North America's highest via ferrata climbing, extraordinary excitement

At Colorado's Arapahoe Basin ski area, adventurers are taking on North America's tallest via ferrata. This Rocky Mountain climbing route of metal rings and cables leads climbers to the Great Dividing Range for unparalleled views. Photo source: IAN ZINNER, ARAPAHOE BASIN SKI AREA


Clinging to metal steps, tiptoeing onto small ledges, and pressing your chest against the cold granite wall—climbing North America’s tallest via ferrata is no small challenge.

But when your wobbly feet are searching for the next solid step along the cliff, and your hands are searching downward for a place to fasten your seatbelt, you really need to take advantage of the opportunity to climb down.

Via ferrata is the newest summer activity in the Arapahoe Basin. Arapahoe Basin is a challenging ski area in the Colorado Rockies that's out of reach for those who spend their days lounging on the couch watching TV.

The "Railway" of the Arapahoe Basin begins at the base of the Rocky Mountain Escarpment and rises nearly 365 meters to its peak at 3,962 meters. Photo source: IAN ZINNER, ARAPAHOE BASIN SKI AREA

Climbers perform via ferrata in Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, in July 2021. To avoid dying in a thousand-meter fall, climbers must clip their harness from one cable to another as they advance. Photo source: IAN ZINNER, ARAPAHOE BASIN SKI AREA

Via ferrata is an increasingly popular form of outdoor recreation that is similar to rock climbing but requires the use of permanent metal frames, handles and cables.

A major factor in building the Arapahoe Basin Viaduct was the local rocky goat population, which lives on the vertical granite cliffs about 244 meters above and below the tree line.

“Really scary”

Colorado's via ferrata climbing has a unique sense of excitement: here, you can see the beautiful scenery of the Great Divide. Starting from a height of 3962 meters, your body will be out of breath from the strenuous exercise. The local prairie dogs and pikas There are ear-piercing screams and plenty of fear-of-heights moments that make the entire ride feel like a death challenge.

"It's definitely scary," said Michael Lytle, 50, an avid skier and hiker who had never tried a via ferrata before last summer's trip to Arapahoe Basin.

"The climb down is the scariest part. Try not to look down because you can see thousands of meters below and the highway looks like a line. The muscles are tense all the time. When we get to the bottom of the mountain, When I unclipped it, I fell over. I think it was the endorphins in my system that were doing the trick."

Alan Henceroth of Arapahoe Basin said many visitors find the via ferrata "more challenging than expected."

"We're not trying to sugarcoat this."

Guided tours are required for the "Railway" open from late June to September. Rock climbing experience is not required, but a basic level of fitness is highly recommended. Staff will equip guests with seat belts and helmets and explain safety procedures. They practice clipping the harness to the cable before setting off, and also practice undoing it. In many places along this exposed route, this can save their lives if their feet slip.

The all-weather experience takes visitors to the top of the cliff known as the East Wall, starting at approximately 3,658 feet above sea level and reaching a high point of nearly 3,962 meters. Once at this height, climbers must follow a similar route down the mountain, which is the most daunting part for people with acrophobia.

Avoid the core living areas of Rocky Goats

The original plan for the "Railway" was to climb Little Lenawee Peak, a more accessible ski area where visitors could climb back to the starting point.

"The original idea was to build a gentler route through the tundra," Henceroth said. "But this raised red flags among our wildlife biologists."

Arapahoe Basin is known for its environmental awareness, especially when it comes to Rocky Mountain Goats (which also happen to be the ski area's mascot). Knowing that the original plan could destroy the Rocky Mountain Goat's most sensitive habitat, Arapahoe Basin officials changed course.

As climbers scale the tightrope, glimpses of Colorado's windswept landscape can be seen below, dotted with green moss and pink and purple plants. Photo source: IAN ZINNER, ARAPAHOE BASIN SKI AREA

Colorado State Wildlife Biologist Elissa Slezak said, "The first site is right in the middle of the Rocky Goat Sanctuary. In the summer we see 20 to 30 goats and their babies. Our concern with the breeding area is if If rocky goats are disturbed in their first few months of life, they may be separated." She added that this patch of grassy tundra above the Colorado tree line (about 3,505 meters above sea level) could be quickly destroyed by human traffic.

"That habitat is limited," Slezak said. "We can't create more alpine habitats. Forest- or shrub-like habitats can be regenerated or try to expand through silviculture and seeding. But it's extremely difficult in the mountains because plants grow very slowly. Moss and lichens are a unique Food sources. Grasses and flowering plants, especially in the spring, are very important forage for Rocky goats.”

Therefore, the "Railway" was built on the east wall of Arapahoe Basin, an area popular with expert skiers in the winter.

Watch out for falling rocks

"The east wall was not my first choice, not because it couldn't be built, but because we had to avoid basins and loose rock," said Mike Friedman of Adventurer's Friends, the company that built the Arapaho Basin ferrorail. There are also other buildings in the western United States. "We've done a lot of work moving rocks out of the mountain and out of alignment. It's going to be a project that requires ongoing maintenance. Given the amount of avalanche activity in a monsoon year or winter, rocks are always going to fall onto the slope area below."

Rocky goats often observe climbers from the cliffs, but usually disappear when the climbers reach the top.

Despite being completely exposed to the elements, even those with no rock climbing experience can scale the cliffs with a guide. Photo source: IAN ZINNER, ARAPAHOE BASIN SKI AREA

Helmets are essential. As part of the safety instructions, guides make it a point to yell "rocks" to alert climbers below if any loose rocks break off. When this happens, the climber below must remember to tuck their head in to avoid the rock hitting their face.

These rocky goats, whose natural habitat ranges from about 3,048 to 4,267 meters above sea level, may inadvertently step on loose rock debris as they travel across cliffs. But they have grippy hooves that allow them to move gracefully across steep, slippery rocks.

funny rocky goat

During the construction of the climbing rope, the Rocky Mountain Goats watched from the ledge as Friedman and his team worked. Last summer, rock climbers often saw them peering from cliff tops, observing every move humans made.

"Rocky goats are naturally curious. Some may be very adaptable to human presence," Slezak said. "They really like salt and minerals, so where people urinate in the wild, rocky goats will lick those spots. They'll even start stalking people around them. But it's also a challenge. It's a challenge for rocky goats. Not good for longevity.”

In July 2021, a woman continued to climb from Arapahoe Basin to the summit. Photo courtesy: IAN ZINNER, ARAPAHOE BASIN SKI AREA

To avoid attracting curious rocky goats, guides advise climbers to relieve themselves in rocky areas before descending, where urine dissolves more quickly.

Adapting to human presence is a problem for the Rocky Mountain goats on Colorado's 14 peaks over 4,267 meters high, where visitor numbers are rising like never before. More than 415,000 people climbed the mountains in 2020, according to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative; some of them fed rocky goats. There have been reports of occasional illness and death among rocky goats, and there have been cases of dogs being gored by sharp horns.

There have been no such issues with via ferrata operations during their first summer in Arapahoe Basin, but wildlife and ski area officials say they will monitor the impact of the via ferrata. In addition to directing visitors away from the Rocky Goat conservation area, other impact reduction measures include limiting tour groups to no more than five people and pushing tour times to after 9 a.m. (despite concerns about afternoon thunderstorms) due to the Goats are most active in the morning and evening. The start of the climbing season is scheduled for late June, providing ample time for the baby rocky goats to develop, as mid-May is the typical calving period for rocky goats.

Adapt, monitor and risk

"Rocky goats may be adapting to this new pattern," Slezak said. Rocky goats do live near ski resorts. In the winter, they live on the south slopes outside the resorts, where the wind blows the snow away and they can find forage. After the first summer the climbing rope was built, the Rocky Mountain Goats did not leave the area. We see this as a positive outcome and a great opportunity to observe wildlife and educate people."

But this is a recreational activity with wild animals, and there are certain risks. After all, “via ferrata is a mountaineering experience,” Friedman says. “If you don’t clip the cable, or you fall and get injured, lightning, rain, rock falls, hypothermia…these are all risks inherent in via ferrata climbing.”

For those up to the challenge, rock climbing in Arapahoe Basin via via ferrata can be especially rewarding.

Henceroth said: “People have to pay attention to what they are doing and take some responsibility. What makes via ferrata special is that it’s a true alpine experience. It’s unique and breathtaking. It’s totally An alpine environment. The goats will remind you of that."