North America by cable and bridge

Created by soldiers who needed to move quickly through the Dolomites, the sport of via ferrata provides access to gorgeous, isolated routes without the risk of unprotected climbing.

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

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.