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Discovering Your Inner Climber: Via Ferrata in the Bugaboos

You may have arrived at mid-life and realized you never got around to becoming an expert mountaineer.

You meant to. Really.

The notion of one day standing atop some rocky spire was the only thing that kept you going as you toiled away in your cubicle at age 24. But one day you came home from work to find you had a family, a mortgage, and a dog named Fritz. The years passed.

Now you are an empty-nester with more time and money at hand, and that mountain climber dream has re-emerged. But is it too late? No! With much credit to a climbing method known as Via Ferrata you can find yourself scaling a sheer rock face next week. The fitness requirements are modest and, as long as you are guided, the expertise needed is a big fat nada. Read on.

Via Ferrata is Italian for “iron road”. It is a climbing route protected by fixed cables which prevent falls and is aided by metal rungs anchored into the rock. During World War I the Italians put up many such routes throughout the Dolomites to aid troops in their effort to command high ground. When the war was over the abandoned via ferratas became a popular form of recreation. Today over 1,000 via ferratas exist worldwide. Though most of these are in the alps, a handful have cropped up lately in the U.S. and Canada. I traveled to the Bobbie Burns Lodge in the Bugaboos of British Columbia last July to try my first via ferrata, a breath-taking ascent of Mt. Nimbus.

The team at the drop zone. Photo by Dave Mauro

Perched in a remote location at 6,000 feet, the Bobbie Burns Lodge can only be reached by helicopter. A favorite of heli-skiing enthusiasts, the lodge started offering heli-hiking during the summer season several years ago and it caught on. The facilities are marvelous, the food sumptuous, and the services, including helicopter transport to and from some of the most difficult to reach backcountry imaginable, even feature a stretching class each morning to work the creaks out of that mid-life body. Clearly this is an outing for those who favor comfort over cost, but you’re done writing those tuition checks and isn’t it time you did something for you? Remember that dream?

Bobbie Burns Lodge. Courtesy of CMH

Guests rendezvoused in Golden, B.C. at a helicopter pad. A quick flight later we checked into our comfortable and well-appointed rooms. I then set out to explore the lodge. The dining room featured several long tables where guests would eat family-style. It was nice without being haughty, comfortable without being casual. The great room opened up to high-timbered ceilings above massive banks of windows that devoured the stunning landscape before them. Just beyond, a spacious deck invited guests to stroll about in the fresh pine air. The downstairs amenities included a yoga room, climbing wall, pool table, equipment room, massage spa, and outdoor hot tub. Later that day I took in a casual trek, tracing a ridge line with several guests and a guide, then flew back to the lodge for dinner.

Guests gathered in groups each morning according to the type of hike they were in the mood for, running from “stroll through an alpine meadow” to “pure shot of adrenaline.” The Via Ferrata climbers were equipped with boots, outer gear and lunches. We shuffled out to the helicopter pad with our guides, Tom and Jen, and a few moments later we were whisking up glacial valleys past halting cathedrals of granite. Ridge tops plummeted away beneath us as our 14 passenger chopper rose and swooped, banked and flared in an acrobatic dance mimicking the topography below, finally lighting on a flat shoulder of Mt. Nimbus.

On the catwalk. Photo by Dave Mauro

We crawled out and crouched beneath the rotor wash while Tom and Jen unloaded our packs. Then the helicopter lifted off, vanishing down the valley. It would have taken four days of hard climbing to reach the place where we now stood, only moments after enjoying an elegant buffet breakfast. As someone who has climbed big mountains all over the world, I felt a bit guilty about how I had arrived, but that sensation quickly passed as I gathered in the snow-capped Bugaboo peaks beneath a Tiffany blue sky.

A short hike took us to the first pitch, where we harnessed up and received a safety talk by Tom. We were told how to properly clip into and out of the steel cable that would protect us from falls throughout the route. He then pointed out the U-shaped rebar handholds and steps that had been drilled into the rock face, explaining that we were free to use natural formations instead whenever they presented themselves.

Our group consisted of eight men and six women. Leaving out the lone youngster, the average age of team members was 58. Aside from myself and the guides, no one claimed any prior climbing experience.

Two short pitches took us to a ridge walk that required modest rock scrambling. Then a short suspension bridge was followed by a narrow traverse. A gap in the ridge was bridged by a 4×4 piece of lumber bolted down on both sides, but that ever-present safety line offered welcome reassurance. We lunched on chicken sandwiches and fresh baked pastries from the lodge. The helicopter had dropped a fresh supply of water bottles at this point so we hydrated thoroughly then refilled our bottles before pressing on.

Our next pitch was a vertical rock face perhaps 110 feet high. The slate stone was dry and warm to the touch as I laid a hand upon it, comforting in a way that spoke to communion of our shared endeavor. The route then skirted sideways along a slender ledge that dropped off into yesterday. We toiled upward as the route gained 600 vertical feet, then paused to wind casually around the upright head of our spire. A queue of climbers had formed there, waiting their turn to cross a 200-foot suspension bridge. This skywalk connected our rock tower to the adjacent (and much taller) tower and, as if any further thrill was needed, its decking included only every third slat (two  out of every three slats are omitted intentionally to keep the bridge from being grabbed in the breeze like a sail).

Crossing the bridge. Photo by Dave Mauro

Again, we were safely harnessed to the steel cable, but the 2,000 feet of whispy oxygen below spoke louder still through those absent slats. The bridge bounced and swayed as its chains jangled ominously. We looked on silently as each member of the party took their turn. Some climbers moved with careful deliberation while others veritably skipped across. Yet all fourteen team members screwed up enough nerve to make the crossing.

The route then scaled a massive stone buttress, smooth and wide at the base but narrow and increasingly steep as it reached higher. This only intensified the sensation of exposure while also eliminating a climber’s ability to ignore it. Up, up, up we climbed, gaining another 300 feet until ending abruptly below an inverted lip. At this point climbers had to reach around a blind corner, seeking hand and foot holds, then trusting them by committing fully. This delivered us to the final and most thrilling challenge of the Mt Nimbus Via Ferrata.

With both feet securely planted on metal rungs, I hung from one hand while searching with the other for something solid above the inverted lip. A generous fissure offered ample grip, so I moved both hands up to it. But the last and final rung was just out of reach, so I squatted down until my arms were straight and legs coiled, then leaped for the rung with all my might. Our guide, Jen, was there to grab me if I missed, but my right hand latched onto the metal rebar solidly, and a moment later I was standing on the summit of Mt. Nimbus. I wasn’t alone.

Every member of our team summited, including Mansing Fung, age 78, of Calgary, Alberta. We took turns standing on the tiny apex, then scattered across lower ledges to snack and take in the kind of view that prompts euphoria. The elation shined from each climber as we chirped with enthusiasm, exchanging high fives and hugs. All of the Bugaboos fell away from us in every direction, forming undulating waves of green that rolled off beneath a pure blue sky.

The view from the summit. Photo by Dave Mauro

Instead of backtracking to descend, our route continued down the other side of the spire, a steep, and often vertical, face offering occasional ledges to catch your breath and belly-scraping traverses along stingy catwalks. Then our route came to a dead end at a stone lip jutting out from the face. Two hundred feet of sky separated us from the ground that would mark our successful round trip. Tom and Jen then each rigged a long line to belay climbers down. The ledge had been fixed with anchors and a smooth round pipe the rope could glide across easily while each team member hung like a spider from a single skein. Several climbers struggled to back off that ledge, to trust the rope and its guide against the reptilian survival instinct that screamed at them to not do it. But Tom and Jen were calm and reassuring, helping each person find the confidence to take that last step. One by one we glided earthward, some with whoops and cheers, others dead silent with eyes clenched shut.

A short trek beside the edge of a glacier took us to a flat area where Tom called in our bird, the ultimate sag wagon: a helicopter. Fifteen minutes later we were toasting our successful summit in the lodge bar, confiding moments of fear and personal discovery.

To be sure, those with a serious fear of heights should think twice before attempting a via ferrata. Little joy awaits. But for the rest of us, us mid-life dreamers who want, for an afternoon, to feel like that twenty-four year old version of ourselves, the Mt. Nimbus Via Ferrata will not disappoint.

Dave Mauro has called Bellingham home for the last 20 years. He is a mountain climber, author, and frequent consumer of emergency room services. His book, The Altitude Journals: A Seven-Year Journey from the Lowest Point in My Life to the Highest Point on Earth was published in May, 2018.

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