The Outsider: Taking the stress out of rock climbing with Via Ferrata

Rock climbing is one of the most rewarding outdoor activities out there.

The sheer feat of scaling seemingly impassable cliffs with nothing but a pair of sticky-soled shoes, a rope and a bag of chalk can give you a sense of accomplishment unlike any other form of recreation.

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Rock climbers usually begin at a climbing gym (such as The Core here in Whistler), gaining skill and strength before attempting climbing on natural rock. After plenty of practice with a top rope belay system (the climber being supported by rope from an anchor above), dedicated climbers will graduate to lead climbing, where blocks of aluminium called “nuts” or camming devices called “cams” are placed by the climber as they ascend while their climbing partner feeds rope to them from below.

The super-human feeling of topping out after a lead climb up hundreds of metres of rock — carefully tying critical knots and clipping into forged metal hardware — is a feeling that is hard to replicate. It also takes years of skill development and physical conditioning, often requiring year-round training and an absolute non-fear of heights.

Doesn’t sound like an experience you would take the grandparents on, does it?

Thankfully, there is an alternative to acting out your best Spiderman impression. And it’s called Via Ferrata.

An Italian phrase meaning “iron way,” Via Ferrata is a series of steel rungs drilled and bonded into rock. A steel cable runs alongside the rungs with fixed points every few metres, connecting to the climber’s harness with a special shock-absorbing lanyard system. The European Alps has hundreds of Via Ferrata routes dating back as far as the mid 19th century, many which have been kept in place and maintained. The First World War saw many routes constructed in the Dolomites to assist with troop movement through the mountains.

North America is seeing more and more Via Ferrata routes pop up in the last couple of decades as a fun and accessible way of climbing. While some adrenaline addicts may roll their eyes at the notion of climbing a ladder with full protection, those who actually try it end up having a lot more fun than they expected.

I’ve tried the Via Ferrata on Whistler Mountain before and can honestly say it’s a far more rewarding way to get to the sight seeing area than hopping on the Peak Chair. Last weekend Sea to Sky Guides launched their Squamish Via Ferrata tour that scales 100m of vertical just below the top station of the Sea to Sky Gondola. Even with my years of experience lead climbing, it was hard not to enjoy a casual — yet vertical — ascent on glacial granite with Howe Sound as the picture-perfect backdrop. The best thing is that when my mom comes to visit me in a couple months, she could do this tour no problem. And she’s in her 60s.

Via Ferrata can feel like you’re cheating your way up (much like a chairlift or gondola), but at the end of the day, it gives more people the chance to feel a rock climber’s exhilaration. And that’s a good thing.

Vince Shuley rarely rock climbs these days due to a persistent shoulder injury coupled with his obsession with riding mountain bikes. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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