Tackling Mt. Norquay’s Via Ferrata

Part of the Canadian Rockies’ Vermilion Range, Mt. Norquay’s 8,274-foot (2,522-meter) summit sits just northwest of the Town of Banff. Mt. Norquay is one of a handful of iconic peaks surrounding the small town center, and is a popular spot in all seasons for skiing, hiking, and climbing.

In 2014, Mt. Norquay became home to Banff National Park’s first via ferrata – an assisted climbing experience for outdoor adventurers of all skill levels. Depending on the route you take, a sequence of footholds, ladders, bridges and cables leads you up the mountain’s limestone cliffs, with the highest culminating atop Norquay’s east summit.

History of the via ferrata

Italian for ‘iron road,’ via ferrata routes have a centuries-long history in Europe. While the oldest known route dates back to 19th-century Austria, via ferratas are more commonly associated with WWI-era Italy. In the latter half of the war, after Italy declared war on neighboring Austria-Hungary and joined the Allies, the Italian military engineered networks of protected climbing routes throughout the Dolomites (part of the Italian Alps). These iron roads allowed the military to move troops and supplies through the treacherous, alpine terrain of the Italian Front – a feat that would have been otherwise impossible. By anchoring series of ropes, rungs, and ladders into the sides of the mountains, inexperienced climbers could now more safely navigate the otherwise inaccessible terrain as battles raged against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

More than one hundred years after the First World War, via ferratas have been increasing in popularity with outdoor enthusiasts. Now peppering alpine regions across the globe, these assisted climbing routes allows those with no technical climbing experience to get a feel for mountaineering in a safe and controlled environment.

While route design, length, and difficulty can vary quite a bit, all via ferratas follow the same basic blueprint: a combination of steel cables, rungs, and other climbing aids that are permanently anchored into the side of the mountain. When navigating the via ferrata, ‘climbers’ are fitted with a harness as well as two lanyards and carabiners (locking system), ensuring participants are attached to the mountain at all times. The gear is designed to reduce the chances of a fall, and minimize the consequences if one does occur.

Our Experience: The Summiteer Route

Two years ago in Montana, I bailed on a summit attempt. It was the first time I got irrecoverably uncomfortable with the amount of exposure on a route, and threw in the towel. It was the first time I’d given up on summit push, and suffered through my own walk of shame back down the side of that mountain – discouraged, deflated, and totally pissed off with myself.

While it seems like just a stupid setback, this failure hit me like a ton of bricks. Falling short should be a normal part of progressing; but it’s something my constantly self-critical self struggles with on a regular basis. Confidence shaken to the core that afternoon, I was now questioning any skill I previously had… and my reaction to exposure suddenly transformed into this unwieldy psychological hurdle.

As I try to push forward with more technical and difficult scrambles, I’ve found myself colliding head on with my newfound anxiety. To continue conquering this beast, I thought I’d push my comfort zone with some literal exposure therapy on Mt. Norquay’s summiteer route. Although they offer shorter via ferrata routes, with fewer ‘challenges’ along the way, I wanted to go for the most aggressive experience to prove I was capable. Anyone who knows me knows if I’m trying something, I’m going all in.

Mt. Norquay’s summiteer route climbs 360 meters (1,180 feet) to the east summit of Mt. Norquay. The total route length is 3.2 km (2 miles) and takes about six hours to complete. The most notable features along this route include a 55-meter-long (180-foot) suspension bridge, steel ladder, and three-wire bridge that spans a deep couloir. Traversing a sheer rock wall and alpine ridge to the summit, the route ultimately tops out at an elevation of 2,450 meters (8,040 ft) – the highest point accessible by the mountain’s via ferrata system.

(Image courtesy of Mt. Norquay, https://banffnorquay.com/summer/via-ferrata/routes/, (c) 2020)

Stephan and I arrived at the Norquay Lodge on a crisp, September morning. As we got to know the other members of our group, our guide, David, got us outfitted with all our gear for the day. There were just three other people in our group, which we were kind of stoked about. While individual tours are limited to just eight participants, Stephan and I are always partial to smaller group sizes. We were also immediately fond of our guide. An avid rock climber and skier, David was super knowledgeable and clearly a passionate outdoor enthusiast. He evidenced this throughout the day, continually sharing his wealth of knowledge about the area and regularly checking in with the two of us that shared some exposure anxiety.

After making our introductions, we boarded the chairlift to the route’s starting point. Here, we got some quick practice with our gear – testing out holds and getting a feel for clipping/unclipping between anchor points along the cable. From there, we were off… with a lot of excitement, a bit of nervousness, and a sense of determination.

In addition to the typical hand and footholds you’d expect to find on a via ferrata, Mt. Norquay’s summiteer route navigates a handful of other climbing aids and bridges. After an extended sequence of holds where we were able to get comfortable moving across some moderately exposed rock, we arrived at a steel ladder mounted to the edge of a rock face. There was a decent sized gap between the ladder and mountain, and absolutely nothing below… other than the Town of Banff, which was more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) down.

I didn’t think much of the obstacle until David showed us how we needed to clip on and off of it, which included facing out (away from the mountain). Standing in the unfortunate position as ‘next person behind the guide,’ I couldn’t believe I was going to have to go first. I tried to replace images of panic with visualizations of competence. Somehow I managed to maneuver both quickly and correctly, and soon found myself at the top clipping back onto the mountain. My moment of pride was brief, however, as I stood glued to a small foothold on the sheer rockface, waiting for the four behind me to make their way up. I was way past my comfort zone at that point, but managed to largely keep it together until it was finally time to move again. There’s always something to humble you.

From here we continued along more holds, a narrow wooden beam, and short high-wire, until we came to the 55-meter suspension bridge. Surprisingly, the wooden span didn’t give me much pause. It looked plenty wide compared to the slender little pegs I’d found myself balanced on previously. Although designed for crossing as a group, the bridge was startlingly wobbly once all six of us had made our way onto the planks.

From the bridge, we climbed a bit higher, pausing for lunch before making the final push to the summit. David told us we were well ahead of schedule, climbing at a very respectable pace. By this point, I was feeling much more confident, although still slightly apprehensive about the three-wire bridge that was soon to come.

After clipping back onto the cable, it was a short ten minutes or so before we reached the wire bridge. The single steel wire on which you place your feet spans a yawning ravine. Admittedly, this was probably the part I was least looking forward to. At this point we’d switched positions, and I now had three other group members in front of me. Watching them all make their way across unsteadily yet effectively was somewhat reassuring. When it was finally my turn, I clipped onto the two upper wires and tried to keep my gaze more outward then downward. The thin wire trembled and vibrated a lot, but with some care was easier to conquer than I thought.

From the three-wire bridge, there was one final section of steel holds to the summit – one of the two steepest and most exposed sections of the day. Once we reached the top, it felt exhilarating. The day was cloudy and cool, but the views looking out over the Bow Valley, across to neighboring Cascade Mountain, and out to Mt. Rundle were still superb. Although it kept threatening rain, we were fortunate to remain completely dry. It felt even better standing up there knowing all I’d conquered to make it to the top.

While most of the descent is down an assisted hiking path, you do have to downclimb the one section of via ferrata nearest the summit – including a return across the three-wire bridge.

After being able to largely tame my nerves along the entire route, there ended up being one stuck spot for me on the descent. The was one move that required a big reach and putting all my weight on one arm as I stared down a vertical cliff face. I was certain I’d never be able to hold all my weight with my right arm while reaching left for one small foothold. Luckily – although some may not see it as such – this was the only way down. No turning back, no changing directions, no throwing in the towel… this was it. After several rounds of that awkward, jerking hesitation, I finally made the reach with ease. It was the textbook example – and only time all day – where my mind momentarily hijacked any physical competence.

With one last crossing of the three-wire bridge (much less daunting the second time around), we were back on a hiking path and stable ground. The six of us quickly made our way down to the Cliffhouse Bistro, where we toasted our efforts with charcuterie boards and beverages before taking the lift back to the base. From start to finish, we couldn’t have asked for a better day. The overall experience, our guide, and fellow group members were all awesome. The best part, though, was knowing I pushed myself beyond what I thought I was capable of.

It’s kind of amazing how mental weakness can totally overpower physical strength. If nothing else, this immensely frustrating process has shown me that it doesn’t just come back all at once. It’s going to take a lot of practice and a lot of reps, as well as some setbacks and failures. It’s the way it’s supposed to work, but still a hard pill to swallow. For today, though, it wasn’t about how much longer it’ll take… just one moment of satisfaction for forward progress. Staring down a thousand meters with my feet on pegs may have been a little unnerving at times, but it was one more step on the road to rebuilding my confidence.

If you’re looking for an exciting adventure in Banff, be sure to check this one out. Stephan and I had a fantastic day on the mountain, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Mt. Norquay to all those avid adventure-seekers out there.

Know before you go

  • All of Mt. Norquay’s via ferrata guides are ACMG-certified (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides).
  • While no experience is required, you should have a basic level of fitness to complete the route. If you’re afraid of heights, it could certainly be challenging, especially the longer routes.
  • Mount Norquay offers six different routes of varying lengths and challenges. Try one of the shorter routes if you’re looking to wade in or test your fear of heights. If you’re looking for more adventure, the Summiteer route tops out on the mountain’s east summit. Check out full descriptions and prices of Mt. Norquay’s via ferrata routes to learn more.
  • To get all the details on the via ferrata, what you need to bring, etc., check out Mount Norquay’s FAQ page.
  • If you’re curious as to just how much weight those steel cables can hold, Mt. Norquay cites the limit at 40,000 kilograms (over 88,000 pounds). They equate that to the weight of either 80 moose or 200 grizzlies. Whichever metric you prefer, that thin little cable is pretty damn strong.
  • Mt. Norquay’s via ferrata is open during summer months, typically from June until September or October (the last day of the season this year was October 9th).
  • Participants should arrive 30 minutes prior to the start of the tour. You’ll need time to check in, switch out your shoes if you don’t have suitable hiking boots, and grab your lunch.
  • The longer tours include a packed lunch, with the ability to cater to various dietary restrictions (I got a vegan sandwich). The Skyline and Summiteer tours also include a charcuterie board and beverage at the end of the day, served at the Cliffhouse Bistro. You can choose from a variety of local beers as well as organic tea blends from Jolene’s Tea House (the peppermint is awesome). Again, I was able to get a vegan board option.

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