Take the Iron Way

It’s time to clip into new via ferratas across Colorado.

Originally utilized as a means to move troops across mountain passes during World War I, via ferratas have boomed in popularity in Europe as a safe way for almost anyone to get out on exposed terrain. Italian for “iron way,” via ferrata climbing routes consist of permanent steel cables and rungs fixed to the rock; climbers use a system of slings and carabiners to ensure they are always protected on route.

“Rock faces are, by nature, places we stay away from,” says Bill Jackson, District Ranger for White River National Forest, which has worked closely over the past year on the approval process of two new routes set for construction in the A-Basin ski area. The idea of providing new views and outdoor experiences aligns with the goals of both organizations, who hope to increase access to areas not currently utilized by visitors. “Via ferratas are not as intimidating as rock climbing, especially to new climbers, and are a great introduction to going vertical.” 

Via ferratas can be self-guided affairs, such as the ones in Telluride maintained by the Telluride Mountain Club. People can come with their own gear, hire private guides or rent equipment. Other commercial operations, like those in Idaho Springs, Buena Vista, and a new route that just opened in the Royal Gorge (see page 11) are lead by guides. Construction on the first of the two new via ferratas around the East Wall area of the A-Basin resort will begin this summer, and will be the first one based out of a ski resort in Colorado. They will be built by the same company that designed the via ferrata at Jackson Hole Ski Resort and, similar to that one, utilize guides to access two areas of steep terrain around the resort.

“This is a special piece of public land and we think this is a really low-impact way to expose people to some stunning scenery and dramatic places that they might not otherwise see,” said Alan Henceroth, COO of A-Basin.

With the passing of the Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011, partnerships like this one between the National Forest Service and ski resorts are designed to increase year-round experiences for visitors to the area by introducing new activities like via ferratas, though the process requires much oversite.

Purists to the sport of rock climbing may take issue with an easier route to the top, while adherents of “Leave No Trace” might be uncomfortable with the idea of anchors and cables left permanently in the rock.  Extensive environmental impact studies and opportunities for public comment help assuage some of these concerns, with benefits such as longer employment seasons and better utilization of existing facilities helping to add to the appeal.

Both Henceroth and Jackson were keen to point out that, rather than an amusement park thrill ride experience, via ferrata construction aligns with a shared mission of exposing more visitors to Colorado’s rugged, natural, high-altitude terrain.

“In terms of benefits to the Forest Service, we’re all about getting people outside and experiencing the outdoors in new and exciting ways,” says Jackson.

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