The cool Canadian air felt good on my flushed face as I followed a guide with a thick French-Canadian accent up the rock face. Continually clipping and reclipping to metal cable sections separated by anchor bolts, free of the burden of searching for hand- and footholds in the rock, we moved swiftly up the mountain. Like a ladder to the clouds, the metal rungs we stood on were leading us to the summit.
Soon we reached a ledge where we celebrated our accomplishment and took in the view of Charlevoix, Quebec. The hesitant and the confident alike had just conquered this peak on the via ferrata.
A cross between rock climbing and mountaineering, via ferrata offers outdoor enthusiasts a chance to access the same high, vertical faces as rock climbers, without the same rigorous training or nerve-racking risk. Thanks to the metal-ladder rungs fixed into the mountain and the security of a cable to which you are always attached, it’s a breathtaking adventure that combines the accessible with the extreme.
The Iron Way
Conceived during World War I, via ferrata was a means for Italian soldiers to move more swiftly through the mountains as they fought the Austrians for higher ground. The rusty steps and tattered cables that remain in mountains throughout Europe now provide a present-day means for nonclimbers to scale otherwise inaccessible peaks.
Today via ferrata allows outdoor enthusiasts to reap the rewards of climbing at a growing number of sites. “It’s a wild adventure where you end up in places that used to be reserved for technical rock climbers,” says Ethan Zook, a guide at Nelson Rocks Preserve in West Virginia. “People love the adrenaline rush from being way up high and taking in those views.”
While via ferrata is extremely popular in Europe, where there are well over 300 routes, it’s a relatively new phenomenon in North America. In the past decade, nearly a dozen via ferrata routes have been built in the United States and Canada, and the number of visitors is steadily growing.
The experience of sometimes dizzying heights can make via ferrata a particular challenge for some. When Louisa Marziali, a management consultant in Vancouver, was invited by a friend to go for a via ferrata outing in Whistler, British Columbia, she agreed, excited to try something new and edgy. At the mountain, a guide outfitted her and the rest of the eight-person group with equipment — a helmet, harness and via ferrata lanyard — and explained what they were about to encounter.
When Marziali saw the metal ladder that would aid her climb, she thought it would all be fine. But about halfway up, suddenly realizing she couldn’t see the ledge at the top, she froze. “I wasn’t sure I could continue and was probably stuck there for three minutes thinking my fear was too big,” she recalls.
With the group’s encouragement and some time to talk herself through it, Marziali eventually made it to the summit. “The biggest payoffs for me were the gorgeous views and the sense of accomplishment of facing down a fear,” she admits. “I will absolutely do it again.”
A training wall is a great way for height-averse people to test the waters, says Chris Peterson, owner of the Waterfall Canyon Climbing Park in Ogden, Utah. “About 5 percent of people just can’t get comfortable in the vertical environment,” explains Peterson. “Some will finish the training wall and say, ‘That was fun but this isn’t for me; I’ll just hike to the waterfall and take photos.’”
Visitors to Peterson’s park can choose from three routes, which vary in difficulty. While they all take courage, he says none of them requires great physical ability. “If you can climb a ladder, you can do a via ferrata,” he says. Peterson has led climbers as young as 6 and as old as 70.
That said, you probably shouldn’t expect your day of climbing to be a walk in the park. Via ferrata is like climbing a ladder, but an average route is more like 500 sequential ladders, so you want to be rested and feeling strong.
What to Expect
Like rock climbing, via ferrata combines the rewards of physical challenge with the chance to be immersed in the beauty of wild places.
From mid-June through Labor Day, visitors to Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont can sign up for a guided trip through a via ferrata course where they’ll encounter a whole range of outdoor wonders.
During the two-and-a-half-hour adventure, climbers experience a zipline, a rope bridge, a waterfall ascent and a hike through a stream.
“It’s a hybridization, since the waterways are what Vermont has to offer, rather than a canyon,” explains Austin Paulson, owner of Smuggler Adventure Tours. “Visitors experience rappelling, canyoneering, rock climbing and a ropes course wrapped into one.”
Not all routes have guides. Torrent Falls, located in the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, offers a self-guided course that normally takes about three to four hours. The course is divided into six sections — with four degrees of difficulty — and offers an exit after each section if you decide you’ve had enough.
Though there are no guides on the route, there are two training rocks, allowing climbers to get comfortable in a harness and test out the feel of clipping and unclipping their carabiners. “Rock guards” watch all of the climbers through binoculars to make sure that everyone is moving along safely.
Bring the Gang
In August 2008, Christina Dochtermann and her husband, Erik, both avid rock climbers, decided it was time to experience some adventure with their two young sons, then ages 6 and 8. They chose via ferrata.
The Dochtermanns, who live in Bedford, N.Y., had read about the via ferrata in Waterfall Canyon, so they made the one-hour drive from their vacation condo in Deer Valley to spend the day in Ogden. “It was an extraordinary family bonding opportunity, and once we got to the top, the sense of accomplishment was so satisfying,” says Christina. “As a climber, there was a bliss and ease that I could be on the rock face but still have this great security.”
Although there are risks involved with any type of adventure activity, via ferrata sites all do their best to mitigate possible dangers. Many sites will shut down if there’s any type of precipitation, and some have minimum-age limits. Families should be sure to check out safety policies beforehand to make sure that younger
climbers are allowed.
Though it may seem scary at first, most climbers say that the rewards of via ferrata are unbeatable. “I get some people who are gripping on the rungs for dear life and others who are standing on the edge with a camera holding on with one hand,” says Zook. “But the biggest reaction is excitement — all the people who say, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this!’”
Caren Osten Gerszberg is a writer and editor in New York. Her Web site is www.carenosten.com.