Via Ferrata: Mt Nimbus

True or False: In the beginning, all mountain routes were determined by aesthetics, not athletics. Certainly during the establishment of our National Parks systems it was important to build trails with views, and at a reasonable grade. Climbing routes were put up to make use of natural features, beginning and ending logically; in mathematical terms, they were beautiful solutions.

Via ferrata, cable and step climbing systems, are taking off in popularity, installed on or near ski resorts, climbing areas and other backcountry recreational facilities. At times genuine, other times gimmicky.

Dating from WWI, via ferrata were originally created to move people more efficiently through treacherous mountain terrain (read more in Lithographica Issue 8). Wooden stemples were used as steps, and ropes were anchored in to provide inexperienced and burdened men with more secure travel routes. Today they are systems of steel cables that can be clipped into with lanyards and rungs or posts for steps. In the Dolomites and other areas of Europe, it’s possible to link days or weeks of travel, from hut to hut, along historic and new trails.

That cannot be said for all via ferrata routes. With ratings going as high as “overhanging, with consistent exposure; very small footholds or friction climbing,” they are not far off actual rock climbing, or worse, provide a ruse for bolting infrastructure onto otherwise inaccessible zones.

On Mt. Nimbus, in the Purcell range, CMH (Canadian Mountain Holidays) has created a day climb that is both aesthetic and true to origin. Put in place in 2007, three years of research and installation went into the project. Carl Tresher, lead guide, went to Europe to learn about the history and evolution of via ferrata systems, how to install them, best practices and other learnings. What he brought back was the knowledge to realize what he had already been thinking about: Mt. Nimbus, and an experience that would revive flagging interest in mountaineering excursions and courses.

“We noticed that interest in our mountaineering courses had dwindled, yet at the same time people were looking to find something more challenging than hiking, pushing into more difficult terrain but without rock climbing skills or even an interest in pursuing that. They wanted a more technical mountain experience, but one that’s time efficient.” Safer? “Safer, too, sure. There aren’t many mountaineers in the world. There never have been.”

The route delivers on the promise of access to alpinism. Exposure, rock faces and a beautiful line. There is protection where there needs to be and an exit route in the event of weather. No excessive use of assistance nor unwarranted vertical. “We wanted clients to push themselves and to work together. For some, it’s more of a challenge than for others. But within reason, anyone who wants to can make it to the top.” Carl pauses. “Eventually.”

The expectation is that you progress at the same pace as the rest of the group, just as you would need to pull your weight on an unguided mountain trip. Is it soft, a watered down mountain experience for privileged, pampered folks?

Carl: “When people get to the top, they really appreciate where they are. They have had the best day of their lives. And they take that back to wherever they live, share it and it grows from there. I think that anyone who has been here (remote alpine terrain), never forgets it. It links us in protecting the wilderness. Getting to the top of a mountain and knowing the value of how you feel when you’ve made it to here – why do we have to measure that?”

Bobbie Burns, like all CMH lodges, is an experience in luxury, an estate in the middle of nowhere. Every comfort is available, including stretch class and massage. But helicopter flights aside, the ambience is distinctly one of family, with guests and staff sharing meals together. It’s amazing who you can meet and where they’ve come from, expressly to find what they don’t regularly have access to.

For those without sufficient skills, or who wish to experience the mountains with assistance, is their desire to connect any less valid? Doing gymnastics, thrill seeking was never the point.