Norquay Via Ferrata

When it opened in June, we added the new Via Ferrata at Mt. Norquay to our summer bucket list. Why? 1) An adventure with a high fun factor. 2) A new experience for us. 3) It looked like an ideal way to push the limits of my gradually developing ability to cope with my long-standing fear of heights.

Norquay-Via-FerrataIn early August, with the unofficial end of summer looming at the bottom of the calendar page, we booked the 4 hour Ridgewalker experience online. NOTE: There’s also a 2 hour Explorer option, appealing if you’re pressed for time (but likely to leave you wanting more). The Ridgewalker and the Explorer are both guided excursions.

As suggested in the online booking confirmation, we arrived 15 minutes before our scheduled 8:30 start time, so we had more than enough time to read, sign and hand back the liability waivers…and peruse the maps and guidebooks available for use in the North American Lodge…and meet the other member of our group who arrived by private vehicle…and meet our guide for the morning, Carl.

The other four members of our group arrived right around 8:30 on Norquay’s free shuttle bus service from the Banff townsite, so it was about 8:45 when we all followed Carl to the equipment and briefing room where each of us selected a helmet (I picked #25 in honour of our silver wedding anniversary coming up later this month), a climbing harness, a leash with 2 clips and a pair of gloves (we brought our own gloves to ensure a good fit, but there’s a good range of styles and sizes available for those who don’t bring their own). The helmets, harnesses and leashes are carefully checked after each use and before they are returned to the equipment room for someone else to use, the usage log for each piece of gear is updated. Carl’s first briefing covered the basics: how to fit the helmets and harnesses, basic operation of the leash clips and the need to follow his instructions at all times. With that, we all headed to the chairlift.

Norquay-Via-Ferrata

The North American chairlift ride takes 15 minutes to transport visitors about 1 km and 400 meters, ending at a viewing platform, boardwalk and the Cliffhouse Bistro. I was really hoping to catch a glimpse of the mother brown bear and her two cubs that have been ranging across the slope all summer, but had to content myself with spotting a lone mule deer.

Norquay-Via-FerrataA practice wall installed at the base of the Cliffhouse Bistro was the location for our second briefing from Carl. Then we watched each of us work our way across the few cable spans, using footholds, handholds and metal rungs as necessary. He made a particular point of providing feedback whenever someone forgot the paramount rule – at least one clip on the cable at all times!!

From there, we followed Carl a short distance up the sub-alpine trail to the start of the Via Ferrata course. Our group of eight took almost 2 hours to travel the ascent portion of the iron road, gaining 210 meters over 1.1 km (according to the track on my Garmin GPS receiver). We gained about 70 meters on our way to the high point along the ridge walk, for a total elevation gain of about 300 meters from the top of the chairlift.

Approach to Suspension Bridge

Suspension Bridge

Memorial Ledges

Soul Slab

Norquay-Via-Ferrata

Carl, our guide, explained that we had two options for the Soul Slab portion of the route. Use the cable as a handhold, plant your feet and kind of lean out and back and walk your feet up the slab. Or do a more freestyle rock climb (I think he said this was about a 5.6, but I’m not a rock climber so might have that wrong). Regardless of which option you choose, you have to stay clipped to the cable at all times. K followed up, initially doing the rock climb thing but eventually using the cable for help where he couldn’t find really good footholds.

Vista Buttress

Ridge Walk

We had a short snack break as soon as everyone in the group was safely up the Vista Buttress. Mr. GeoK took full advantage of the opportunity to make some panorama photographs, but the haze in the air and position of the sun made conditions quite challenging, even using a couple of filters that are usually helpful in those circumstances. After about 10 minutes, Carl led us along the start of the ridge walk, to its highest point. Along the way he pointed out several examples of endangered whitebark pine. The ridge walk offers a less well-known perspective on Cascade Mountain and also a clear sight line to the summit of Mt. Norquay.

Norquay-Via-Ferrata

Norquay-Via-Ferrata

Descent

Our group took about an hour to work its way down from the ridge high point to the top of the chairlift. The trail is quite steep. For several sections, we clipped in to cable runs – I’d say maybe 35 – 40% of the total descent you’re clipped in. A couple of sections were steep enough that we clipped in and descended backwards, feet on the ground and leaning back and out for stability. Along other sections, Norquay staff have been hard at work building stone steps. Their work isn’t yet up to the Lawrence Grassi/Tommy Links standard that we observed while hiking at Lake O’Hara, but it does make the going somewhat easier than slipping and sliding on loose gravel. The descent section of the trip might be a bit tricky in the rain or snow.

Norquay-Via-Ferrata

Gear is returned at the top of the chairlift, so if you want to grab a bit of a snack and a cool drink at the Cliffhouse Bistro, you don’t have to worry about keeping track of your set of equipment. When you’re ready, the chairlift ride down provides one last opportunity to get a photo or two of Banff from way up on high.

SUMMARY:
Total distance = 2.3 km plus chairlift
Total elevation = about 700 meters (400 meters on the chairlift + 210 meters on the Via Ferrata + 70 meters on the ridge walk)

This activity gets a big two thumbs up from the GeoKs. We’ve already talked two other families into giving it a try. And the Norquay Via Ferrata is already at the top of our “must do” list for the summer of 2015.

For rates, departure times, age and weight limits, group sizes and all kinds of other pertinent information, visit the Mt. Norquay website.

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