Imagine a climber clinging to the edge of a sheer cliff, cracked fingertips clutching to rock, searching anxiously for a metal rung to place a shaky foot on, the safety of flat ground some thousand feet below. The brief respite of a vertigo-inducing rope bridge is not far off in the distance, but for now, the only thing keeping the daredevil from falling is a harness tethered to a steel cable that is drilled onto the rock.
The sport is called via ferrata (Italian for iron way), and pros say it dates back to World War I, when Italian soldiers who needed to move troops quickly through the Dolomites built protected climbing routes by bolting cables, metal rungs, ladders and bridges into the rock face. Today there are thousands of these fixed climbing routes along European mountain chains, including the Alps and the Pyrenees. But unlike the sport of rock climbing, which requires special shoes, ropes and belay devices (along with serious technique), just about anyone can ascend a steep cliff on a via ferrata, giving the casual adventurer a chance to explore otherwise isolated routes in gorgeous terrain without the risk associated with unprotected climbing.
And thanks to the sport’s surging popularity, similar routes have spread across North America in recent years, bringing an Old World sport to the sky-rocketing peaks of the New World.
Mount Nimbus and Conrad Glacier — British Columbia, Canada
Set deep in the Purcell Mountain range and reaching jagged and sharp into the sky, 2,651m-high Mount Nimbus is the kind of wild and extraordinary place that few casual mountaineers can usually reach. Its 2.5km-long via ferrata, built in 2007 by Canadian Mountain Holiday (CMH) guides, is part of a heli-hiking excursion only available to guests of the remote Bobbie Burns Lodge, located near the small city of Golden. After a chopper drops off guests in an idyllic wildflower-covered valley, mountaineers strap on helmets and harnesses, clip their via ferrata lanyards to the metal cable bolted to the base of Mount Nimbus, and begin to climb. Guests traverse sharp ridges, cross a suspension bridge of dizzying heights and scramble over the final summit, all the while taking in the snow-capped mountain scenery and watching the occasional eagle fly overhead.
In the summer of 2012, CMH debuted another via ferrata excursion for lodge guests along the nearby Conrad Glacier Field. This 7km-long white-knuckle adventure combines hiking, climbing over smooth rock slabs alongside waterfalls, ziplining over a surging river and navigating wild canyons via bridges and metal rungs. Halfway through the eight-hour excursion, a picnic lunch is served by an emerald glacial lake where guests have been known to jump into for an invigorating (read: freezing) swim. The via ferrata concludes by traversing 20m of vertical rock wall beside the glacier’s surreally blue ice.
Yosemite Half Dome – Yosemite National Park, California
In 1865, Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome was declared perfectly inaccessible, an iconic point that, according to the park’s website, “never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot”. It didn’t take long for American climber George Anderson, who reached the summit in 1875, to prove the naysayers wrong. Now every summer between late May and early October, thousands of people make the 15-mile round-trip hike to the summit, which rises 5,000ft above Yosemite Valley. The hike takes most people 10 hours to complete and begins along the Mist Trail, following the Merced River up more than 600 granite steps to the top of Vernal Fall and continuing through Little Yosemite Valley before arriving at the lower half of the dome, called sub-Dome. This steep section of the dome features an arduous climb up switchbacks before finally reaching the via ferrata. For those who make it — many are defeated by exhaustion, dehydration or injury — it is an exhilarating experience to climb 400ft of near vertical rock using just two metal cables and wooden foot holds. The park issues a maximum of 300 permits for the hike per day, distributed by lottery via Recreation.gov.