Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The Ultimate Via Ferrata Experience at Mount Norquay, Banff

Living close to Banff National Park, I'm always looking for a new adventure or a new way to appreciate the incredible scenery around me in a fresh way. I want to see Mount Rundle from a viewpoint that's not plastered across Instagram every single day, and I want to get on top of the iconic peaks around the Town of Banff - without having to share those summits with dozens of other people.

High above Banff on the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata 

Mount Norquay's Via Ferrata Routes provide the opportunity to experience Banff in a unique way that will set your vacation, your photos, and your adventures apart from those of other visitors to the Canadian Rockies.

Introduction to the Via Ferrata Climbing Experience

Italian for “iron road”, a Via Ferrata is an assisted climbing experience where you get the unique opportunity to climb a mountain without needing to have previous rock climbing experience. (And when I say "climb" a mountain, I don't mean "hike up" a mountain on a nice trail, but I mean actually scale the cliff face of a mountain like an actual rock climber.)

Climbing the cliffs of Mount Norquay with a Via Ferrata assisted climbing route 

Via Ferrata routes use steel cables fixed to the rock face so that climbers can safely attach themselves to the cables without risking a life-threatening fall. Additional climbing aids along the route include iron rungs and pegs, ladders, suspension bridges, and other cable bridges.

Visit the Mount Norquay website to check out the routes and to learn more about Via Ferrata climbing. 

Ladder climb on the Summiteer Route of the Via Ferrata at Mount Norquay 

My Previous Via Ferrata Experience 

I'd previously completed two Via Ferrata routes in the Canadian Rockies, one at Mount Norquay Resort many years ago, and one at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden a couple of years ago. I loved both tours to the point where I'd say I'm a bit of a Via Ferrata adrenaline junkie (I could do a new one every month if it were an option!)

Climbing an exposed section of the Summiteer Route at Mount Norquay 

After completing the longest route at Kicking Horse, the 3-hour Ascension Route, I was left wondering what was next? Surely there had to be a route that was longer than 3 hours, that was even more challenging, more terrifying, and that would push me even further outside my comfort zone. Fortunately, Mount Norquay's newest Via Ferrata Route has succeeded in knocking those goals out of the park!

The 3 wire suspension bridge crossing on the Summiteer Route of the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata 

Taking it to the Next Level with the Mount Norquay Summiteer Route

When I decide to take the next step, man do I take a big step! From my previous 3-hour Via Ferrata tour I jumped all the way up to a 6-hour tour!! That's double the length! - and I don't think I really let that soak in until just now.

Mount Norquay has four Via Ferrata routes ranging in length from 2.5 hours round trip all the way up to the ultimate Summiteer Route at 6 hours round trip. If you haven't done a Via Ferrata Tour before, if you have a slight fear of heights, or if you aren't sure about your fitness level, I'd recommend starting with one of the shorter tours.

All of the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata routes include a suspension bridge crossing 

For me, the Summiteer Route was the "dream" I'd been waiting for! 

This is what I was looking for on my Via Ferrata adventure! 

What sets the Summiteer Route apart from other routes in the Canadian Rockies 

The length of the tour is the big one! 

No other route I've found is this long.

6 hours of delicious exposed climbing on the Summiteer Route of the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata

The unique climbing aids on the route! 

Most routes have one suspension bridge and maybe a short ladder. The Summiteer Route has a normal suspension bridge, two additional wire suspension bridges (one that you'll cross twice on your way out and back,) a long ladder to climb, and a short wooden plank crossing.

Crossing one of the suspension bridges on the Summiteer Route at Mount Norquay 

I don't know any other route with this amount of cool features.

Wooden plank bridge crossing on our Via Ferrata route

You'll reach an actual climbers' summit (that's not shared with hikers!) 

You'll reach a summit at Kicking Horse if you do the Ascension Route, but it's a hikers' summit that anybody can reach from the top of the gondola on a sightseeing tour.  (My son could climb to the top of it for example without doing the Via Ferrata Tour.) 

The East Summit of Mount Norquay that you reach on the Summiteer Route 

The East Summit of Mount Norquay is only reached by a small percentage of strong climbers or by those participating in a Via Ferrata tour.

East Summit of Mount Norquay 

And note that only the Summiteer Route at Norquay reaches this summit. The other routes reach the ridge top or one of the buttresses on the cliffs of Mount Norquay. 

We were pretty thrilled to reach the summit on the Summiteer Route at Norquay!

The Summiteer Route is the most challenging route I've done

Obviously the route is challenging because of its length and the sheer amount of time you'll have to concentrate on climbing. Aside from that though, I found it very challenging once we left the Skyline Route behind for our push to the summit. 

The three-wire suspension bridge was terrifying (I won't lie) and we had to do it twice because the final portion of the route to the summit is an out and back trip.

Doesn't this look fun? - and only the summiteer route crosses this 3-wire bridge 

The other tricky part was downclimbing the Via Ferrata route from the summit back to the junction with the Skyline Route. I joked that somebody was going to have to stand below me and guide my feet at all times. (I'm pleased to say that it didn't come to that, but I was certainly scared and took it very seriously.)

Downclimbing on the way down from the summit on our Via Ferrata route

There's actual scrambling and climbing on the Summiteer Route!

I've done other routes where I felt like I just had to follow the metal rungs and pegs the whole time, essentially climbing a ladder up the mountain. And while there's always delicious exposure as you traverse along the cliff face, it's not exactly "real climbing."

This looks like real climbing to me!

On the summiteer route I felt like I was using all of my experience from years of scrambling and climbing mountains along with the limited rock climbing experience that I also have. The iron rungs and pegs are there to assist you but you still have to find hand and foot holds, decide where to place your feet so you feel secure, and even find your own unique route up the cliff face if the pegs are spaced out too far for your height. 

You get to use and touch the rock a lot on the summiteer route! I really felt like I'd climbed a mountain. I appreciated the assistance of the cable, the bridges, and the metal aid pieces though because they kept me safe at times when the climbing was extremely exposed. Some of the route I could have done unprotected, but definitely not for 6 straight hours! 

Nice and exposed - and definitely using the rock on the route

The Ridgecrest Descent was absolutely gorgeous! 

My previous tour at Mount Norquay didn't include the new descent trail down the ridgecrest at the top. The new Skyline and Summiteer Routes get to descend this way and it was a highlight of the trip. 

I really appreciated the views of the Town of Banff from this ridge walk and it was nice to enjoy some beautiful high-country hiking before we left the top of the mountain. (I had a hiking pole with me for this part and appreciated it for the occasional steep bits.)

Descending the ridgecrest off the East Summit of Mount Norquay 

Lunch along with post-trip beverages and appetizers was included 

Hiking down to the Cliffhouse Bistro at the end
The Summiteer Route is the only one that includes lunch and snacks/drinks at the end of the day. We were able to pack our own bag lunch at the cafeteria before we started and then we ate it at various rest stops along the trip including the summit. There was a good variety of lunch options to choose from for all diets and restrictions as well.

At the end of the adventure we all headed into the Cliffhouse Bistro together at the top of the North American sightseeing chairlift. Here we were invited to choose a beverage (a few of us shared a pitcher of beer) and we each received a charcuterie plate. This was included with our tour.

I must say that this made packing extremely easy in the morning not having to worry about snacks or lunch. All I had to pack was my water. It's also great for tourists and travelers who may not have easy access to lunch and snack supplies.

- and on the topic of Norquay taking care of travelers, you can also borrow everything you need for the tour (including a backpack and hiking boots.)

Looking down on the Cliffhouse Bistro where we had drinks and appies at the end of our tour

Final Details for Those Wanting to Try a Via Ferrata Route at Mount Norquay 

  • All of your climbing equipment is included (along with your helmet.) You can also borrow everything else you might need (at no cost) so if you show up in sneakers, a pair of hiking boots will be lent to you. You can even borrow rain gear if you aren't prepared for the day's weather forecast.

  • Wear comfortable outdoor clothing as you would for hiking (no jeans,) and think "stretchy." You will want pants that allow your legs to move, to bend, and to take some big steps.

  • Wear good hiking boots with a sturdy sole. I don't personally recommend light trail runners for this.

  • Bring the normal stuff for hiking: sun glasses, sun block, bug spray if you want it (I didn't find it necessary,) your own personal snack items of choice if you want, layers of clothing including a warm sweater and a rain jacket, your own gloves if you want (or you can borrow gloves) - I used my bike gloves, lots of water!! (I recommend a platypus filled with 2L of water so you can quickly take a sip when you need it,) and a small backpack that will also fit your lunch.

  • If you want to take photos of the whole thing I recommend bringing a friend with you and swapping cameras or just having your friend take photos of you while you take photos of him/her. I had my cell phone in a zipper pocket and this worked really well to pull out quickly for tons of great photos. My friend used a point and shoot camera with a lanyard around her neck and a carabiner attached to her harness. This also worked well. Don't put your phone or camera in your backpack if you want lots of photos - you'll only get summit shots if you do this.

  • Ask your guide for help with photos. Our guide was great at un-clipping himself to get into some unique vantage points where he'd take photos on his own camera, and then he emailed them to us at the end of the day.

  • This activity is NOT CHILD-FRIENDLY. Sorry. Bring your girlfriends, grab a group of guys, bring your spouse or partner, but you'll have to leave the kids behind. They can ride up the chairlift though at the beginning to see you off or they can meet you at the top of the chair at the end of the day.

  • The minimum age for the Explorer and Ridgewalker routes at Mount Norquay is 12 (with a minimum of 88 pounds.) The Skyline and Summiteer routes have a minimum age requirement of 14.

  • As mentioned already, Mount Norquay has four Via Ferrata routes ranging in length from 2.5 hours round trip all the way up to the ultimate Summiteer Route at 6 hours round trip. If you haven't done a Via Ferrata Tour before, if you have a slight fear of heights, or if you aren't sure about your fitness level, I'd recommend starting with one of the shorter tours.

  • A good fitness level is required for the 6-hour route, but that being said, you only actually gain 360 metres of height on this route. Much of the time is spent traversing cliffs where you won't be exerting yourself in the same way as you would actually hiking up to the top of a mountain. I was certainly tired, but it was doable. We also had several rest breaks and the pace was never crushing.
Looking back on the suspension bridge that we crossed on our route 

You can also read more on how a Via Ferrata works, what to bring, route schedules, safety guidelines, and group policies. 

A fun adventurous day out on the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata

Disclaimer: I was hosted by Mount Norquay for the day with a friend so that I could provide this review. As always, all opinions and words are my own.

I've also used all of my own photos from the trip other than a couple I received from our guide.

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