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Extreme Mountaineering for Mere Mortals

By:  Zac Unger Jan 14, 2013
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Via Ferrata

Twenty-year-old daredevils are always dreaming up deadly new sports to provide them with the ever-escalating adrenaline rushes they crave. But for the rest of us, all that extreme adventure is just so … extreme. What’s the average person to do when the treadmill isn’t cutting it anymore but parachuting out of a plane is too risky?

The answer is via ferrata, a new sport that is quickly gaining popularity around the world. Via ferrata, which means "iron road," was pioneered during the First World War, when Italian troops affixed a series of cables, ladders and iron rungs to the sides of appallingly exposed cliff faces in an attempt to gain an advantage in the high Dolomite peaks. Soldiers would then clip themselves to the cables and sneak through the high country in relative safety.

Now, across the world, this wartime idea has been repurposed for outdoor enthusiasts. “If you have two hands and two feet, you can do via ferrata,” says veteran mountaineer Mark Hammerschmidt, a guide for Canadian Mountain Holiday, the company that built one of North America’s longest routes, up the 8,700-foot-high Mount Nimbus in British Columbia.

High Peaks, Big Adventure, No Falling!

Before the adventure begins, climbers are outfitted with a helmet, a harness and a pair of metal carabiner clips. The cable is bolted to the rock every 10 feet or so, but it’s only for safety, not to aid in the ascent. Climbers must scramble for footholds and pull themselves up the cliff face, as traditional mountaineers do. What makes the climb safe is the ingenious double carabiner system; whenever a climber reaches an anchor, he passes the clips up the cable one at a time so there’s always at least one bombproof strap connecting him to the safety cable. That means climbers can fall only as far as the nearest anchor, which is usually just a few feet away. And modern harnesses even have shock absorbers to cushion the drop, something a World War I soldier could have only dreamed of.

The safety equipment is appealing to those who want all of the adrenaline with none of the risks of traditional rock climbing. Depending on the difficulty of the specific route, climbers can range in age anywhere from 5 to 85. 

Reaching for the Sky

Jade McBride, activities director at the Amangiri resort, a luxury Utah vacation spot that's surrounded by a series of sandstone mesas stretching 600 feet into the sky, recalls: "When we built our new resort, it was immediately clear to us that we had to find a way to get people up on top of those massive rocks.” Via ferrata was the obvious solution.

“The first route was so popular that we couldn’t keep guests off it,” he says. They’ve since built three more routes, and eager climbers have been scrambling skyward ever since. “You get a lot of people out there doing things they wouldn’t normally be able to do,” says McBride. With Bryce Canyon National Park, Lake Powell and Grand Staircase National Monument in the background, the views from the top are almost as exhilarating as the process of getting there. And to up the ante a little, the professional mountain guides are in the process of building a 230-foot suspension bridge to tie one end of the horseshoe-shaped mesa to the other.

A Growing Network 

Today, via ferrata routes exist in at least 20 countries, including the United States. Some climbs can be completed in as little as half an hour, and some — like Mount Kenya’s 16,000-foot trail — take considerably longer. In the Dolomites, where via ferrata was born out of the necessities of battle, modern adventurers have strung together hiking trails and via ferrata sections so that weekend warriors can spend days at a time experiencing the freedom of the mountains.