Mountain Coasters, sometimes called Alpine Coasters. It's a point of contention amongst enthusiasts as to whether or not they 'count.' In other words, do you put them on your list of coasters you've ridden, or do you not? Well, it's your list, so count them if you like. Whether or not you count them as coasters, you should really get out and ride one because they're just stupid, giddy fun. Where else can you get a gorgeous scenic vista, crisp mountain air, and a super-fun coaster ride all at the same time?
Have a look at the photo above. This is what most people, especially in North America, think of when they think of mountain coasters. Two main rails, two secondary rails, high-backed sleds. That picture is the coaster in Imst, Austria - at the time, the world's longest alpine coaster (it has since been bested). Every mountain coaster but one in North America is the two-rail type. They're hella fun. You should find one and ride it. But there's another kind of mountain coaster that runs on a single rail - and if you are in North America and you want to ride that kind (and you do!), then you've got to head to beautiful British Columbia up in the Canadian Rockies to Revelstoke Mountain Resort. That's where you'll find The Pipe.
I know what you're thinking. "The Pipe" is a weird name for a coaster. But have a look at this....
Seriously, what else would you call it? Now that you've seen the track, you're probably wondering how on earth the vehicles could stay on that thing. Let's have a look.
That's a sample sled sitting on a display just outside guest services at the resort. It gives you a chance to eyeball the thing and figure out how it all works. This is a good thing. You need to get a handle on the fact that these sleds can't jump off the track. They can't. Put this in your brain now, because you'll need that information when you're screaming down the mountain on a freaking pipe and there are turns and drops and blind corners and... I'm getting ahead of myself. Have a look at the sled there. See those rollers sticking under the lower side of the pipe? Those hold the sled down onto the rail, which keeps it from jumping off when you get to a hill.
The wheels there are the road wheels. These are what you're riding on as you roll along the pipe. There are four sets of these, which gives the sled stability and a smooth ride.
You probably noticed that there's a ridge on top of the pipe. See those wheels on the bottom of the sled that are close together? Those roll on either side of that ridge and steer the sled around turns. So you've got wheels on multiple sides of the pipe at different angles that effectively lock the sled to the pipe. It can't fly off. Remember that, you'll need that info later. So let's go ride!
First, you'll need to buy your coaster ticket, which includes a lift ticket for the gondola. As of this writing, the tickets are $25 per ride, which is a bit steep... but if you go in the shoulder season, you can score a 3-pack for $60, which lowers the price a bit. Once you have your ticket, hop aboard the gondola and ride up to the lower station, which is at the same level as the building you can see up on the hill there. Sure, it doesn't seem that far away, but looks can be deceiving.
It doesn't take long before you're way higher up than you thought you'd be and holy crap it's pretty. The scenery is so nice, you almost forget why you're coming up the lift in the first place... but then you look down and see the coaster.
It peeks out of the woods, then turns and goes back in. Several times during your trip up, you'll see a sled pop out of the trees, round a corner, then disappear again. It's fun to watch and really builds up the anticipation. Before long, you reach the unloading station and head for the queue. An employee scans your ticket and gives you a rundown of the rules and before long you're sitting on a sled, strapped in, waiting for your turn.
There are sensors down the track a ways that will turn that red light green when it's time for you to go. Once it does, you push the handbrake forward and you start rolling down a hill toward a drainage culvert under that road there. It's a bit unnerving, since you gain a good amount of speed, there's a turn at the bottom of the hill, and the tunnel doesn't look big enough to fit through.
And there's the small matter of that turn. Unlike those two-rail mountain coasters, single-rail ones don't really bank their turns much, if at all. Everything... and I mean everything in your brain screams at you to slow down. And you could, of course. All you have to do is release the brake lever and the sled will slow right down, giving you some peace of mind about that turn. You could even pull back on the handle to bring yourself to a mere crawl or a complete stop. And you want to slow down. You really do.
Don't do it. In fact, don't ever do it unless you either get to the end of the track or you have a slowpoke rider in front of you. Tailgating isn't allowed, so sometimes you might need to slow down to keep a cushion of space between you. Other than that, never touch the brake. Think back to those sleds with all those sets of wheels that lock the things to the pipe. You'll make that turn, trust me. You just won't think you'll make that turn. Through the culvert you go! The light at the end of the tunnel is bright and it prevents you from seeing what's ahead.
That's actually kinda evil. When you burst into the sunlight, it takes your eyes a second or two to adjust. During your brief little instance of I-can't-see, two things are going to happen.
One: there's a drop right out of the tunnel that you won't see. It's going to speed you up.
Two: there's a turn that drops down some more. It's going to point you at the next bit, which is the first thing you'll see after your eyes adjust to the sunlight.
You're staring right down a long straightaway at a pretty steep slope with trees on either side. I don't know if Revelstoke Mountain Resort has names for all the various portions of The Pipe's layout as it zig-zags down the mountain, but I'm going to call this bit the speed ramp. If you weren't already going top speed before now, you will be here. I say "top speed" because each sled has a speed governor on it that prevents the sleds from going more than 41km/h (26mph). That sounds pretty slow, I realize, but remember that you're sitting on a plastic sled straddling a pipe halfway up a mountain and there are unbanked turns. It will feel plenty fast, trust me. If you've ever been on a wild mouse coaster, you have an idea of just how unnerving it can be to approach an unbanked turn, especially with any speed. Laterals, people. You're going to feel like slowing down again, not just to give you peace of mind about that turn, but to enjoy the view.
But don't do it. You can enjoy the view from the gondola ride up to the top. So push that stick forward, catch a glimpse of the panorama, and round that corner at top speed. Back into the woods we go.
The course continues like this for awhile, interspersing a slalom-style trip down the mountain with half in the trees and half out in the open. At this point I should point out how minimally this ride impacts the beauty of the nature around it. Unlike other kinds of activities that you might do on a mountain, an alpine coaster leaves a very small ecological footprint. There is no need for excavation, no need to pour concrete footers, no big structure to spoil the scenery... in fact, you often have to look really hard to see the thing at all.
It's probably the most fun you can have without being a jerk to Mother Nature. Win-win! You can think about all of that later, though, because right now you're zipping through the trees and having a blast. There are no more of those long speed ramps at this point. Now we're all about quick turns, sharp drops, and blind corners. It's really difficult to convince yourself not to pull that brake, but full-on top speed is the only way to really appreciate the upper portion of this ride, because it's only at top speed that you'll get that holy grail of coaster experiences: airtime.
It's that delicious moment on a coaster where the track yanks the seat right out from under your butt, making you feel weightless. You look for that on a regular coaster, but on a mountain coaster? You aren't expecting that, and when it happens.... when the track dips sharply, when you feel your butt lift off the seat, when you feel the seatbelt tighten across your lap, when you get that little kick as the underside wheels make contact under the pipe to hold the sled on the rail, when you become weightless and free for just a split second as you burst out of the woods into the sun, and when you realize that you just got freaking airtime on a mountain coaster.... it's a moment of pure unadulterated joy.
Or terror, whichever.
Back into the woods you go, careening between the trees, navigating the tight corners, giggling (or screaming, or both) all the way down the mountain. The lower third of the layout is more in the open, giving you a chance to enjoy the scenery as you go.
This last section eschews the quick transitions for a more relaxed trip with long stretches of straight pipe. Don't think it'll be boring, though. You've still got some tasty surprises in store, like bigger drops and faster curves... sometimes both at the same time.
Eventually, you get down near the end of the course and the strings of flags let you know that you've reached the end of your journey. Now is the time to use the brakes as you pull into the finish and the nice attendant helps you off your sled.
Once you've hopped off the sled and caught your breath, I suggest that you head into the little café on your left called La Baguette. They've got gelato, coffee, tea, and a turkey/yam/cranberry wrap in there that's better than it has any right to be. But I digress. Let's get back to the coaster. I've been on a lot of them all over the world. Have a look at my coaster list and you'll see. I thought I'd just about seen it all, but The Pipe tossed in a new one for me the first time I visited: the coaster had to shut down for about half an hour because bear. No, really!
I've had to wait out coaster closures for a hundred different reasons... one of the sensors needs to be replaced, we're adding another train, we're removing the extra train, we're waiting for more staff to get here, the lift hill blew a fuse, it's raining, it's too cold, someone puked in the seat, or the all-purpose excuse known as "temporary technical difficulties." But all of that pales in comparison to the time when I was told that the coaster would be shut down for a few minutes because, "there's a bear, eh?"
Best. Excuse. Ever.
All of this just proves that an alpine coaster has very little impact on the ecology and wildlife on the mountain. Eventually, the bear went about its merry way, the coaster reopened, and everyone had a fun story to tell when they got home.
So there you have it.
Gorgeous scenery, clean mountain air, speed, drops, turns, woods, a tunnel, a moment of airtime, and a freakin' bear. It's everything you could want in a mountain coaster and it's waiting for you to come try it out. Have a ride - sans brakes, of course!