Coming soon to an American cliff near you: ‘Via Ferrata’ routes

August 23, 2022

“I stood on a rock ledge, terra firma far below, and took in the panorama to my left,” recalls a contributor to The New York Times, Cindy Hirschfeld, noting that, against the horizon sat Fairchild Mountain—reaching just above 13,500 feet—and other peaks in the Mummy Range in Colorado, a series of lofty summits in the northern part of Rocky Mountain National Park.”

She adds of her adventure, “In the foreground was a bright blue sliver of Mary’s Lake. In front of me, a sheer wall of stippled gneiss. But unlike … experienced amateur climbers, I did not need to have precise technique, nor exceptional strength, nor a rack full of climbing gear to reach my elevated perch.

“That’s because I was on the Cloud Ladder via ferrata, which consists of permanent rebar rungs bolted into the rock, bordered by a continuous series of fixed aircraft-grade steel cables to which I remained attached.”

Those rungs made it relatively easy —although still thrilling—to scale the rock face, Hirschfeld informs us.

Indeed, according to the Times, rock climbing has long been popular in Europe, particularly in the Alps, via ferrata routes — “via ferrata” is Italian for “iron way.” The system originated in Italy as a way to move soldiers through the mountains during World War I and was later adopted by intrepid hikers for ascending steeper terrain.

Such routes are becoming more popular in the United States, with new routes being installed on peaks, in gorges and even at high-end outdoors-oriented resorts.

“I wanted people to experience a part of the mountains that you wouldn’t be able to unless you were a climber,” said Harry Kent, the founder and director of Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park, Colorado, which operates the Cloud Ladder, open since July 2021, on private property a few miles south of the town.

The site is open year-round, weather permitting, for guests 12 and older; guided tours cost from $174 to $330 per person, depending on the number of climbers.

Through his other business, Via Ferrata Works, Kent and his team are also building the country’s first urban via ferrata at Quarry Trails Metro Park in Columbus, Ohio, in an abandoned limestone quarry. The route, on a 150-foot-high cliff face, is expected to open this fall. Access will be free.

The high-alpine Cloud Ladder has a different type of superlative: With some 600 feet of sustained upward climbing for most of its length, it’s billed as the steepest via ferrata in the United States.

“If I’d been a first-timer,” Hirschfeld says, “I would have opted for the adjacent and easier Peregrine Arete. But having previously ascended other via ferratas, I was game for a challenge—which I found on the second of two heart-pumping suspension bridges, where I hovered on a tightrope-style cable that spanned 45 feet across a 200-foot chasm. I won’t pretend that I didn’t think twice before heading across it, even though I was secured to two other cables at shoulder height.”

As on all via ferratas, in addition to a helmet, Hirschfeld wore a waist harness with a bungee-style lanyard holding two large carabiners (known as lobster claws) and an energy-absorbing device that would lessen the impact in the unlikely event that she fell. (She didn’t.)

As for the carabiners, you clip them onto the cables and leave them attached, sliding them along as you climb, except when you arrive at one of the many anchor bolts along the route. There, you unclip one carabiner, clip it in again after the anchor, and then unclip and clip the second one. “Never double unclip,” her guide, Nick Golden, had cautioned.

Although climbing a via ferrata may look like a daredevil outing, it’s more attainable than you might think. The challenges tilt toward psychological rather than physical. “We regularly see people getting past self-imposed boundaries,” said Sean Kristl, the general manager of the guide service Alpenglow Expeditions, which provides via ferrata tours in Olympic Valley, California.

Once people get on one via ferrata, they start looking up where others are because it is so accessible and fun,” opines Gannon Nawojczyk, the manager of Southeast Mountain Guides, which operates a route in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Visitors vary in fitness level, age, and experience. “People are starting to realize that this is for anybody, so our clientele is becoming more mixed,” he added. The company experienced a 190% surge in via ferrata guests between 2018 and 2021, in spite of closing for two months in 2020, according to Nawojczyk.

Not surprisingly, there’s an art to designing a good via ferrata, and that includes incorporating natural rock along with the artificial aids. “Our crew is mostly made up of mountain guides, so we have a good sense of what guests can tolerate in terms of exposure and steepness,” said Mike Friedman, the managing partner of Utah-based Adventure Partners, which has designed via ferratas at ski areas like Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, as well as at the Amangiri resort in Utah and Arizona’s Castle Hot Springs.

Research contact: @nytimes