BEST SKI-TOWN VIA FERRATAS
Getting High on a Cliff, Safely
Nowadays, it seems every ski town worth its salt boasts a via ferrata. And for good reason, too—the memories of being suspended on a cliff in the high alpine will stay with you forever. But this attraction wasn’t originally intended for thrills.
During WWI, the Italians fought a merciless war with the Austro-Hungarian army in the rocky, unforgiving Dolomite mountains. Not only was the warfare itself brutal, but the mountainous conditions were, too, and thousands of troops died from exposure, avalanches, and falls. As both sides tried to gain tactical posts and move troops and equipment through the high peaks, the armies borrowed the idea from 19th-century European mountain guides of fixing permanent lines to the rock faces to mitigate the carnage. And thus the via ferrata was born.
If you’ve never seen one, it’s essentially steel cables, rungs, and ladders fixed to rocky faces and cliffs. The via ferrata makes dangerous routes that would otherwise require higher skills and specialized climbing equipment accessible to most hikers. All you need is a harness, a helmet, a via ferrata lanyard, and a strong sense of adventure.
That said, via ferratas still require a high level of physical fitness and a good tolerance for exposure. (They can be downright terrifying for those who aren’t accustomed to heights.) Here are our ski-town picks:
Climbers are suspended on Telluride's Via Ferrata in front of Bridal Veil Falls. Photo courtesy of MOUNTAIN TRIP.
There are few places on Earth as stunning as Telluride (which is exactly why it’s Wagner Custom’s home), and this via ferrata is hands-down our favorite for the views, the excitement, and the history. Located on the far end of the box canyon, the Bridal Veil Falls—Colorado’s longest free-falling waterfall—provide a jaw-dropping backdrop and plumes of cooling mist. The via ferrata began as the labor of love of local Chuck Kroger, an extremely accomplished climber and all-around badass who worked in town as a builder and welder. With no official permit, Kroger installed many of the hand- and footholds by headlamp at night. Though he didn’t live to see it completed—he died of cancer in 2007—he would be proud of the 1.5-mile route traversing the flank of Ajax Peak. This route takes around two to four hours to complete. Go on your own with the proper safety equipment or book a guide through Telluride Mountain Guides or Mountain Trip.
Arapahoe Basin, Colo.
A-Basin’s new via ferrata is the highest in North America, topping out at nearly 13,000 feet on the East Wall summit. It’s a guided-only experience; guests can choose a half-day option that finishes at an abandoned mine or a full day to the ridgeline, which is 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Each tour includes breakfast, chairlift ride, and transportation to the base route.
Climbers ascend the rock above the water in Ouray, Colorado's Via Ferrata. Photo courtesy of San Juan Mountain Guides.
Situated just north of Red Mountain Pass, this little town is a winter hotspot for ice climbers and backcountry skiers. Come summer, visitors have not one but three via ferratas to enjoy. The Ouray Via Ferrata has two routes, built by the nonprofit Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata and headed up by local Nate Disser, who owns San Juan Mountain Guides. The two routes skirt the beautiful Uncompahgre River and are open to the public free of cost. Visitors not familiar with gear or protocol can hire a guide through San Juan Mountain Guides. The final via ferrata is called the Gold Mountain Expedition Via, which opened in spring 2022, which weaves in and out of the historic Memphis Mine. It’s based at a private ranch and accessible only through the guides at Basecamp Ouray.
Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s via ferrata climbs the granite cliffs of the Casper area, just lookers right of the Bridger Gondola station. With a handful of routes that incorporate suspension bridges, cable ladders, and Tyrolean traverses, this ferrata offers options for every ability level. The longest route is 500 vertical feet.
Perched 11,500 feet above the Taos Ski Valley Resort on Kachina Peak, this via ferrata boasts a 100-foot sky bridge and double-cable catwalk. It overlooks the Rio Hondo and Wheeler Peak Wilderness, and is accessible via guide only. There are two routes, one beginner and one intermediate, each of which take around three hours to complete.
Palisades Tahoe, Calif.
Bolted into the iconic Tram Face, this via ferrata was designed and developed by local Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions. Climbers top out high above the Olympic Valley floor and can choose their routes depending on how much time they want to spend.
Article by Kimberly Beekman
Kimberly Beekman is the former editor-in-chief of the late, great Skiing Magazine (RIP), and a longtime editor of SKI Magazine before that. She currently uses the title of “freelancer” as a beard to ski powder all over the world. She lives in Denver, Colorado, with her wonderful daughter and terrible cat.