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,
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,
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.
Studhorse, Hoodoo and Cave Peak — Page, Utah
Situated on 600 acres in the Four Corners region,
where the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona converge, the Amangiri Resort has been attracting
well-heeled outdoor enthusiasts since it opened in 2009. The most recent
addition to the resort is three via ferrata, ranging in difficulty and set on
what many consider to be one of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet.
Here, resort guides lead hotel guests on a scramble up imposing stone
escarpment using vertical steel cables that follows a major crevasse through
sandstone wall. The 1.5-mile Studhorse trail, the most challenging of the three,
takes approximately three hours to complete. All, however, end at the top of slickrock
domes surrounded by blue skies, towering stratified canyons and the needle-thin
rock towers of Grand Staircase
Escalante National Park.
Mount Ogden — Ogden, Utah
Set within privately owned land in Waterfall Canyon and
designed by veteran climber Jeff Lowe, Mount Ogden is a via ferrata
park in a deep quartzite canyon that features practice walls as well as three
routes with elevation gain between 250ft to 350ft. Route No. 2 begins with an
hour of uphill climbing along a juniper berry-dotted trail to the base of the
climb, where the park’s namesake 350ft waterfall cools the air with its
pleasant mist. Stout ladder rungs that jut out of the north-facing cliff start
out easy but quickly give way to vertical sections. Along the 1.5-mile route,
climbers clipped to the galvanised steel cable can sit back on their harnesses
and take in the views of the city of Ogden and the Great Salt Lake.
Smugglers’ Notch — Jeffersonville, Vermont
Developed by a guide who has led international
mountaineering expeditions since the 1980s, the Notch, or Smuggs, via ferrata — as
locals call it — is perhaps the most family friendly in North America. It
combines rock climbing and canyoneering techniques that get participants
exploring along the Brewster River Gorge and a 75ft waterfall that ends at a
boulder-covered river. Along the way, trekkers zipline across scenic chasms and
gorges, scramble over huge boulders, traverse the river and play Tarzan and
Jane on a treetop obstacle course through a lichen covered forest. Participants
should be prepared to get wet.