Banff’s new Iron Road tests your mettle

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Posted August 5, 2014 by Jody Robbins in Alberta
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Climber Mark White clips a carabiner into a metal cable that coils along the rock face of Mount Norquay. There are 300 clips to be made on the Via Ferrata route. (Jody Robbins/Vacay.ca)

Story by Jody Robbins
Vacay.ca Family Columnist

BANFF, ALBERTA — Grabbing hold of a craggy piece of limestone, I hoist myself up over the gashed rock-face and pause to clip my carabinier into the wire cable affixed to the mountain. Squinting through the sun’s glare, I spot the Bow River far below, carving an icy turquoise path through Banff‘s townsite. It feels like I’m lording over a child’s play set, only I don’t get to decide where the wild animals will wander.

I’m 6,500 feet up, clinging to a sheer cliff and this little carabiner is the only thing keeping me from hurtling towards the distant valley floor. Even the pungent scent of Lodgepole Pine can’t calm the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. This is dizzyingly steep and rugged terrain, and I’m just going to come right out and say it. “I’m freaked out, man!”

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Writer Jody Robbins is hiding her fear well as she scales Mount Norquay on the Via Ferrata. (Photo supplied by Jody Robbins)

I’m no mountaineer, never was. Sure, I’ve done my share of hiking, but it was never like this. Luckily, stunning views of the deeply cleaved Bow Valley aren’t reserved for members of some elite climbing club. Outdoor enthusiasts looking for their next high-octane adventure should take this as their cue to tackle Via Ferrata in Banff National Park.

Via What?

Via Ferrata isn’t the name of a mountain, but it is a way to get around one. Translated from Italian to “Iron Road”, it’s a series of iron rungs and ladders fastened to the side of a rock face. Originally developed to move troops quickly through the Alps during wartime, it has become a popular sport in Europe. There are precious few Via Ferrata experiences in Canada — until now.

Adrenaline junkies who want to experience the thrills of mountaineering with next to none of the risk, receive the rush of a lifetime during this assisted climbing experience on Mount Norquay.

Moving Over Mountains

After an in-depth safety and equipment orientation, we’re suited up with a helmet, harness and lanyard. The tour operator provides all of the equipment, which makes us look and feel like we kind of know what we’re doing. Geared up (looking more like Minions than climbers), we make our way to the North American chairlift, which typically drops skiers at the top of Norquay’s more advanced runs. Let me tell you, this scenic 15-minute summer ride over pretty wild flowers and frisky chipmunks (and if you’re lucky, the occasional deer and bighorn sheep) is a welcome change from sitting here in winter at minus-15 Celsius degrees with skis strapped to your feet.

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Climbers carefully traverse the “Iron Road,” a new attraction in Banff National Park, that takes them thousands of feet above the town site. (Jody Robbins/Vacay.ca)

We take turns practicing in the training area before clipping our carabiners in earnest to the fixed wire cable that is about to become our new best friend. Stepping on the mountain face — and way out of my comfort zone — I gingerly place one foot onto the foothold and grab hold of the metallic pigtail-shaped anchor jutting out of the rock to heave myself up. Great, one down only 300 more to go, I think sarcastically, while unclipping my carabiner and moving it from one cable wire to the next.

“At the end of the day, you’re using your own power to climb up the mountain. The exposure is real,” affirms David Jones, marketing communications coordinator at Mount Norquay. Exposure is right! Climbing a ladder on the side of the mountain sounds fine and all, until you’re actually scaling it, realizing you truly are vulnerable.

This first pitch is the most intimidating for me. I don’t dare look down, and am comforted by our climbing companion, Mark White, whose constant shouts to his equally nervous girlfriend make me feel less isolated. “C’mon, you can do it!” he encourages her. Then he pushes us all a bit farther with: “Hey, try going hands off!”

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Summit Ridge is one of the views along the Via Ferrata that make the dangerous climb worth it. (Jody Robbins/Vacay.ca)

White walks the talk at a spot where, if you’re brave enough, you can rely on your lanyard and legs to keep you perpendicular to the rock face.

I attempt to copy him, but am too scared to let go of the wire. I’m envious of his bravado. How did I, world traveller, become so fearful? Fortunately, there’s no time for advanced self-deprecation. I’m not on a shrink’s couch. I’m grasping at metal pegs on the side of a mountain, damn it!

Dashing across a swaying 30-metre suspension bridge gets my gumption back, though ever the pessimist, I regret not traipsing slowly, savouring the vista laid out before us.

A whole new angle of Banff is revealed along this course. Unless you’re tackling Via Ferrata, you’re not privy to these views. I pity those who’ll never catch a glimpse of Elk Summit Valley, an emerald carpet of coniferous trees that sweeps between the vertiginous peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains’ front range.

Having conquered any fear of heights (or at least pretending to), we continue tackling pitches, clambering over the Memorial, Sunrise and Vista buttresses. Finally, we reach Summit Ridge, 8,040 feet (2,450 metres) above the town of Banff.

Taking a moment to catch our breath, we congratulate each other. We’re proud of ourselves and I’m secretly relieved it’s over, but everyone agrees on one thing: we’d all do it again.There’s time for one last panorama of Banff before gratefully hiking down Norquay’s well-trodden trail.

Après Climb

Views of Banff town from Mt Norquay

From the top of Mount Norquay, climbers can revel in the thrill of accomplishment and of spectacular beauty as they gaze down on Banff. (Jody Robbins/Vacay.ca)

Visitors arriving by chairlift and climbers swimming in endorphins are easily lured into Cliffhouse Bistro to feast on more sweeping views in addition to hearty cuisine. The 1950’s teahouse has undergone a major overhaul and the full service restaurant is an enticing spot to toast your accomplishments.

We’re keen to make up those burned calories, but the North American Lodge at the base of the mountain is where we decamp for surprisingly good bison and salmon burgers. For the first time in a long time, I feel I’ve earned this beer (okay, gluten-free, organic BC cider) and these ridiculously savoury fries. 

Kicking back on the sun-drenched patio, I realize I found more than just my footing along this iron road.

MORE ABOUT VIA FERRATA IN BANFF NATIONAL PARK

Contact: Telephone: 403-762-4421; 1- 844-NORQUAY (toll free); email: admin@banffnorquay.com
Location: 2 Mt Norquay Road, Banff, Alberta (see map below)
Tour Rates: The Explorer Route takes two hours and costs $139 per person plus tax. The four-hour Ridgewalker route costs $169 plus tax.
Website: www.summer.banffnorquay.com


About the Author

Jody Robbins
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Jody Robbins is a travel and lifestyles writer. Contributing to the Calgary Herald, Today’s Parent and Up! magazine, she divides her time between Calgary and Canmore. She is also the Family Travel Columnist for Vacay.ca and the Alberta Regional Chair for the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada, which earned 2.5 million Twitter impressions in its first month for the #Vacay50 hashtag campaign. Jody is active on Twitter (@Jody_Robbins) and maintains her own blog (Travels with Baggage), where you can keep up with all of her latest adventures. When not travelling with her precocious children (one daughter, one husband and one dog), this wannabe foodie can usually be found chowing down at the latest hotspots before attempting to work it all off on the trails.

 
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