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As I wobble along the via ferrata’s cable-wire bridge stretched across the Uncompahgre Gorge in Ouray, I keep reminding myself of one thing: Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Do. Not. Look. Down.
That’s because a ribbon of frothy whitewater churns far below me. It’s the first feature of the Ouray Via Ferrata’s downstream route. My friend and I, despite our lack of rock climbing experience, are harnessed and helmeted behind our mountain guide, Micah Lewkowitz of Mountain Trip, who’d already cruised across the cable and swiveled around to snap photos of us.
Via ferrata is Italian for “iron path,” a concept that dates to World War I in Italy’s Dolomites, where they were developed to maneuver troops through inaccessible terrain. It’s a system of steel rungs, ladders, bridges, and cables permanently bolted into rock walls and ledges. This one follows the east side of the 180-foot-deep gorge, across from the famous Ouray Ice Park, for nearly a mile.
Although looking down might give me a touch of vertigo, I don’t actually have to worry—too much—about falling into the foam: Our specialized via ferrata lanyards and carabiners keep us hooked into the cable. Which is to say, most folks with a reasonable level of fitness and an ability to follow directions can manage a via ferrata course. Exhibit A: The climber in jeans who passed us, and the family with young teenagers who exited the canyon not long after we did.
Despite the fact that I’m feeling pretty accomplished after unclipping from the final cable, the stream of folks coming off the wall behind us on a random Tuesday makes me wonder: Does all this human traffic and permanent metal hardware wreak havoc on cliffside environments that were previously out of reach? Put another way: Is the outdoor adventure industry making a tourist attraction out of something we have no business commercializing?
Four years ago, Colorado was home to five via ferratas. Today, there are at least 10—some with multiple routes—including the OG in Telluride, built circa 2006; North America’s highest via ferrata topping out above 13,000 feet at Arapahoe Basin ski area; and several renditions marketed like amusement park attractions at tourist hotspots such as the Royal Gorge.
While it might seem inconsequential when you consider the some 1,200 via ferratas located across the Alps, Colorado’s proliferation certainly does have environmental implications. But the extent of those impacts isn’t yet known. The United States is relatively new to the via ferrata game and environmental analysis of the pursuit is light at best, especially on private land.
By contrast, Club Arc Alpin (CAA), the umbrella organization for mountaineering associations in the Alps, which represents about 2.5 million European mountaineers, has published a formal position on via ferratas, updated in 2017, via its Commission for Nature Protection and Alpine Spacial Planning. While CAA considers “Via ferratas and their use to be an interesting complement to mountain sports possibilities,” the author writes, it also points to the “impact on the natural mountain environment both through the actual positioning of the installations/routes in the rock as well as through the consequently increased presence of humans in remote and fragile mountain environments, causing pressures predominately on wildlife and vegetation.” The document lays out guidelines and restrictions for developing new via ferratas, including the exclusion of conservation and park areas for new construction; a ban on “isolated, natural high mountain areas” and “mountains whose peaks are only accessible by climbing”; and development only in areas accessible by public transport or mountain rail.
Indeed, humans flocking in droves to via ferratas has been a well-documented phenomenon in Colorado over the past few years. According to Mountain Trip guiding service, in 2021, about 6,856 people made it across Telluride’s iconic iron path. That’s up from roughly 2,800 just five years ago. Despite a lack of hard science, even a layperson can surmise that that amount of people will leave literal and figurative footprints on an ecosystem.
Michael Drake, visiting assistant professor of environment, sustainability, and biology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, isn’t a layperson though. He says the fragility of cliffside flora and fauna often get overlooked when infrastructure goes in. “Cliff systems are habitats—important ecosystems that are really unique,” he says. “They get ignored a lot. The plants and animals that live in cliff ecosystems don’t live anywhere else. Birds are very sensitive, and access to good nesting spots can be pretty limited.” Our feathered friends are also quick to abandon their nests, he says, if they witness humans approaching.
With few cliffside ecologists and biologists out there, Drake says, exhaustive wildlife cataloguing and predictions are impossible. Still, there are instances where via ferrata planners have had to change course—literally—after taking Mother Nature into consideration. A prime example is the Arapahoe Basin Via Ferrata, which sits within the ski area on National Forest land. The original design reportedly plotted the route through mountain goat nursery terrain, so officials proposed a more dramatic alternative path to avoid the bulk of this disturbance. The ensuing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) assessment—a process required of federal agencies when presenting land management proposals—concluded that the via ferrata and other new trails “may adversely impact individuals, but are not likely to result in the loss of viability….”
The Forest Service then implemented additional mitigation measures, says Forest Service mountain resort program manager Don Dressler, by restricting via ferrata hours during certain times of the year to minimize mountain goat encounters. Ultimately, Dressler says, ski areas are natural venues for these types of activities because they’re already-developed sites with plenty of infrastructure. “Of the millions of acres of land under federal management,” he says, via ferratas “make up quite a small number.”
Accordingly, some argue that the compact, yet “en masse” nature of the iron path not only lessens the likelihood of more dispersed—and potentially more harmful—impact, but also provides tangible benefits to local economies. “On a via ferrata, you can have hundreds of people go up in a day,” says Reed Rowley, partner at Via Ferrata Works, the company that designed Kent Mountain Adventure Center’s via ferratas in Estes Park. “By putting everyone on the same steel cables and rungs, you’re actually mitigating the impact they’d be having if they were all going out and mountaineering on their own. Relatively speaking, a via ferrata is super-efficient.” Plus, as many in the industry suggest, this type of activity is a way to educate people so they’re more inclined to appreciate and protect the outdoors.
Adventure guide companies like Mountain Trip and Ouray-based San Juan Mountain Guides say the more newbies they get to take outside, the better. Their livelihoods depend on it. In fact, says Mountain Trip owner Todd Rutledge, six of his guides were able to buy houses in the Telluride-Ouray area—despite an affordable housing crisis in mountain towns—“because the addition of the Ouray Via Ferrata [in 2020] meant we now have good-paying year-round work.”
To put that in perspective, Joel Hartter, professor of sustainability and director of the Outdoor Recreation Economy program at the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy is worth $9.6 billion annually and provides 120,000 jobs. More than 90 percent of Coloradans participate in outdoor recreation each year. Via ferratas may be a proverbial drop in that bucket, but those drops—or what Dressler refers to as the trickle-down effect felt by guides, hotels, and restaurants where tourists spend their dollars—add up as the state looks toward a future that may start shifting away from extractive energy resources. “If we are going to grow our communities,” Hartter says, “particularly where we remove other sources of economic stability, such as extractive industries, outdoor recreation needs to be a priority.”
Drake also points out the importance of thinking ahead when it comes to the viability of certain forms of outdoor recreation. “Take skiing or rafting, which are dependent on robust water levels and might not be very stable in the future,” he says. Activities like via ferratas “might be a way to provide resilience. You can’t computationally decide these things. You have to get a community together and decide where your values lie.”
As we trudge back down the road to the lot where we parked to access the canyon, a string of ATVs and Jeeps trundles past us, no doubt on their way up to catch some legendary San Juan Mountain scenery or poke around some fabled mine ruins. Our guide, Lewkowitz, is ruminating on the one-and-done nature of via ferratas. For most people, it checks the thrill box, and they probably won’t do any one route more than once.
But this kind of experience can also be the catalyst for exploring other outdoor pursuits, like hiking or backcountry skiing or even traditional rock climbing. “At the end of the day, this is a way to get rid of the carbon footprint made by someone sitting in their Jeep,” Lewkowitz says. “The hope is that it offsets that type of tourism here.”
That’s a justification I can get behind, and as good a reason as any to start planning my next haul across a gorge.