on the climber’s bodily and emotional prowess.

Everything, we were reminded repeatedly, is self-guided (Treetop staff members are always observing from the ground, just in case).

After 20 minutes of training and testing out our harnesses on “Chickpeas,” it was go time.

Credit: Glen de Villafranca / for Billy Penn

Building confidence

Level One is a piece of cake, psychologically speaking. This is the one that you do when you want to trick yourself into thinking that you’ve got a handle on your sanity and have had absolutely no worries about slipping and breaking every fragile bone in your body. It’s the one made for beginners and made for giving you beginner’s luck.

As I was getting through the obstacles, which included balance beams, horizontal ladders, crawling through a wooden barrel and zip-lines, I felt so unbelievably stupid for getting worked up about experiencing heights.

Level Two was the one where I repeatedly muttered “Heyyy, you got this!” to myself as I wobbled on zig-zagging beams, inclining planks and swung from ropes draped from cables. This was 20 to 30 feet above the ground. Even though I was starting to feel my legs and core engage as I held on for dear life, the obstacles on Level Two — which comprises two separate courses, 2a and 2b — were still more enjoyable than terrifying.

At this point, I noticed most people invited to the preview event had tapped out, probably because the next two levels would be far more strenuous and much more elevated, putting comfort zones and self-perceived versus actual limits to the test.

Maybe it was the rush of completing two courses without flipping out, or maybe it was the fact that I had no burden of “team building” with pimply, gangly teenagers, or maybe it was having my boyfriend there supporting me, but I dared to do the unexpected.

I proceeded to Level Three with no reservations.

It’s a good thing that I did, because Level Three is the best damn thing in this whole place, and I’ll stand by that statement.

Why is it the best? It’s just zip-lines. Don’t look down, hang on tight, and give a whooping “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” as you zoom through the park and get an epic view of the forest. It requires little to no physical exertion (my favorite kind), but given that you’re 40 to 50 feet above ground at this level, it isn’t recommended for people who can’t handle heights.

I realized that my acrophobia wasn’t as crippling as I had thought.

Credit: Glen de Villafranca / for Billy Penn

Going for broke

My fear of heights hadn’t magically disappeared, though, as was evident once I dragged myself to Level Four.

I’m not sure how to describe the physical structure Level Four accurately, other than to say a myriad of obstacles were put in our paths — a rock climbing wall, a walking net, a fisherman rope, a Tibetan bridge, unstable log steps, a slackline, monkey bars — at the 60-foot-high summit of the park. But I can describe how I felt going through them.

I oscillated between hurling creative family-friendly expletives — HOLY shish kabob! — as I shook uncontrollably on the obstacles. Level Four was an emotional journey that seemed to stretch forever (I timed it at 43 minutes) given my admittedly poor upper body strength, which made me inch through at a cautious pace.

Descending down that final zip-line and feeling your shoes start to graze the mulch and twigs below was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. Nothing compares to that sense of relief or accomplishment.

In the end, not only did I survive Treetop Quest Philly, I had a great time doing it.

You can check it out yourself starting Saturday, May 12, when the course will be open from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Don’t forget your closed-toe shoes, comfortable, breathable wear and your sense of adventure.

For more information on ticket prices (which vary depending on age), weather policies and more, visit Treetop Quest Philly’s website. Buy a ticket online during grand opening weekend with the promo code PHILLYOPEN to get 20 percent off. Happy climbing!