The Iron Path Makes Hiking Safer

Via ferrata makes climbing more accessible
Ladders along the via ferrata at the Polar Caves assist climbers making their way up the rock face. Courtesy Photo

Though the Italian phrase via ferrata  — or iron path — may sound a tad menacing, it’s actually a way to climb with greater safety. Basically, modern via ferrata refers to a protected route that assists climbers in steep, stony terrain. It’s a bridge between climbing and scrambling.

These rocky mountain ways are associated with World War I, when they were built in Italy’s Dolomite region to better help troops move around.

Over the years, these types of routes, which have steel cables running along fixed rungs, ladders, bridges and other enhancements, have gained notice in recreational climbing across the country. The appeal is simple: safety. Climbers are harnessed to the cable, which then limits the distance of a fall.

More experienced climbers can cover more ground faster, while beginning climbers limit the risk of taking on a new endeavor.

Though these trails are more popular in Europe, there is a growing number of opportunities across the United States, including right here in New Hampshire. You’ll find them on the adventure experience menu at various tourist destinations.  

Polar Caves in Rumney may be known for its nine tight granite caves, animal park, prospecting and nature trails, but it also offers rock climbing on granite cliffs with ladders, rungs and cable for a via ferrata experience in the White Mountains.

Rumney, like North Conway, is an East Coast climbing mecca with numerous topnotch routes on Rattlesnake Mountain. So it was natural for the privately held attraction to offer rock climbing. Two years ago, the via ferrata route opened, allowing for a 175-foot ascent to commanding views of the Baker River, Rumney, Plymouth and Campton before rappelling down. They also opened the 65-foot Glacial Wall, a family-friendly rock face that has five different routes with natural and artificial holds for hands and feet for climbers aged 6 and up.

“We have fantastic granite faces and it was a waste not to do anything with them,” says Grounds Manager Dan Bryant, a seven-year Polar Caves employee. “Rumney has Rattlesnake Mountain, which is famous on the East Coast. We decided to open this up for beginners and give them a chance to climb at our place.”

The approximately 90-minute guided climb and descent is for climbers at least 13 years of age. Climbers are provided with a harness and helmet. They can wear closed-toe hiking boots or comfortable sneakers. It’s also a fairly physical experience, so thrill-seeking couch potatoes, take note. There’s no more than one guide for a group with a maximum size of six.

According to Bryant, a typical session starts at base camp with safety instruction on proper use of gear and conduct. Climbers are harnessed up and start by navigating a ladder affixed to the rock, clipping to every other rung. Once over the ladder, it’s on to ascending by steel rungs. Climbers are clipped in, and should they slip, the maximum drop is about 5 feet.

Then, from the top, climbers rappel down under the watchful eye of their guide. They’re belayed — a safety technique using a climbing rope so that a climber doesn’t fall very far — by an assistant down at the bottom.

As people climb, they also learn about the natural environment along the way. The route up the wall is clean, but off to the sides are plants such as lichen, moss, birch saplings and shrubs. There are also plenty of rocks and minerals to be seen, including granite, mica and a huge quartz vein of both regular and smoky varieties.

Farther north, Bretton Woods has what its climbing program director Steve Nichipor says is a “via ferrata inspired” experience called the West Wall Climbing Excursion. The guided outing, which has been offered since 2011, takes participants as young as 8 up a massive granite cliff on the side of Mount Oscar, known as West Mountain to skiers.

Climbers navigate the low-angled cliff using fixed routes attached to stainless steel bolts in the rock. The 400-foot routes ascend to 3,000 feet with 360 degree views of the White Mountain National Forest and its Presidential Range, Zealand Valley and other impressive peaks.

The 3-hour tour has some unique aspects. Though climbers are outfitted with a harness, helmet and rubber-soled shoes, they don’t have to learn to belay.
Another distinction from traditional climbing is that the excursion involves using a chairlift to access the slab and its five pitches. Climbers ride the Bethlehem Express Chairlift and then take a short hike through the spruce and fir forest to the base of the cliff. When the climbing is over, it’s about a 20-minute, largely downhill hike back to the chairlift.

“This attracts anyone who has a sense of adventure,” says Nichipor, a 25-year rock climbing veteran. “They’re in reasonable physical fitness. A lot of them have wanted to try rock climbing but were maybe intimidated by the skills and equipment.”

The resort also has an indoor climbing wall and a canopy tour. People who enjoy the high-flying adventure of zipping from tree to tree often also try the West Wall experience, according to Nichipor.

With the wall located within the national forest and subject to its regulation, no fixed elements such as metal cables and rungs are allowed, making the West Wall the next best thing in northern New Hampshire.

Bretton Woods keeps the “via ferrata inspired” program somewhat small with a ratio of three people per guide. Group and individual tours are available with guides working to choose the most appropriate route. Participants under 12 must be accompanied by a parent.

So surround yourself in the White Mountains by scaling new heights on an iron path in the Granite State.

Categories: Guide to Summer, Outsider