Via Ferrata in the USA

We’ve talked about Via Ferrata (btTSW) before, but here’s a little more… basically this is an extreme sport that anyone can do it as long as you have a head for heights. Unlike rock climbing there is little skill involved – just guts and a desire to do something a little extreme on your weekends.

If you’re vertically challenged this sport is probably not for you!

Via Ferrata was invented in Europe and is very popular there. I discussed it once before when talking about the climbing in the Haute Savoie, France. There are only a handful in the USA as government-imposed bans that outlaw permanent climbing anchors, notably the Wilderness Act of 1964, make installing Via Ferrata  a red-tape nightmare in many places. But we’re going to have a look at some of the climbs that have been installed,. However, before we do that a quick reminder of what Via Ferrata actually is:

Via Ferrata is a mountain route which is equipped with fixed cables, stemples, ladders, and bridges. The climber is attached to the cable system at all times. You don’t actually need any previous climbing experience to do it, however the courses can be challenging and it is therefore not recommended for anyone with severe injuries or a weak heart.

The first Via Ferrata in the USA was built in the horseshoe shaped canyon at Torrent Falls  Red River Gorge, Kentucky (illuminatusprimi1). It offers 6 different sections with 4 levels of difficulty ranging from easy to expert. At each section there is an exit point where a climber can make their way back to the main facility. The easier sections of this climbing adventure do not require an extensive amount of upper body strength, however the advanced sections do.  Highlights include a 120-foot perch, a 70-foot-long bridge and a section of the climb that skirts behind a seasonal waterfall.

Nelson Rocks in West Virginia was the second Via Ferrata to be opened in the States. The route gains hundreds of vertical feet of elevation over half a mile of climbing with a 200-foot-long swinging bridge, which connects two fins and sways 150 feet above the the ground. The exposed summit, when reached, gives unforgettable views of the Allegheny mountains.

Waterfall Canyon Climbing Park in Ogden, Utah is the US’ latest to be built. World renowned climber Jeff Lowe is the genius behind the 3 precipitous climbs found in a deep quartzite canyon just east of the town. The Park has a training wall where newcomers to Via Ferrata can practice before heading uphill to the big climbs. “Via ferrata is probably the quickest way for a new climber to get up high and exposed in the mountains,” said Ron Olevsky, a 52-year-old climbing guide from Toquerville, Utah, who has pioneered climbing routes in the West since the 1970’s. However, it is worth noting his warning. He points out that it shares few traits with the sport of rock climbing. “If you want to learn climbing technique,” he said, “it’s not the best way to start out.”

Yosemite’s Half Dome in California:

A view of Half Dome and climbers using the cables to get to the top.

As you can see, Yosemite’s Via Ferrata at Half Dome is seriously popular and so, in an effort to regulate the number of people using the cable system, day-permits became a necesity from May 2010. These permits will only be required on weekends, including Fridays, as well as holidays. Four hundred will be issued per day, with 100 of those to be included in wilderness permits. The permits are required for the use of the trail from the base of the sub-dome to the summit of Half Dome and include the Half Dome cable route. And before you wail “oh, but it’s not fair…” you will be pleased to hear that permits are free, but there will be a $1.50 non-refundable service charge for each one. The following photograph shows why these permits became a necessity!

The cables to ascend and descend Half Dome have become so crowded on some days that waits can be up to an hour.

Perish the thought – a far cry from the relative anonymity of rock climbing!

Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont also has a Via Ferrata. Smuggs’ version combines hiking along the Brewster River Gorge area with challenging encounters into steeper, narrower and more closed-in terrain.

Picacho Peak in Arizona’s Picacho Peak State Park offers a partial Via Ferrata route.

Picacho Peak rises 3374′ (1028 m) above sea level and is believed to be a tilted and eroded piece of rock overlain by a lava flow. A small flat space on top of the spire can be reached via two trail heads. Portions of the trails are precarious, and hikers are aided by cables and catwalks, making the routes some of the few Via Ferrata in the United States.

And the last one for today: the Bugaboos route, a little-known rock buttress of smooth quartzite known as Trundle Ridge, in southeastern B.C. between Golden and Radium Hot Springs, and west of Highway 95. This is the latest Via Ferrata built in North America. OK, so this one is in Canada, but hey, who’s complaining, it’s still on the same Continent. “We have seen a decline in the desire for traditional mountaineering routes,” said Peter Macpherson, Assistant Area Manager at the Bugaboo Lodge.  “But at the same time, there’s been an increased interest in doing ‘something thrilling”. Back in 2007, in response to that demand the guides constructed their Via Ferrata – a combination of steel cables and rebar rungs – on the Mt. Nimbus route up Trundle mountain. The route takes about 2 and a half hours.

Love them or hate them, via ferrata open up new possibilities for exploring alpine terrain. While it is not actual climbing and there is very little to no skill involved, there’s definitely something exhilarating about the idea of climbing up sheer rock on small metal rungs.

It boils down to three fields of thought:

  • If you’re a hiker, via ferrata routes allow you to navigate sheer, vertical and otherwise unnavigable terrain with a series of rungs, cables and ladders.
  • If you’re a climber, via ferrata routes are basically the cheater’s way out, opening up your turf to a new generation of unskilled tourists!
  • But if you’re a via ferrata enthusiast – then it’s an exhilarating extreme day out.


14 Responses to “Via Ferrata in the USA”

  1. Jane
    2011 | 12 May at 15:17 #

    Great summary. There really are some amazing routes making this mountain adventure accessible for all. You missed one route in Canada that’s definitely worth investigating – Mt. Nimbus. Have a great summer!

    • lolajones
      2011 | 12 May at 16:13 #

      Thank you Jane – and I’ll go and investigate Mt. Nimbus!

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      2013 | 28 May at 07:03 #

      I don’t seem to be having a problem here but thanks for alerting us to the possibility of one. I’ll have it checked!

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    2013 | 12 June at 19:21 #

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    • lolajones
      2013 | 14 June at 16:28 #

      Will do and thanks

  5. heidi farrington
    2013 | 11 July at 19:27 #

    I did the Nelson Rocks route last year and it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It also has served as the impetus for my wanting to learn “real” rock climbing now. Just another way to look at it. I don’t think of it as “cheating” any more than riding a bike is cheating on riding a motorcycle. It’s different strokes for different folks.

    • lolajones
      2013 | 7 August at 07:13 #

      Really nice to hear from people who have done some of the routes. Thanks for writing in Heidi. I agree with you – I don’t think it’s cheating, it’s just another form of rock climbing and if it’s inspired you to try the real thing then it’s served it’s purpose hasn’t it?!

  6. Al Potter
    2013 | 3 October at 23:20 #

    You also need to add the via feratta route in Telluride Colorado…locally known as Tellurides Krogerata after
    the person who put it in Chuck Kroger.

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  8. Sean
    2016 | 22 April at 21:48 #

    A couple more for the list:
    – Mt. Norquay in Banff, Canada
    – Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada

  9. Donna Gail Schneider
    2016 | 12 June at 19:16 #

    It is not ‘cheating’ if you consider the REAL purpose of the European VF which was creating an ‘iron path’ for WWI solders to safely travel from mtn to mtn without their enemies spotting them.


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