Extreme Travel

Terror and triumph on Whistler’s via ferrata

  • Climbers ascend a section of Whistler's via ferrata.

    Climbers ascend a section of Whistler's via ferrata.  ( Blane Bachelor)

  • Rupert Davies of Whistler Alpine Guides, maneuvers the via ferrata.

    Rupert Davies of Whistler Alpine Guides, maneuvers the via ferrata.  (Stefan Weckx)

  • Climbers start on the route to Whistler's via ferrata

    Climbers start on the route to Whistler's via ferrata  (Stefan Weckx)

I’m standing on a rebar rung, clinging to another rung, hundreds of feet off the ground on a near-vertical stretch of Whistler Mountain – with nowhere to go but up.

“So, has anyone else besides me ever cried up here?”

But first I have to go sideways, across a sizable chasm with a horrifying expanse of open air below.

And I can’t move.

I’m having what feels like my first-ever panic attack – my breathing is labored, my hands and feet are cemented in place, and I honestly think these could be my last moments. I can hear my mom’s voice in my head: “I BEGGED her not to do it!”

Then I hear another voice, a real one, from a few feet below: “Trust your boots,” it says calmly, matter-of-factly.

The voice comes from Rupert, the friendly, redheaded guide who has done this so many times before – eased an adventure-goer like me back from full-blown fear into the business of finding her next foothold. So I do what he says: I trust my boots. I pull my foot off the rung and swing it through space to find the next one, my hands following.

My boots hold, and for now, my sanity does, too. And so it goes for the next couple of hours: rung by rung, step by step, section by steep section on Whistler’s via ferrata – Italian for “iron way” – a trail of iron rungs and cables fixed into the mountainside that create a vertical route to the top. It’s a great way for non-rock jocks like me to experience dizzying heights and spectacular views once available only to hardcore climbers.

The first via ferratas weren’t developed for adrenaline-seekers. The Italian army built them during World War I to move troops and supplies quickly through the Dolomite mountains. Climbers discovered them in the 1960s, and since then hundreds of via ferratas have popped up throughout Europe and in countries including Malaysia, New Zealand and Japan.

They’re less commonplace in the United States – a handful of sites includes Yosemite’s Half-Dome, though it’s not usually referred to as a via ferrata – thanks to government regulations against permanent climbing anchors. This high-altitude adventure, which has been operating in Whistler for about 10 years, is a big reason I’ve come to this ski-obsessed town in British Columbia in the summer.

(Check out Dan Springer's piece on British Columbia's via ferrata)

Unfortunately, the steady, chilly rain is anything but summery as our group of four – another woman who appears to be in her late 30s and a pair of fit-looking guys in top-of-the-line mountain gear – arrives for the excursion. We’re good to go as long as there’s no lightning – it’s not exactly safe to cling to metal thousands of feet off the ground in such conditions – but the added challenge of wet, slippery rungs doesn’t exactly calm my twitchy nerves.

We fit our helmets and harnesses inside the equipment outpost of Whistler Alpine Guides, the tour operator that runs Whistler’s via ferrata. No one says much – except for the quiet conversation between Rupert and the guys, who have taken him aside to ask about the safety waiver (which I’ve already signed).

That the most alpine-adept in the group have questions is a tad worrisome, but I take it as a good sign that everything seems to be cleared up. Then Rupert comes back over and asks if anyone has ever used an ice ax.

Not me. And apparently I don’t have any common sense, either. Who am I kidding that, with my fear of heights, with a knee that’s had two surgeries and with limited climbing experience, I can actually do this?

But by then Rupert has handed us our ice axes, and off we go. With Whistler’s 7,160-foot peak looming ahead, we’re soon using the fearsome-looking tools on a long stretch of crunchy snow. Rupert shows us how to move across ­– by kick-stepping footholds and using our axes for support.

Soon comes the first challenge: scaling an aluminum ladder – the kind you can buy at Lowe’s – affixed to the rock, while roped together for safety. Nico and Stefan, who I’ve learned are from Belgium, glide up effortlessly, as they will for the next three hours. It takes me and Karine, who’s from Montreal, a bit longer. 

For the rest of the way, we are attached to the reinforced steel cables and rungs by our safety lanyards, which we connect and reconnect via locking carabiners as we climb. But when you’re scaling a sheer rock face thousands of feet in the sky, it’s hard to remember that there are such devices in place to keep you from falling.

Instead, in the tricky spots – and there are several – I try to focus on breathing normally. But my breath still comes out in gorilla-like grunts, along with a constant stream of obscenities and sometimes tears. I’m in decent shape, but I’m getting my butt kicked – physically and emotionally.

Over and over, Rupert assures Karine and me that we’re doing great. Meanwhile, Nico and Stefan climb so quickly that we can no longer see them, and Rupert regularly calls out to check on them and tell them where to wait. They tell me during one break, without a trace of arrogance, that they’ve hiked to mountain lodges in Europe, burdened with wieldy packs of camping gear, along even more difficult routes.

But being overshadowed by these elite alpinists, who channel both Speedy Gonzalez and Spiderman, doesn’t deter my own glory and overwhelming sense of relief when we reach the summit. The final pitch looks like a doozy – a sheer stretch that seems well past vertical under the jagged ridgeline – but Rupert assures us that we’ve already done much harder parts. And once again, he’s right.

Nico and Stefan applaud as we take our final steps up to the plateau of the summit. We take a few minutes to catch our breath, high-five and admire the spectacular view of snow-capped mountains before we head to the chairlift that will take us down.

“So, has anyone else besides me ever cried up here?” I ask Rupert as we walk, my legs still shaky.

“I was crying,” Karine says right away. We all laugh, and I feel a little less of a wuss.

“People start the day nervous, with a lot of anxiety,” Rupert says. “And once you get them through the hard sections, their sense of reward is really noticeable. There’s this big sense of accomplishment and the buzz from the afterglow.”

Which is certainly true – the view from the top is even more amazing because I feel I’ve really earned it. I haven’t felt this proud of myself in a long time.

But I’m also craving a different kind of buzz: one that can be found in a bar, on terra firma.

If You Go:

The Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia operates a via ferrata through tour operator Whistler Alpine Guides. Trips run June through mid-October, take about four hours and cost about $108, including equipment.

A word of caution:  While this is open to those with no prior climbing experience, it is strenuous, so you may want to consult with your physician before planning a trip.  Also altitude sickness can start as low as 5,000 feet, so take precautions.