As I clung to the iron rungs embedded in the rock wall of the Royal Gorge, I looked around and caught my breath.
For hundreds of feet, all I could see were the craggy red and tan granite walls of the Royal Gorge, dotted with green moss, lichen and other plants. Turkey vultures circled overhead, riding the thermals against a backdrop of bright blue Colorado sky. Far, far below me — some 800 feet down — the Arkansas River rumbled with its continuous deluge of snowmelt.
Wearing a bright orange hat, approach shoes and a special harness, I followed behind a guide on one of the new via ferrata routes at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Slowly, I moved one carabiner (attached to my harness), then the other, farther up the steel cable affixed to the wall as I climbed.
I’m not afraid of heights, but I could feel my heart thumping in my chest as I reached the top of the route and planted my feet on solid ground. Though it felt safer than traditional rock climbing, the exposure, the height and the location inside the gorge made it exhilarating all the same.
If you’ve been hearing the phrase “via ferrata” a lot lately, you’re not imagining things. Translated from Italian, via ferrata means “iron way” or “iron path.” These protected climbing routes date back to World War I, when soldiers needed a safe and efficient way to travel across Europe’s mountain ranges. They’re still incredibly popular overseas today, but via ferratas are starting to catch on in the United States, including Colorado.
Using a system of steel cables, iron rungs, ladders and other hardware attached to the rock face, via ferratas offer access to places typically only reached by mountaineers and rock climbers.
As far as attractions go, via ferratas are in the same genre as zip lines and aerial ropes courses, though they’re more like rock climbing in practice. What sets a via ferrata apart from a traditional climbing outing is that participants are typically led by guides and they don’t need much technical skill or experience to finish the route.
Some say a new federal law is behind the growing popularity of via ferratas — the Ski Area Recreational Enhancement Opportunity Act of 2011. Under the law, ski areas operating on Forest Service-managed lands can now submit plans for warm-weather attractions and activities.
“That’s when ski areas started to develop more summer activities like aerial adventure parks, zip lines and mountain coasters,” said Mike Friedman, owner of Adventure Partners, which has built many of the via ferratas in the United States.
But those same ski areas — and other outdoor recreation companies — wanted something that would provide visitors with more of an “earned experience,” not just a “bucket list, purely adrenaline-rush kind of thing,” said Friedman, who lives outside of Telluride.
“With the via ferratas, you actually have to climb them, you don’t just get to close your eyes and push off,” Friedman said. “It’s more like a skiing experience or a downhill mountain biking experience. It’s a mountaineering experience. As long as you stay clipped in, you’re going to be OK, but if you aren’t paying attention, you could hurt yourself.”
Friedman’s team got its start designing and building via ferratas at Amangiri, a luxury hotel and resort in southern Utah. That first via ferrata, which opened with the resort in 2009, became the company’s “showroom,” Friedman said, which led to them building the via ferrata at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming in 2016. (They’re going back to expand the Jackson Hole via ferrata this summer.) They also built via ferratas at Mammoth Mountain in California and at the Royal Gorge, and are now working on projects at Arapahoe Basin and Taos.
It takes the right kind of terrain to make a via ferrata work (“It’s all about the rock,” Friedman says), so while via ferratas are gaining popularity, you won’t see them popping up just anywhere in the state.
With its towering East Wall, Arapahoe Basin has the right topography to make it happen. The ski area is starting construction on a via ferrata this summer, with hopes of opening the guided routes to the public in 2020.
Visitors will begin their ascent at roughly 12,200 feet in elevation and climb to 12,900 feet. When completed, the Arapahoe Basin via ferrata is expected to be the highest in the world, said Tony Cammarata, operations director for patrol, parks and planning for Arapahoe Basin. Even so, the routes are intended to be accessible to people of all ability levels.
“People want to get into these exposed, high-alpine zones but maybe they’re not technical climbers,” Cammarata said. “They want a safe way to be able to have this experience, and that’s what the via ferrata provides.”
The protected climbing routes are part of the ski area’s push to remain open seven days a week, even during the summer months, a plan that includes an aerial adventure park and expanded hiking and mountain biking trails.
After the passage of the new federal law, Arapahoe Basin’s leaders spent many years considering what summer attractions to propose. Eventually, they opted to highlight their natural landscape.
“The East Wall is very unique as far as terrain, as far as the views from that area,” Cammarata said. “We just thought (the via ferrata) would be a great way to mix the uniqueness of our East Wall and our high-alpine environment with what guests would like to do this summer. And to do something a little different from what the rest of the ski areas around us are doing.”
Though unaffected by the ski area expansion law, the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park also wanted to take advantage of its topography, most notably, the 1,000-foot-deep gorge. After a fire destroyed 90 percent of the structures in the park in 2013, park leaders had the chance to start from scratch and reimagine the attractions that would allow visitors to best experience the gorge.
Starting this summer, visitors get a totally new perspective thanks to the via ferrata — inside the gorge, halfway up the rock face. There are six routes of varying difficulty to choose from.
“One of the things we looked at was, how can we really utilize the gorge itself?” said Brent Hargrave, chief operating officer of Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. “We wanted something more hands-on, something you can’t really do in many other places. The more and more we looked at it, we thought, ‘This is perfect.’ We’re really excited about it.”