Award Winner: 
Debbie Olsen -"Iron Road"
Category Sponsor: 
Destination Cape Breton

Published in - Red Deer Advocate - July 25, 2015

Iron Road – Via Ferrata

Banff’s new protected climbing route makes mountaineering accessible – even for middle-aged greenhorns.

From a high alpine ridge near the top of Mount Norquay, I could see the snow-dusted craggy peaks of more than a dozen mountains and I couldn’t believe I was standing there. When you reach a certain age, you realize the chances of you ever climbing a mountain are not very good. If you haven’t taken up mountaineering in your first 50 years of life, it’s unlikely you’ll do it in the next 50. But Banff’s new Via Ferrata is making mountaineering accessible — even for middle-aged greenhorns.

“Via Ferrata” is an Italian term that means “iron road.” It is a protected climbing route that uses a metal cable that is fixed to the rock every three to 10 metres or so. Iron rungs, pegs, carved footholds, ladders and bridges can make up a Via Ferrata route. Since climbers can secure themselves to the cable, it’s possible for even inexperienced climbers to traverse a Via Ferrata safely and it’s a great segue to mountaineering.

Via Ferrata climbing routes have been in the Alps of Europe for years and were used during the First and Second World Wars to get men and equipment up mountains in strategical positions. Sometimes even experienced climbers enjoy a Via Ferrata route, because it doesn’t require ropes and other equipment and as a result they can climb solo safely — in places where that is allowed.

Banff became first national park in Canada to have an engineered Via Ferrata when one was installed at Mount Norquay ski hill in 2013. It was an idea that was more than a decade in the making.

The idea was conceived almost 15 years ago by John Thornton, a senior manager and lead guide at Norquay. Once management was onboard, it took many years for the approval process inside a national park. Thornton selected the route and supervised the installation when it was finally approved and now he guides groups along the route.

It was raining lightly when we arrived bright and early for the first Via Ferrata tour of the day and realized we were inadequately outfitted. My husband had his good hiking boots on, but my daughter and I were wearing shoes. None of us had proper rain gear. Our guide, Kim, took one look at my daughter’s runners and suggested she use the rental boots available for Via Ferrata guests. My shoes were adequate, but when she said that she had never had someone regret the decision to use the rental hiking boots, I decided to change my footwear, too.

Since it was raining, we all changed into rain gear next. “We provide hiking boots and rain gear, because we want our guests to enjoy themselves on the climb,” explained Kim. “Nobody has fun when they’re wet and cold. The hiking boots are there for safety, too. You’re less likely to slip on the climb or on the trail when you are wearing a good hiker with a heel.”

After we had chosen helmets and were fully attired, we boarded the chairlift to take the short ride up the mountain to the hiking trail that leads to the start of the Via Ferrata. It was raining lightly as we exited the chairlift and began walking up the steep trail. “Watch your step,” advised Kim. “The trails leading up to and between the climbs are probably the most dangerous part. You’re clipped in for the actual climb, so you can’t fall there.”

Kim demonstrated the technique for properly attaching the carabiners to the climbing cable; along with a climbing technique she called the cancan. Then we each practised on a small climbing area before following her to the actual start of the climb.

Once we were on the Via Ferrata, we were attached to the climbing cable at all times, so there was no threat of falling. We climbed higher and higher up the mountain and it was surprisingly easy — even for me. At one point we traversed a suspension bridge over a deep canyon. My daughter couldn’t resist jumping up and down to make the bridge shake when I got on.

When we reached the top of a ridge, I could see why they called this particular route the Ridgewalker climb. We let go of the cable and followed a trail right along the ridge of Mount Norquay surrounded by incredible views. The rain was still coming down, creating a foggy haze as we gazed down at the Town of Banff and the surrounding mountains. At higher elevations, many of the mountain tops were lightly dusted with snow.

We stood on the ridge at about 2,400 metres (7,900 feet) and watched the group on the Mountaineer route climbing even higher above us. Prior to the climb, I worried that I wouldn’t be fit enough to make it, but the Via Ferrata made it fairly easy to climb a mountain.

As we ate our snacks and watched the other climbers above us, we decided that one day we’d come back and try the six-hour route.

If You Go:

● Banff has three Via Ferrata climbing experiences, all led by ACMG-certified guides. The 2.5-hour Explorer climb costs $139 per person. The four hour Ridgewalker route costs $179 per person. The six-hour Mountaineer climb costs $299 per person and includes an alpinist lunch and après after the climb at The Cliffhouse Bistro. For reservations or information, visit

● Via Ferrata participants should wear long socks, hiking boots, sunglasses and dress in layers. If you don’t have hiking boots or rain gear, those will be provided. You should also bring water and a snack. Via Ferrata goes rain or shine, but will be cancelled for lightning.

● Mount Norquay’s summer programs include the Via Ferrata and the mountainside Cliff House Bistro. Cliff House Bistro is located at the top of the chairlift and is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily during the summer months.

Award Year: