Mountaineering via ferratas made easy

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Few outdoor adventures offer the same reward as rock climbing – a screensaver-worthy photo from atop, along with a story you’ll never tire of telling. Bragging and epic views are the reward for years of learning the climbing routes, which is why hanging onto the side of a mountain isn’t on most routes. But one via ferrata climbing a mountain changes that: now almost anyone can reach the top and live to tell the tale.

Translated from the Italian expression for railway or road, a via ferrata is a climbing course made up of steel reinforcement steps, handles and safety cables drilled and glued into the rock face. Wearing a safety harness and helmet, climbers attach themselves to the cables that run the length of the route. If you slip, the harness arrests your fall, while the rebar helps you transition from step to step. Along with a guide coaching climbers throughout the course, the harness and steel rung course gives newcomers the confidence to climb the mountain.

The routes are a mix of vertical climbing and walking, while some include elements such as ladders, tightrope-like walkways and suspension bridges.

Before World War I, Austro-Hungarian and Italian soldiers set up via ferratas to make crossing the Dolomites easier. The routes remained until recreational climbers began using and improving them in the 1960s. Since then, hundreds of via ferratas have been installed across Europe and the United States. The first via ferrata course opened in the United States in 2001 in Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

Via ferrata climbers at NROCKS Outdoor Adventures in Circleville, W.Va., take in views of the Allegheny Mountains.

Good time to climb

At traditional ski resorts, via ferratas, along with activities like mountain biking, help attract visitors during the summer months when the terrain is safe to climb. Generally, via ferratas are seasonal, opening in late spring, after snow clearing, until early fall, when sites turn to skiing. Most sites offer guided tours, perfect for beginners or families who want to climb together.

Harriet Flynn of Harrisonburg, Virginia, who climbed the via ferrata at NROCKS Outdoor Adventures in Circleville, W.Va., so often that she’s now a mountain guide helping others, has seen the thrill both ways. “I still have the same experience seeing the big sights,” she says. “As a tour guide, being able to take photos of people who look like they’ve done the most amazing thing of their entire lives is really exciting.”

Visitors walk along the via ferrata at Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes, California.

Michelle Steinhardt, New York founder of travel blog Trav Nav, is a recent via ferrata convert who climbed a trail at California’s mammoth mountain last summer. “I’m not a climber, so the via ferrata was my first ascent. They say it’s great for all skill levels, and it was true for me,” she says.

‘Savor the moment’

Although a healthy respect for heights and the ability to manage them is essential, a via ferrata is much less physically demanding than traditional climbing, and most mountains have routes that vary in length, elevation and difficulty. “Have a calm state of mind knowing you can’t fall so you can be present and savor the moment,” is Mark Lakin’s advice after the New York-based travel photographer and influencer scaled the 900 vertical legs of the via ferrata at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska. “It was absolutely breathtaking – goosebumps from head to toe.”

A family tries the Tahoe Via Ferrata in Olympic Valley, California.

User-generated review websites like alltrails.com can be a good way to gauge climbing difficulty levels. Check ahead for any via ferrata you’re interested in, as many require reservations and have age and weight limits for harnesses. Ascents can range from around three or four hours to almost six hours. If climbing a mountain is on your to-do list, here are a few places you might consider checking it off:

Arapahoe Basin; Dillon, Col.

Plan to spend a full six hours reaching the top of America’s highest via ferrata. You’ll scale 800 vertical feet to a 13,000 foot summit with 360 degree views. Entirely above the tree line, climbing here takes advantage of Colorado’s high mountain environment. From $155 per person for four hours

NROCQUES; Circleville, W.Va.

With views of the Allegheny Mountains, the NROCKS Outdoor Adventures route takes you over a pair of fin-shaped quartzite rocks that are connected by a 200-foot-long bridge 150 feet off the ground. Push forward to see West Virginia’s highest point, Spruce Knob. And if climbing during the day isn’t challenging enough, guides offer night tours where the bright full moon illuminates the grips (you’ll still want to use the provided headlamp). From $125 per person for up to five hours

Climbers ascend a vertical via ferrata at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Taos Ski Valley; Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico

The 100-foot-long and approximately 50-foot-tall bridge helps beginners get to grips with the heights. But there are also more challenging options here, including climbing the face of Kachina Peak. You’ll have views of Rio Hondo and Wheeler Peak Wilderness behind you with a 30-foot-long, 20-foot-high walkway in front of you. From $275 per person for three hours

mammoth mountain; Mammoth Lakes, California.

Mammoth offers a few routes, from easy to difficult, that cross the Caldera Overlook. Beginners should stick to the thrills of Facetime while more experienced climbers might prefer the Nose, which is loosely based on the route from El Capitan to Yosemite. From $100 per person for three hours

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort; Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Choose from six routes—a seventh set to debut this summer—to explore the Teton Ridges. After a short gondola ride to the front door, you’ll be outfitted in gear, including proper footwear, before choosing a route based on your experience. This family-friendly resort has enough diversity to challenge adrenaline junkies, like climbing 500 vertical feet or crossing a 120-foot-long suspension bridge. From $450 for two people for 3.5 hours

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