The Switzerland of America is about to have an added European feel for visitors.
After four years of work, the Ouray Via Ferrata will open to the public Memorial Day weekend. A via ferrata, a Italian term that translates to “iron road,” is a protected climbing path with gear placed to help climbers up, down and around stunning mountains. The Ouray Via Ferrata is the second of its kind in Southwest Colorado, joining the existing route in Telluride.
“We are thrilled to bring this safe but thrilling adventure sport to Ouray,” said Mark Iuppenlatz, co-founder of Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata non-profit organization. “The via ferrata is an exciting, sustainable, human-powered adventure activity that will become a big part of the Ouray experience and economy in the future. We expect it to help attract new visitors during the 180-day season and bring significant economic growth to the community in the spring and fall shoulder seasons.”
Via ferratas are given a rating based on difficulty, much like climbing routes, but the system is a little different. Numbers one through five indicate technical difficulty with letters A, B or C following to rate the seriousness of the alpine commitment. The Ouray Via Ferrata is rated as a 4B and is expected to take two to three hours to complete. In contrast, the Telluride Via Ferrata takes an estimated four to six hours to complete, based on group size and climber fitness levels.
“People seem to love the Telluride Via Ferrata, and this one is taking the experience to the next level,” said Durango professional skier and mountaineer Sven Brunso. “The Telluride Via Ferrata is rated approximately a 2B, and this one is a 4B, so a bit more intense.”
Ouray’s route is one way with the entrance at the Ice Park Loop trail at the south end of the New Funtier access trail. The route runs south to north and ends past the “Upper Bridge.” Once climbers begin, there is only one chance to exit more than halfway through the course.
The route climbs, descends and horizontally navigates through the Uncompahgre Gorge with some sections hundreds of feet above Uncompahgre River with others only feet above the water. It was expertly built with an estimated 4,000 feet of cable and 850 iron rungs that have been bolted into the rock walls. Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata, the non-profit founded by Nate Disser and Iuppenlatz, the owners of San Juan Mountain Guides and Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, has invested more than $250,000 in the planning, engineering and construction of the route and raised $240,000 from donors and sponsors.
“The use of these allows otherwise dangerous routes to be accessible to people with a wide variety of climbing abilities,” Iuppenlatz said. “Users can follow via ferrata routes without the need to use ropes or belay devices and without the risk associated with unprotected climbing.”
It also features the first “skyladder” in North American with a 70-foot crossing of the Uncompahgre River.
Safety gear is required. Climbers will need a harness, special via ferrata lanyards, a helmet, closed-toe footwear as well as gloves, which will be required to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“Unlike an amusement park ride, the via ferrata will require participants to climb vertical sections, shuffle along cliff walls and get some quality exposure but all while having the support of redundant safety systems,” Iuppenlatz said. “The specially designed via ferrata lanyards incorporate an energy-absorption system that helps support users in the unlikely event of a fall.
“The via ferrata has been working closely with the local health department to outline safety precautions in recognition of the current COVID-19 situation. The via ferrata naturally lends itself to social distancing given the layout of the route, but users will be instructed prior to use by the rangers on how best to observe proper social distancing requirements. While gloves will always be recommended on the via ferrata course, they will be required for the foreseeable future to protect all users of the route.”
Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata will staff a ranger at the beginning of the route during hours of operation to make sure proper safety gear is being used. Rangers also will provide details about the route, educate climbers on route etiquette and provide route maps.
Gear will be available to rent for $30 at San Juan Mountain Guides at 727 Main Ave. Professional guides also will be available. For a family of four, the cost will be $189 per person.
The route will open at 8 a.m. daily. Iuppenlatz is excited to give outdoor enthusiasts an engaging and new activity in which to participate during a summer with so many other activities canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. He anticipates the new route helping contribute $5 million in new visitor spending with the via ferrata attracting as many as 12,000 visitors in future years.
“Timing couldn’t be better given the current situation, as this adventure provides for time outside – a cabin fever reliever – is an easy drive and, by design, has built in social distancing,” Brunso said. “It’s an awesome day trip for summer visitors to Durango but also a great thing for locals to do before the summer gets too busy or after the tourism seasons winds down in the fall.”