A stairway to heaven in the Rockies

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Posted December 4, 2017 by Hans Tammemagi in British Columbia
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A guide scans the territory between the Purcell Mountains and the Rocky Mountains from atop the summit at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, location of a thrilling Via Ferrata experience. (Hans Tammemagi/Vacay.ca)

Story by Hans Tammemagi
Vacay.ca Writer

GOLDEN, BRITISH COLUMBIA — My toes perched on a two-inch wide ledge, my fingers clutched a small rock protrusion and my heart beat furiously. I was clinging to a cliff that fell vertically for more than a hundred feet onto a scrabble of moss-covered boulders. But I wasn’t frightened, for I was perfectly safe. Instead I was excited, enthralled by the majestic beauty in which I was immersed. I rested my cheek against the sandstone cliff. In the silence I could feel a connection with the mountain, could sense the mighty forces that created this vast mountain range. It was a spiritual moment.

I was climbing the Via Ferrata at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort near Golden in the Dogtooth Range, named for the area’s jagged peaks that bite into the sky, which forms part of British Columbia’s Purcell Range. Via Ferrata, you ask? The words are Italian for “iron road,” the use of emplaced rungs, footholds and, most importantly, a safety cable so amateurs like me can safely climb cliffs otherwise only scalable by experts. Via Ferratas are popular in Europe, but are a recent phenomenon in North America. This one, opened in 2015, is considered by experts to be the best in Canada, and its 2,450-metre (8,040 feet) elevation offers spectacular views, not to mention hair-raising adventure.

Discover More: Alberta’s Awesome Via Ferrata

An hour earlier, stepping off the Golden Eagle Express gondola that had carried me to the summit, I was overwhelmed by the snow-capped peaks proudly arrayed all around, and had a premonition this was going to be a special day.

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Metal hand holds are bolted solidly into the rock, allowing climbers a secure way to traverse the mountain during the Via Ferrata climb in Golden, BC. (Hans Tammegami/Vacay.ca)

Nick, the guide, gathered our small group together and explained how we were going to climb the Ascension Route up the north face of Terminator Peak. He equipped us with helmets and safety harnesses and said we could bring cameras. He led a practice session in a small gully, getting us accustomed to the harnesses and how to grip rungs and metal hand-holds. When Nick was satisfied, we marched off along a sharp, narrow ridge.

White mountain heather and small pine trees lined the path against a backdrop of spectacular peaks. Not a cloud marred the azure sky. It was like hiking in heaven.

On our left an ominous scree slope plummeted almost vertically downward. “That’s You’re in Luck slope, a double black-diamond ski run in winter,” said Nick. I gulped, and was most impressed when Nick added, “I ski it almost every day.” 

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The suspension bridge that leads climbers to the start of the Via Ferrata in Golden can be even more nerve-wracking than the hike up. (Hans Tammegami/Vacay.ca)

“Time to rope up and have our first test,” announced Nick, pointing to what looked like two tiny strands of wire holding a one-foot board walkway, all hanging ever so daintily across a menacing gully. “That’s Hanging Glory Suspension Bridge,” he said. “It’s 60 metres long and sways a bit, but don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.” 

We clipped our harnesses onto the safety cable and started.

Discover More: Stunning Via Ferrata Near Vancouver

My heart was in my throat as I teetered onto the bridge. And Nick was right, it swayed. A lot.

Finally I was across and started climbing, clinging to sheer cliffs with ominous drops as I worked up the steep north face. My adrenaline was racing and it felt like I was imitating Sir Edmund Hillary. Numerous iron rungs, pegs, and handholds made the climb relatively easy. I gave thanks to the harness, which connected me to a cable anchored to the rock along the entire route using a specially designed system that let us slide past emplaced rock bolts without unclipping from the cable. Nice! And perfectly safe.

At times my nose was inches from the gritty sandstone and I could see the individual quartz crystals glistening in the sunshine. At other times I gazed at the folded mountains that gargantuan earth forces have formed into the Dogtooth Range. Whenever I rested — which was often — I felt humble, ever so insignificant amongst these vast summits, the western margin of our grand country. We climbed in silence with only a slight breeze. It was like being in a majestic cathedral, but even better for there was physical involvement, which formed a vital connection.

At one point we tight-roped across the “gut” bridge, a seven-metre-long single cable. It was exposed and scary, but we could hold onto, and were clipped into, another cable at shoulder height.

Almost two hours passed, but it felt like minutes. Tiredness was slowly setting in, after all, we’d climbed about 200 metres (655 feet) vertically.  Reaching up to a rung and grasping firmly, then searching and finding an iron foothold, I hauled myself up and clambered onto a flat area.  “Congratulations,” said Nick, “You’ve conquered the Terminator.”

We hiked back to the gondola silently, savouring the misty mountains receding to the horizon in ever paler shades of blue. Isolated on the high, narrow ridge, I felt a part of this magical alpine kingdom.

At the Eagle’s Eye, Canada’s highest-elevation restaurant, we sipped coffees and recounted our adventures as we gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the stunning panorama.

Descending in the gondola I was exhausted but exhilarated. Far below lay the Golden area and the Kicking Horse River. In the distance a paraglider rode the thermals, the bright red sail lit up like a lantern by the sun. Below us, mountain bikers, outfitted in helmets and padding like gladiators, careened down sinuously curving trails, occasionally flying over bumps and hillocks.

Suddenly, surprise, I saw a large grizzly bear ambling across a creek. What’s a grizzly doing on a ski slope? Later, I learned he is Boo with his own fenced 22-acre conservation refuge where he has lived since he was orphaned in 2002.

With the third-largest vertical drop in Canada, Kicking Horse has long been a draw for skiers and snowboarders, however, there is just as much activity in the warmer months. But my mind was made up. Nothing could give a more spiritual, thrilling experience than climbing the Via Ferrata.

More About the Golden Via Ferrata

Location: 1500 Kicking Horse Trail, Golden, BC (see map below).
Getting There: Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is on the British Columbia side of the Rocky Mountains, about 2.5-hour drive west of Calgary, and about 90 minutes from Banff.
Via Ferrata Experience: The four-hour Ascension Route costs $169 per adult, shorter hikes include the Discovery Route (two hours, $129) and the Suspension Bridge walk (30 minutes, $39.95). The season runs from June to October (available only on weekends in September). To learn more and book your adventure, visit the Via Ferrata webpage at Kicking Horse for details.

More Coverage of Golden

“Falling for Golden — Literally”: Check Vacay.ca Writer Mark Sissons’ skydiving adventure — video of his freefall included.


About the Author

Hans Tammemagi
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