Banff's Via Ferrata, a Fixed Climbing Adventure!
When I was researching various activities and things to do in Banff National Park, I was delighted to come across a Via Ferrata. I had never heard the term before, but the photos I saw made me want to sign up immediately! It was explained as a “fixed mountain climbing route” that takes you to the top of the Mt Norquay Ski Area. They said, if you can climb a ladder then you can climb the Via Ferrata! I had never gone mountain climbing before (and don’t really live an area where it could be a realistic hobby) and this looked like the perfect excursion!
Italian for “Iron Road”, Via Ferratas were first widely used in 1914, during World War I. The Italians and Austrians fought to keep their lines in the Dolomite mountains until the end of 1917 trying to hold on to strategic locations and peaks. To help the troops move quickly through the high altitudes, permanent lines were fixed into the rock faces and ladders installed to create paths through the rough mountain terrain. Some of these locations have been restored and are open for viewing and climbing in Italy still today.
The popularity of these fixed climbing routes rose in Europe in the 70’s and 80’s, but started becoming more of a commercial endeavor around the world in the 2000’s. The one in Banff is fairly new, only having opened to climbers in 2014 and will premiere a new route for summer 2017.
The Banff location has four different routes to choose from that vary in length from 1km to 3.2km taking anywhere from 2.5-6hrs. We decided on the middle of the road option for our first trip up the mountain, The Ridgewalker, and I think it was perfect for our group. (Each of the routes take the same trail up, just adding more vertical coverage and climbing as the trip gets longer) This is definitely not a climb for the faint of heart (but you are climbing a mountain, what did you expect?!) and the whole line about being able to climb a ladder....you need to be a little bit stronger and more flexible than that.
To begin your journey, you will take the ski lift up to your starting point. (If you have friends who don’t want to climb but still want to be involved, the chairlift is open for a fee to ride and hang out at the mountain house at the top.) It’s a quick and fun little ride. We did see mountain goats beneath us on our trip up. Once at the “top” you do a quick practice run learning how to clip and un-clip yourself to the wire and practice climbing on a few little metal steps. Once your group completes the orientation portion you begin a little hike up to the first climbing location. Living at sea level, being at altitude definitely has its effect on me and I went in a little worried about keeping up. Our guide went at a nice slow pace, where we never felt rushed or bored. From this point it’s time to start climbing!
You tend to get the hang of climbing pretty quickly, and also find sometimes you’re more comfortable finding hand or foot holds other than what’s provided. You climb in short distances with lovely little landings to be able to stop and take a breather. We stopped half way for a snack break and then again at the top. Our guide was always happy to stop for photos and even took some of our group that we really appreciated. It really is quite a thrilling journey. There are a few sections that are steeper and more challenging than others as well as a suspension bridge to cross.
On our trip we had an extra little thrill that I will never forget for as long as I live! When we finished our first bit of climbing, I asked our guide what kind of wildlife you see on trail (we weren’t required to bring bear spray or bells, as we had been accustomed to doing hike other local trails). He said mostly just smaller animals, and the largest he’s ever seen were goats and sheep. Shortly after he stops use all and tells us to look across the mountain because he spotted a black bear climbing UP our descent trail. We ooh’d and ahh’d and marveled at it’s climbing speed. He was quite far away, but our guide radioed down to the lodge below to tell them what we saw and to keep an eye on it then we continued climbing. We lost site of the bear as we climbed, and eventually came to a little flat section where we stopped for photos and a snack. I joked with the group if eating a snack was such a good idea after spotting a bear, but no one seemed too concerned.
After about a 10min break we were ready to set off again, I was first in line behind our guide as we began by walking around a few bushes as I jokingly said “Should we pick up rocks in case we need to throw them at the bear!?” No sooner did I get that sentence out, did we turn the corner to come face to face (ok there was about 10’ between us) to the black bear!! He was head down in a bush snacking but looked up immediately. I had never seen a bear in the wild before, let alone a few feet from me, and what did I do? The ONE thing you’re not supposed to do! Turned and RAN away! Thankfully, the bear was just as scared as I was and did the same thing. The guide immediately radio’d back down about what happened, and they were going to send up some bear spray, but we found two bottles stored away in backpacks within our group, that we put in more reachable places. Our guide said over the years he’s seen a lot of bears, but never one that close. I can still picture it’s nose moving! Our guide was really great about keeping everyone calm and we kept going, never to spot the bear again. Being at the front of the climbing line, I did jingle my carabiners and made some noise while I waited at the top for everyone else!
This was definitely one of the best adventures I’ve ever done and highly recommend it if you’re visiting Banff! The Via Ferrata is like the glamping of climbing! All of the amazing views, thrills and adventure but with all the safety features to make it worry free! There is a reason why Banff was voted the top place to visit in 2017 and this will show you why!
Mt Norquay Ski Resort - Banff, Alberta, Canada
Mid-June through early October; $149-$299CAD +tip and tax
What’s Included: Helmet, Gloves, Climbing Gear, Guide, Chairlift ticket
What to Bring : Weatherproof shell, warm layers, sunscreen, water, snacks, camera, backpack and hiking boots (rain gear, hiking boots and various other items are available to rent or purchase on-site)
• Though you can drive and park for free, there is a free shuttle that makes stops at most downtown Banff Hotels. You'll recieve a schedule in your confirmation email after booking
• You only climb UP. There is a hiking trail down. It’s a bit steep, pack a collapsible hiking pole if it makes you more comfortable
• Thin gloves are provided, but bring your own if you’d like (or if it’s cold!)
• They will check to make sure you have appropriate footwear, so be prepared
• There is an age limit of 12 years old and a minimum weight of 77lbs and a max weight of 308lbs
• Ask anyone and everyone to take your photo! You won't regret it.
• Be prepared to have so much fun!
All opinions above are my own. Please contact the Banff Norquay Ski Resort with any questions before booking.