It was with a certain amount of trepidation and excitement that I drove up the Norquay road on Monday morning, July 14.
Norquay had invited me to experience its newest feature and the newest organized outdoor activity in Banff National Park: via ferrata, Italian for “iron road,” a way for non-climbers to climb a mountain through an assisted-climbing experience.
Via ferrata is common in Europe, but just beginning to make inroads in Canada. Parks Canada approved via ferrata, along with mountain biking, traction kiting, community gardens and hang gliding and paragliding, for use in national parks and national historic sites across Canada and set national guidelines for each of those activities. From there, in this case, it was up to Banff National Park to decide if via ferrata was compatible in this region.
It was then approved for use at Norquay as part of its summer operations.
Like many people in the Bow Valley, I questioned if a national park in general and Norquay in specific was the appropriate location for this activity with its permanent infrastructure of steel steps, handles and rungs and steel cable.
My bias and perspective said “no” to both counts, but I wanted to see it first hand, having never tried via ferrata before and see if my assessment of its appropriateness was correct.
After checking in, I met the group I’d be with – five friends, four of whom were from Calgary and one from Canmore – and our guide, Karl Dowse.
Dowse ran us through the equipment, safety and protocols, got us suited up with harness, helmet and a y-shaped lanyard with two specially designed via ferrata carabiners.
Before we got onto the route, which begins above the teahouse, we ran through a practice session to ensure we all understood the fundamentals of moving on a via ferrata route and how to move the carabiners.
It was then a short hike to the start of the route and the first pitch that leads up a short cliff and into a gully that is crossed by way of a narrow suspension bridge.
The lower part of the route is relatively benign, certainly more of a scramble than a hike, but less of a climb. Once past that part, however, and where the two-hour Explorer and four-hour Ridgewalker routes split, the route gets vertical, accompanied by a real feeling of exposure before reaching the ridgeline on Vista Buttress. A short walk along the ridge leads to the gully and the trail that leads down a steep, narrow gully back to the teahouse. A fixed cable protects much of the return trail.
The cost is challenging at $139 per person for the two-hour route and $169 for the four hour, but for those who would never be inclined to climb a peak or have the ability to do so, the experience would be worth the price, and my group agreed.
Alan Rendall, a Canmore resident, said he was pleased with the experience and what it offers.
“It is a really good one personally. We live in Canmore and I see a lot of this controversy and personally I’m against a lot of things in national parks. For example, I’d be horrified if we had more golf courses in the national parks, but I thought this one was really good,” he said. “The impact has mostly been had and it is very well run and it is not like others people are having around the valley.
“I’m really glad we booked the four-hour rather than the two-hour because we would have exited before the best spot. We would have missed all the real fun. The real fun was on the second pitch.”
Rendall recommended the four-hour route as it offered “10 times the adrenalin and 10 times the scenic lookouts.”
Ian Walker of Calgary, on the ride up the chairlift, said he wasn’t certain if via ferrata was an appropriate activity in the park, but was curious to see it for himself.
At the end of the four hours, Walker said it was much less intrusive than he expected.
“If you wanted to get up and feel like you’re climbing, that gets it for you. To me, I was a little skeptical and cynical. I thought it was going to be intrusive and it wasn’t. It was well done, very well done,” he said.
The only disappointing part about Norquay’s via ferrata was that there wasn’t more.
“I wouldn’t do it again for $160 unless I was bringing somebody else. I’m planning to do bigger trip, so this is a good way to see what it’s about,” he said. “I could do that for a week.”
As part of getting permission to open for the summer, including operation of via ferrata, Norquay was mandated to undertake a number of operation changes and mitigations, according to David Jones, Norquay’s marketing communications co-ordinator.
Norquay has closed access to all ski runs, including the three runs accessed from the North American chair to protect wildlife habitat. A metal fence has been erected at the base of the chairlift ensuring public access is limited to just the base area at the old day lodge. The main lodge is also open.
“It’s been 15 years in the making,” Jones said of Norquay’s summer operations – “working with Parks Canada, saying this is our long-range plan, how do we go about this and how do we go about this in the parameters of what you’d like to see.
“The result is that there has been some controversy, but we’re trying to work with (Parks) to get our message about what is accessible and what is inaccessible and what has changed.”
A scramble route to the ridgeline up Lone Pine and the gully above it, which is profiled in Alan Kane’s guidebook, Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, has been closed.
“People have done this for many years and obviously we’ve come up against some opposition from people who don’t want to take the chairlift up,” Jones said. Scrambling routes from Cory Pass are still open, however.
Norquay’s via ferrata is a work in progress and Jones said the resort is exploring with Parks Canada the possibility of adding a six-hour route.
“The whole reason to have summer operations is to be able to enjoy the beauty of Banff National Park, but inherently we need to be aware of our impacts and what summer operation impacts will have,” he said.
“It would be completely contradictory to have something that is negatively impacting the ecosystem here just for the sake of summer operations, which is the very thing that draws people here. We are very cautious here. We have to walk a fine line between experience and having a negative impact,” Jones said.
As part of reducing the effects of its operations, Jones said Norquay introduced a shuttle bus to help meet Parks Canada’s mandate.
“Part of the long-range plan is having the shuttle bus in order to reduce the amount of traffic on the road and working with Parks on what we want to do and how we want to do it,” he said. “We have an interpretive guide on that and a video series on the bus that gives a bit of history on the area; Mount Norquay, Banff, the wildlife, the reason for the bus, that whole development of the interpretive material.”
Guides are also able to provide interpretive information of the area,
“We are also mandated to be off the mountain at a certain time in the evening. Norquay road is in a wildlife corridor, so we are not having late hours of operation. Weddings go later, but provide a transportation service, so there’s not a stream of vehicles going up and down throughout the evening. As opposed to 30 cars, we have one shuttle bus.”
In this case, Parks and Norquay should be commended. The via ferrata is worthwhile as an opportunity that could certainly add to anyone’s appreciation of the park and the Rocky Mountains. It is true that experiencing a place leads to appreciation and respect, but how that is done does make a difference.
Via ferrata at Norquay offers non-climbers an opportunity to experience the thrill and connection to a landscape climbing allows, but until now, climbing and scrambling has been the exclusive field of those with the knowledge, experience and equipment: none of which is easily or readily attained.
Via ferrata would not, however, be appropriate on iconic mountains in the parks such as Mount Temple, Mount Victoria or even the back of Lake Louise. Offering it at Norquay, however, fits.
Via ferrata is open only to registered groups accompanied by one of Norquay’s guides.
Go to www.summer.banffnorquay.com for more information.