The Highest Via Ferrata in North America Just Opened in Colorado—I Climbed It

Well, most of it anyway

Climbers ascending Arapahoe Basin via ferrata

Courtesy of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area

It’s 9 a.m., and our group has arrived at the lofty School House Rock, perched at nearly 12,000 feet amid a scree field at the base of Arapahoe Basin’s East Wall. This training area of the popular Colorado ski resort is accessed by a scenic chairlift ride on the Black Mountain Express, followed by a brief but bumpy off-highway vehicle ride, and a half-mile hike. We await instruction from one of our guides, Paul Schmidt. 

“These are the rungs that have been drilled into the rock,” he says, pointing to the demonstration rock’s rebar-like outcroppings that are strong enough to support more than 8,000 pounds and wide enough to fit both of your feet side-by-side, allowing you to “match” your feet as you climb. “And these are our climbing aids called ‘gas pedals.’ These are primarily meant just for your feet, but there’s no rule that says you can’t put your hand on them.”

We shoo away a pika rustling around our backpacks on the ground behind us as Schmidt continues his tutorial, grabbing a cable fastened to the rock by bolts and demonstrating how the dual carabiners on our harnesses must remain fastened into the climbing route that awaits us: a via ferrata. Featuring some 1,200 feet of climbing to a ridge topping out at 13,000 feet, it debuted June 25, 2021, as Arapahoe Basin’s newest summer attraction and the highest via ferrata in North America. 

An Italian phrase meaning “iron path,” these cliffside “trails” featuring a system of rungs, bolts, cables, and carved steps have been used in the Alps and throughout Europe for decades (some say centuries), most famously to move soldiers during World War I. But these routes have become popular in recent years for tourism, allowing everyday travelers access to impassable mountains and rock faces once only available to skilled climbers. 

“The best thing about via ferratas is the fact that they make mountaineering accessible to people that normally wouldn’t attempt mountaineering,” says Schmidt, who guides and manages the course. “(It) doesn’t require any previous rock-climbing experience and really gets you into some high-alpine rock climbing.” 

That includes a tourist like myself—a middle-aged mom of two who stays fairly physically fit while living at altitude in the Denver-metro area—who prefers terra firma. I’m not a hardcore climbing enthusiast, and I don’t love heights. But as I started the course, I took comfort in the plentiful rungs and holds available to my short frame, which kept me from straining to reach and worrying about slipping. (There were a few times I really had to stretch and maybe one fleeting moment of panic.) And even though I spend my daily life at roughly a mile-high elevation, I was often winded. 

“Is the next part easier?” one of our group asks as we catch our breath on a ledge known as Falafel Rock. 

“No,” Schmidt answers.

I look up the rock face for reassurance, only to find more cable and no idea what awaited us above but more climbing.

“Can’t you just lie to us, Paul?” I ask as our group continues toward an abandoned mine—evidenced only by rusty hand tools displayed on a rock—the stopping point for the half-day and the place we’ll eat lunch: an antipasto-style picnic featuring salami, cheese, olives, and a fresh baguette served in a flat, European-style lunch box, à la the Italian Alps. The sweeping valley below us is a patchwork of sand-colored rock scree and velvet-green pines; a mass of gray clouds elbows out the last of the blue above the mountainous panorama. This will be our stopping point for the day, our guides decide, due to impending rain; the last few hundred feet of the route will remain a mystery until another day. 

As we downclimb the via ferrata (my wet-noodle legs making me doubt my ability to summit to 13,000 feet anyway), the ever-darkening skies hasten our pace to the bottom. And our group is reminded of the ultimate high-alpine lesson: Mother Nature is always the one in charge. 

How to Visit Arapahoe Basin's Via Ferrata

Tours are half-day (roughly four hours) that cost $175 per person, departing at 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Full-day tours (roughly six hours) cost $225 per person and depart at 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. Both tours include gear rental.

What you’ll need: sturdy leather gloves (like ones used for yardwork found at most hardware stores); activewear pants like hiking or workout styles; closed-toed shoes, hiking-specific preferred; layers that include a lightweight coat or fleece plus a rain jacket; a backpack with water and snacks; and sunscreen.

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