Via ferrata is Italian for the "iron way," named for the metal rungs drilled into cliff sides to allow those with a steady step and a taste for adventure to traverse a mountain route over steep, even impassable, terrain. Though they’re popular attractions in Europe with over 1,000 via ferratas sprinkled across the European Alps, few of the pulse-quickening routes exist in North America.
Now, Ouray can boast a brand-new via ferrata of its own, joining the Telluride’s via ferrata to offer a unique adventure experience somewhere between climbing and hiking. And if you’ve already experienced the gravity-defying Telluride version, which follows a narrow, exposed path along dramatic cliffs on the north side of the box canyon below Ingram Falls before culminating in the “main event” — traversing a series of rungs bolted directly into the cliff some 400 feet above the Valley Floor — Ouray’s via ferrata offers its own completely unique experience.
“The Ouray Via Ferrata is completely different from the Telluride Via Ferrata in many, if not most respects,” said Todd Rutledge, co-owner of the guiding company Mountain Trip, which will be offering guided excursions on both this summer. “The Telluride Via Ferrata is a hike, with huge, swarms-of-butterflies-in-your-stomach exposure. The Ouray Via Ferrata is much more of a climbing route. It traverses about one kilometer, following fairly natural lines in the Uncompahgre Gorge, meaning you never get too high off the ground, but you have numerous sections of steep climbing on steel rungs, interspersed with hiking and some downclimbing. It also has some completely man-made features such as single, taute cable — think tightrope — at the start and a cool sky bridge that climbed from the bowels of the gorge up to its rim near the end.”
On the Ouray Via Ferrata, adventurers are clipped into protective steel cables for the entire route, and the cables, rungs and route were designed and installed by experienced engineers, contractors and climbing professionals.
“You are clipped into a fat, confidence-inspiring steel cable for its entirety,” Rutledge said. “The route feels extremely well thought out and engineered.”
The Ouray Via Ferrata is the result of a collaboration between Nate Disser, owner of San Juan Mountain Guides, and business partner Mark Luppenlatz. The idea for creating a via ferrata in Ouray’s Uncompahgre Gorge emerged about four years ago, and since then the two have planned, fundraised and worked with engineers and officials to bring the idea to life.
“It’s a unique opportunity for individuals and families to get to experience the canyon who are not necessarily rock or ice climbers,” said Keeton Disser, office manager at San Juan Mountain Guides. “It’s unbelievably beautiful down there. It’s technical enough to feel like you’re doing something really cool, but accessible to anyone with a basic level of fitness. That’s really exciting to me, that people who never get to see that kind of terrain get to be down there in that canyon.”
This week, San Juan Mountain Guides is offering free guided tours of the Ouray Via Ferrata to all residents of Ouray County through Friday.
Access hours are restricted to daytime hours between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., and all users will be required to enter with proper safety equipment: a climbing harness and helmet, and a specialized lanyard for clipping the harness to the cables. As a COVID-19 precaution, gloves are also required. A ranger will be stationed by the gated entrance to check for the requisite gear before people can begin the route. For those without experience, hiring a guide is strongly recommended, and people weighing under 85 pounds or over 265 pounds are required to have a belayer for vertical sections. Ouray-based San Juan Mountain Guides and Telluride-based Mountain Trip will both offer guided excursions complete with the necessary gear.
The one-way route also features designated passing zones and a couple of places to exit mid-route if the via ferrata turns out not to be your cup of tea.
According to Rutledge, however, the Ouray Via Ferrata, while quite dramatic and exposed, does not have the “soil-your-pants, humans-are-not-supposed-to-be-up-here sort of feel to it.”
Telluride local Stevie Green recently gave the new via a whirl, and enjoyed the manmade “sky bridge” that spans the gorge at a 35-degree angle and a cable wire bridge across the roaring river that requires crossing on a single steel cable line, while holding two “handrail” cables up top.
“I absolutely loved it,” said Green. “You start by crossing the three-wire bridge, standing on one and clipped into two others. Then it climbs the rock, goes up and down, up and down, and across, and then you cross the river again at the end. You hear the noise of the river the whole time. It’s a great experience.”
Lisa Rutledge, librarian at the Telluride Intermediate School, enjoyed her experience as well.
“I look forward to doing the Ouray Via Ferrata again and again,” she said. “I'm a little sore in places that I didn't know existed, but it was a full-body and mind workout, and it was fun! I loved being in the gorge, protected from the wind, with the green water below me and the blue sky above, surrounded by the rock. From a hippie perspective, the energy was amazing.”