By Jackie Nourse | Photographs Dan Evans
“Look, I’m a falcon!” Ten feet overhead, my guide, Vincent, leans out over the cliff’s edge, flapping his arms while tweeting, his harness the only thing stopping him from actually flying off the ledge. I scramble for my smartphone while trying to maintain my footing. How do I stay attached to a greasy rock face above a fjord in Québec while filming my French-accented leader? I’m clipped into a heavy wire cable by a climbing harness and carabiner, walking up a ladder made of rebar.
Via ferrata means “iron way” in Italian, and dates back to WWI, when troops fixed cables and ladders to the rock faces of the Dolomites in order to move soldiers and equipment. Today, people climb via ferratas for sport. The fixed ladders and cables let novice climbers slither up exposed rock. In Europe, the routes—both historic and purpose-built for recreation—have been popular for decades. And they’re fairly common in Canada with routes at major ski areas like Banff and Kicking Horse, plus 13 in Québec.
Stateside, only a few exist, in Utah, Kentucky, West Virginia, Vermont, and Colorado. That’s in part because stringent conservation laws have made installation of them on public lands difficult. But in 2011, Congress passed the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act, which encourages natural resource-based activities at places like Snowbird and Squaw Valley. Scaring yourself stupid on a via ferrata is one such activity, though it’s taking U.S. resorts time to adopt the concept. Currently, only Smugglers’ Notch has a via ferrata on its property, and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is the only ski area with plans to add one, next summer. “The route will open steeper, rockier terrain in a safe way to give visitors the same thrilling experience in the summer as they get in the winter,” says Jackson’s Communication Director Anna Cole.
The other U.S. routes encompass everything from big wall scaling to overhanging rock-clinging to tiptoeing across wide-slatted suspension bridges. In Colorado, the Telluride Mountain Club stewards a public via ferrata that starts at the east end of the box canyon below Ajax Peak, traverses the massif horizontally, and exits, 1.25 harrowing miles later.
Wherever you go, rent or buy a via ferrata kit, which includes a helmet, harness, and a via ferrata rig—essentially a lanyard with two carabiners. The routes are typically designed so that you’re safely connected to a cable by at least one carabiner.
In the U.S., resorts would do well to serve Prosecco and brie to clients midway up routes that traverse under chairlifts and gondolas. As for Vincent? He flapped, but never fell.
From our High Summer 2016 issue.