Experience a Via Ferrata
Gripping a steel cable railing with each hand, I stepped onto the suspension bridge, which spans a rocky gully 6m below. The wooden plank swings forward, lurching me into an impromptu hula move. Walking slowly, one foot, then the next, the bridge rocks back and forth, swaying me like an uncoordinated tightrope walker. I laugh at the ridiculousness of it and eventually reach the far side. I turn to watch my 15-year-old niece, Devyn, striding confidently. She crosses quickly and smoothly, with barely a wobble. “I think it’s better if you go fast,” she declares nonchalantly. Our fun was just beginning.
The suspension bridge is but one component of Mt Norquay’s via ferrata, a new summer attraction at the Banff Norquay ski hill (summer.banffnorquay.com). Originating in Europe, the phrase
via ferrata, is Italian for “iron road.” Dating back to the nineteenth century, via ferratas gained attention during the Second World War when iron steps, ladder rungs, as well as steel cables were permanently affixed to cliffs and ledges to provide soldiers safe passage through hazardous mountain terrain.
Now numbering more than 1000 in Italy’s Dolomites, and the Alps via ferratas have become increasingly popular in recent decades as a hybrid of high-alpine hiking and rock climbing. Climbers are protected from falling by being continuously clipped onto the cables, which are bolted into the rock, with sturdy lanyards and carabiners.
In Canada, via ferratas are most abundant in Quebec and BC. Now the Rockies boast three within a few hours’ drive of Calgary. Mike Adolph, an internationally certified mountain guide who
operates Custom Outdoor Experience (coe.ca) out of Nordegg, built Alberta’s first via ferrata in the David Thompson corridor in 2007. With a lease on the provincial land, he purchased the
materials out of pocket and friends volunteered their help to build a series of rebar steps and ladder rungs up a 185-metre cliff on Mount Stelfox. While his via ferrata is open to climbers who know how to use the system correctly, Adolph recommends those who don’t, should hire a guide.
“You don’t have to be a rock climber or extreme adventurer to enjoy this excellent outing,” Adolph says. “Inexperienced rock climbers can hire a professional guide. It’s such a great introductory activity and it gets people into some pretty cool terrain.”
Located within the Banff National Park boundary, Norquay’s via ferrata was conceived by its owners as part of the long-range plan for the hill, which has hosted skiers since the 1920s. Gaining
approval from Parks Canada involved a rigorous application and environmental impact assessment process. While some individuals and groups – including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness
Society (CPAWS) – remain concerned that such commercial activities run contrary to Canada’s National Parks Act and that increased summer activity at Norquay poses a direct threat to the area’s ecological integrity, Parks Canada approved the project and it opened for the 2014 summer season.
John Thornton, who is a senior manager at Mount Norquay, was involved throughout the planning and construction process. (The Norquay via feratta was designed and installed by Prisme,
the Quebec branch of a French company that has constructed more than a hundred via ferratas.)
“Via ferratas are state-of-the-art designs that are meticulously planned and carefully considered in numerous ways,” explains Thornton. “They have evolved into hi-tech, masterful designs that take into account difficulty levels, the best possible routing, and a variety of quality components, including cables, bridges steel rungs, and more.”
Today’s via ferratas are modern and streamlined, right down to the specialized climbing harnesses, helmets, carabiners and lanyards. These are supplied by Norquay’s rental shop. Everyone
using Norquay’s via ferrata must be accompanied by a certified guide, now part of the hill’s summer staff, to ensure safety. The two-hour Explorer route offers milder exposure for tentative
adventurers, while four and six hour options guarantee thrills for those ready to step onto cliff faces with nothing but thin Rocky Mountain air beneath them. The attraction’s popularity points
toward additions for upcoming seasons.
Like Adolph, Thornton sees via ferratas as a gateway activity that introduces people to safe, fun, climbing adventures in groups led by professional guides. “We’re really proud of our affiliation with
the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides,” Thornton says. “We want to promote guided experiences. And suggest people who enjoy the via ferrata sign up for a course with Yamnuska
[Mountain Adventures] or The Alpine Club of Canada.”
Golden’s Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, situated three hours west of Calgary, also opened a via ferrata in 2015. It features the two-hour Discovery route and the four-hour Ascension route, which covers 465 metres on a steep cliff face on Terminator 1 peak. Like Norquay, participants must be accompanied by a certified guide and the cost includes a gondola lift ticket as well as all necessary technical equipment. Another creation by Prisme, it boasts a professional design, incorporating plenty of natural rock steps and hand holds as well as man-made holds.
“The feedback has been terrific and it’s been extremely popular,” says Matt Mosteller, Senior VP of Marketing for Kicking Horse’s parent company, Resorts of the Canadian Rockies.
“Most people have no idea what a via ferrata experience is all about. When they complete the course they rave about not only the thrill and the majestic views, but about the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. It’s a powerful experience.” Kicking Horse also plans to expand its via ferrata.
With restaurants atop both Mount Norquay and Kicking Horse, the via ferrata adventure is perfectly capped with a brew and a burger. “There’s bound to be more development of via ferratas
in North America,” Thornton says. “If it’s done well, it’s a benefit for communities and for mountain recreation.” Of course, they also offer an unforgettable way to experience exciting terrain in some of the most spectacular scenery in Canada.
By: Lynn Martel