The literal translation of the Italian term “via ferrata” is a bit ominous, summoning images of rigid, military marching orders. The iron way. However, today’s recreational via ferratas—essentially, assisted rock climbing routes—are a bit more inviting, and have increased in popularity as an outdoor activity at ski areas and other rocky spaces in North America.
Historically, via ferratas were true to their iron-clad name: routes composed of fixed iron cables, rungs, and suspension bridges to assist climbers scaling steep, rocky terrain. While variations on the theme date back to the 19th century, it’s generally considered that via ferratas were born during World War I to aid the movement of soldiers through mountainous regions such as Italy’s Dolomites.
Italian alpinists began restoring and expanding early military via ferratas in the mid 20th century. A real boom in recreational via ferratas arrived in the 1990s, primarily in France, where ski resorts were looking for an activity to offer to summer guests. By the mid-2000s, it’s estimated that more than 100 had been installed in Europe, with close to 200 today.
Not surprisingly, the concept migrated to North America, where a handful of recreational via ferratas now exist, most of them guided activities on traditional cable-and-rung routes.
Jackson Hole, Wyo., is jumping onto the growing trend by installing the largest known U.S.-based via ferrata complex. In the mix in the $400,000 project are two practice areas and four major routes, with a 120-foot suspension bridge included, on 500 vertical feet of rock. The site is at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, above the top terminal of the Bridger Gondola and the Rendezvous Lodge. Guests latch onto cables anchored to the rock, with energy absorption systems used to limit and cushion any falls. Located in the Teton range, which is renowned rock climbing terrain, via ferratas make total sense.