Coming Soon to an American Cliff Near You: ‘Via Ferrata’ Routes
I stood on a rock ledge, terra firma far below, and took in the panorama to my left. Against the horizon sat Fairchild Mountain — reaching just above 13,500 feet — and other peaks in the Mummy Range, a series of lofty summits in the northern part of Rocky Mountain National Park. In the foreground was a bright blue sliver of Mary’s Lake. In front of me, a sheer wall of stippled gneiss. It was the kind of vista that Tommy Caldwell, a renowned professional rock climber who lives in nearby Estes Park, Colo., likely experiences on a regular basis.
But unlike Tommy Caldwell, or even 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 — though still thrilling — to scale the rock face.
Long popular in Europe, particularly in the Alps, via ferrata routes — “via ferrata” is Italian for “iron way” — 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. 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.
“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, 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, Mr. 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, 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, I 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 I fell. (I 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,” my guide, Nick Golden, had cautioned.
Though 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, Calif.
Last summer I brought a friend, Lauren Stanley, 56, an architect from Austin, Texas, to climb the via ferrata in Taos, N.M., with me. Afterward, she told me she was reassured by the knowledge that carabiners and cables were always close at hand. “I felt like a lizard crawling over beautiful rock faces, with just enough adrenaline to keep me sharp and aware,” she said.
“Once people get on one via ferrata, they start looking up where others are because it is so accessible and fun,” said 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 percent surge in via ferrata guests between 2018 and 2021, in spite of closing for two months in 2020, according to Mr. 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. Aerial bridges and ladders within routes are particularly popular, Mr. Friedman said.
Via ferratas that are open to the public exist in at least 18 locations across the country. Here are five spots to explore.
Ausable Chasm, N.Y.
As the Ausable River churns through a sandstone chasm carved out of 500-million-year-old rock, the via ferrata, 12 miles south of Plattsburgh, N.Y., leads climbers back and forth across the water on six suspension bridges interspersed with traverses along the ravine’s narrow ledges. Visitors have been coming to this privately owned property within Adirondack State Park since 1870 to view features like Elephant’s Head and Rainbow Falls, but after floods obliterated some of the area’s lower hiking trails in 1996, the via ferrata was eventually constructed in their place and opened in 2013. The bridges include a 75-foot-long single cable (with two cable “handrails” that climbers clip into) and a ladder-style span with wooden slats.
Standing on a ledge midway through the via ferrata route, with Class 4 and 5 rapids 30 to 50 feet below and the rock walls towering above, immerses you in the chasm’s wild character. If it sounds intimidating, it’s not; the Adventure Trail is an especially approachable via ferrata — though you can increase the difficulty by forsaking some of the foot and hand holds and relying more on natural indentations and steps in the rock. Traditional guided rock climbing is also available at the site, as are rappelling, hiking and rafting.
Details: Open Memorial Day through mid-October; admission fees are $9.95 (ages 5 to 12) and $17.95 (ages 13 and up); tours for guided groups of up to 12 (ages 8 and up) cost $40 more per person.
Red River Gorge Via Ferrata
Long treasured by climbers and hikers for its fantastical rock formations and abundant natural arches, the Red River Gorge in east-central Kentucky has been designated a National Geological Area. A couple of miles away, on private land, is this .75-mile-long via ferrata, the first commercially operated course in the United States when it opened in 2001. It’s also one of the few unguided via ferratas in the country, though instructors from Southeast Mountain Guides, a local operator, are there to advise or even accompany a group (the latter by advance reservation).
Set within a U-shaped cliff band, the route has six progressively challenging sections that rise as high as 140 feet. Climbers begin with a short orientation session, followed by some time in a practice area before setting out on the course. While traversing and ascending the gorge’s mottled sandstone — marked by streaks of black, red and gold — you’ll encounter a pair of bridges, including a tightrope-style cable. If you climb as far as the final two parts of the route, a couple of short overhanging sections may test your mettle. Guided rock climbing and rappelling are on offer, too.
Details: Open March 1 through Dec. 1; ages 10 and older; a day pass is $56.
Ouray Via Ferrata
Built as both a community asset and a recreational alternative to the area’s popular four-wheel-drive routes, the via ferrata in Ouray, a small town in southwestern Colorado’s rugged San Juan Mountains, takes climbers as high as 150 feet in the narrow Uncompahgre River gorge. “We were trying to think of a way to diversify the local tourist economy with an activity that is human powered and still family oriented,” said Mark Iuppenlatz, a co-owner of San Juan Mountain Guides, who helped conceive of and construct the via ferrata.
The project was entirely funded by donations and then given to the town. Access is free, and competent users can go unguided; a ranger at the start checks equipment and gives a safety talk. The .6-mile downstream route opened in 2020 with 800 rungs to help climbers scale the granite walls, including a continuous vertical section known as the Stairway to Heaven, and the Sky Ladder, a 70-foot-long bridge at a 33-degree tilt that spans a stretch of roiling water.
The via ferrata has been a hit. According to Mr. Iuppenlatz, between 4,000 and 6,000 visits were anticipated during its first year; more than 10,000 were recorded. New for this summer: the more challenging upstream route, which has fewer rungs and features a 60-foot-tall hanging ladder and a culminating five-foot leap across — yes — the gorge itself.
Details: Open May 6 through Oct. 31; all climbers must be able to reach up at least 62 inches from the ground; free; rental gear and guiding available at several outfitters in Ouray, including San Juan Mountain Guides.
Taos Ski Valley, N.M.
Taos Via Ferrata
Set among ancient granite buttresses, talus fields and sweet-scented subalpine fir and spruce trees below the ski area’s 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, this via ferrata provides lofty vistas of northern New Mexico’s Wheeler Peak Wilderness, named after the state’s highest mountain, which is also visible. Guided trips begin with a chairlift ride over wildflower-studded meadows to the basin below Kachina.
A highlight of the beginner-to-intermediate tour is a traverse over the six-inch-wide, 100-foot-long skybridge, which spans an expert ski run 50 feet below. (Look for the artfully forged Zia sun symbol at the bridge’s far end.) A short hike away, the more advanced K Chutes route features an exhilarating ascent straight up more than 200 vertical feet of blocky, colorfully hued rock and includes a 30-foot-long single-cable bridge. (You clip into and grasp the parallel cable overhead as you heel-to-toe it across.) This summer, new three-hour sunset tours on weekends offer a rare and blissfully quiet chance to watch the sun slip behind the peaks from a high-alpine perch; an A.T.V. then shuttles guests back down the mountain.
Details: Open mid-June through mid-October; ages 12 and older; guided day tours cost between $275 and $575 for up to five people; sunset tours cost between $425 and $675.
Olympic Valley, Calif.
Tahoe Via Ferrata
Open since 2019, this via ferrata added a new summer component to Palisades Tahoe, the North Lake Tahoe ski resort famed for its steeps. Unlike the know-how required to descend elevator shaft–like ski runs, however, no experience is necessary to ascend the Tram Face, a signature rock feature visible from the base area. Four routes, from 400 to 800 vertical feet high, allow climbers to navigate the weathered, knobby granite. Moreover, this via ferrata’s special construction allows you to slide a locked carabiner on your harness over each permanent anchor point without ever having to detach it from the cable. That makes the process especially easy for kids and those with climbing jitters.
After practicing technique on a smaller buttress, you’ll tackle lines like the Sundial Arete, Skyline Traverse, Great Escape or the Loophole, which debuted last summer and combines elements of the other three routes. The reward? Dramatic vantage points that offer spectacular views of the rest of the mountain, the forested Olympic Valley below and surrounding Sierra Nevada peaks.
Details: Open mid-May through late October or early November; ages 10 and older; two-, three- and four-hour guided tours start at between $119 and $179 per person.
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