I’m standing some 5,000 feet above sea level on a granite crag, gazing out at Triumvirate Glacier, a 28-mile river of ice sprawling before the Tordrillo Mountains in Alaska. Roughly 900 feet below me is the rocky, postage stamp-sized shelf where the group had started our climb.
In the past, I’d have needed an arsenal of advanced equipment and skills honed over years of climbing to get here. Now, I just need a little sure-footedness and a guide. That’s because I was on Tordrillo Mountain Lodge’s via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”) which opened in 2019.
A via ferrata is a climbing route made with metal rungs, steps, pegs, suspension bridges, and ladders bolted into the side of the rock face, with a cable system to clip into for extra safety, making it (relatively) easy to traverse otherwise difficult terrain.
The Origins of Via Ferratas
Via ferrata routes have been around for more than a century in Europe—though originally, they had a more utilitarian purpose. They’d been developed in WWI to move troops and supplies through the mountains and have continued to be a popular, beginner-friendly (provided you’re not afraid of heights) way for people to spend time in the mountains. Today, more than 1,000 via ferrata routes spider across the Alps alone. Now the systems are becoming increasingly more popular in the United States, especially at ski resorts and outdoors-oriented luxury hotels.
“Via ferratas are geared toward anyone who enjoys hiking in the outdoors and wants to experience places that have previously been strictly reserved for climbers,” said Todd Rutledge, owner of Mountain Trip, a guide service in Telluride, Colorado, that takes guests on the local route. “Via ferratas have a lower barrier to entry into these spaces that you used to have to spend years developing skill sets to reach.”
Some routes cling to red rock mesas in the middle of the desert; others hug ledges overlooking alpine forests. Some feature suspension bridges that cross chasms or waterfalls, and others end with a zip-line back to terra firma. The biggest commonality between the via ferratas in the U.S. (Rutledge estimates there are at least two dozen) is that they’re largely found on privately held land (the exceptions being Telluride and two in Ouray, Colorado, which are all free and open to the public). Of those that are privately held, the owners typically require users to go with one of their in-house guides for additional safety; instruction and equipment are included in the package price, which typically starts around $150 for a half-day.
What It’s Like Climbing a Via Ferrata
Climbs start with an explainer on the equipment, including how to use it and how it keeps you safe.
While self-locking carabiners, a harness, and a helmet are needed, other tools commonplace in mountaineering, like ropes and belay devices, are extraneous here. Instead, climbers take what is called a via ferrata set, which consists of two large carabiners that attach to the harness via a shock absorber, and then clip these carabiners to the safety cables. As they climb (sometimes using the metal bars, sometimes natural foot and handholds in the rock) the carabiners slide along until they reach one of the anchor points (spaced every few feet). There, climbers unclip one carabiner, reattach it to the cable after the anchor point, and then repeat with the other carabiner. These short tracks mean that in the unlikely event that a climber falls, they can’t go far. All-in-all, climbers with little to no previous experience can ascend the sheer cliff face relatively easily—it’s almost like climbing a ladder.
While they don’t require full-fledged mountaineering know-how and are often lumped with attractions like aerial rope courses, they can still be stomach-tightening experiences.
“It’s what we call an earned experience,” said Mike Friedman, the managing partner of Utah-based Adventure Partners, a group that builds via ferratas. “It’s not like zip-lining where you just close your eyes and shove off. You still have to climb the thing.”
He added that most of his staff comes from a mountain guiding background and that they know what clients can tolerate, where they can encourage climbers to use the natural rock, and where they can push people out into more exposed positions when building the routes.
“You’re trying to create some flow and make a real climb out of it,” Friedman said.
Even Rutledge said there are still parts of the Telluride route—which he’s done hundreds of times—that still give him butterflies. “There’s a move where you’re standing on rungs, and the rock is slightly overhanging, and you have to step down and to the left. And there’s 325 feet of air under the soles of my shoes, but it’s exhilarating.”
Most of the via ferratas in the United States have sprung up in the last five years, Friedman said, adding that they “tend to be built in communities that have a history of climbing—Mammoth is near Yosemite, Jackson Hole is in the Tetons, Arapahoe Basin is in the Rockies. They fit into an existing mountaineering and climbing culture.”
The same vertical environment that makes for thrilling ski runs lends itself to via ferratas, so several ski areas in the American West, like Tahoe and Taos, have added the routes in recent years as a way to generate revenue in the summer months (the ski town via ferratas close during the winter). This summer, Arapahoe Basin in Colorado installed North America’s highest-elevation via ferrata on the East Wall. There, guests have two options: the half-day adventure that leads them 900 feet to an old mining shaft or a full-day tour that ascends 1,200 feet (800 of which is completely vertical) to the 13,000-foot summit.
Curious about trying one? Here are some of the best via ferrata routes in the United States.
Where to Try Via Ferratas in the United States
Amangiri Via Ferrata, Utah
Guests of Amangiri and Camp Sarika, two ultra-luxurious properties in Utah under the Aman resort umbrella, have the opportunity to visit any of the resorts via ferratas—there are currently seven to choose from. The most stomach-tightening course arguably involves the Cave Peak Stairway, a 200-foot-long steel bridge that spans from one peak to another. It’s made out of 120 steps, roughly 18 inches apart, and is 400 feet above jagged rock. From the summit, the guests can survey a landscape made up of camel-colored sand and sage bushes set before mesas with rust and rose-hued striations.
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge Via Ferrata, Alaska
Alaska’s very first via ferrata was completed in 2019 by the owners of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge and features a network of metal rungs, 1,200 feet of cable, and two suspension bridges, which all together help guests gain 900 feet of elevation. Throughout the course, climbers can see the 28-mile-long Triumvirate Glacier, with all its moraines and otherworldly blue crevasses, as well as the Tordrillo Mountains, which includes Mount Spurr, an active volcano that last erupted in 1992.
Only guests of the lodge are allowed to use the via ferrata—and it would be challenging to sneak a climb on it otherwise, as it starts on a rocky shelf only accessible by helicopter, 4,000 feet above sea level.
Cloud Ladder Via Ferrata, Estes Park, Colorado
Billed as the steepest via ferrata in the United States, it’s roughly 600 feet of vertical climb. Two tightrope-style suspension bridges, one of which stretches 45 feet across a 200-foot chasm. However, from the top (roughly 9,200 feet in elevation) are views of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Mummy Range.
Quarry Trails Metro Park Via Ferrata, Columbus, Ohio
One of the first urban via ferratas in the U.S., the Quarry Trails via ferrata is found in Columbus and opened in May 2023. The route stretches 800 feet horizontally across a limestone cliff and includes two aerial walkways, a 54-foot steel staircase, and a 90-foot suspension bridge that hangs 105 feet above a pond.
Telluride Via Ferrata, Telluride, Colorado
One of only three, free, and open-to-the-public trails in the United States, the Telluride Via Ferrata has been operational since 2007. Nestled into the eastern end of the box canyon on the southern-facing wall below Ajax Peak, this route is technically 2.2 miles long, but only 1,600 feet of it has cable—the rest is a single-track trail. However, that trail is very exposed—it’s on a ledge of a more than 12,000-foot mountain.
Rutledge said what he likes most about the route is how it differs throughout the seasons. “In the spring, you’ve got Bridal Veil Falls, the tallest waterfall in Colorado, just gushing right next to you. And in the fall, you’re above this sea of gold and amber trees.”
Taos Ski Valley Via Ferrata
In the sub-alpine forest of Kachina Peak, a popular ski area, is a collection of via ferrata routes for beginners and advanced climbers alike. The climbs start at about 11,500 feet. The routes include a 100-foot sky bridge suspended 50 feet above the ground, a double cable catwalk, and views of the Rio Honod and Wheeler Peak Wilderness area.