CAÑON CITY • For too long, Brent Hargrave has been gazing out the glass walls of the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park visitor center and dreaming.
People, of course, have been walking the bridge above these sheer cliff faces. They’ve been riding gondolas and zip lines and helicopters up here, too, and down there they’ve been rafting the Arkansas River that cuts the vertical world.
“This whole time I’ve been thinking, ‘Man, it’d be so cool if we could do something to get guests actually on the gorge,’” said Hargrave, the park’s chief operating officer.
So he found himself at this convention a couple of years ago and thought he found the answer: A company was pitching its high-tech repel system. Hargrave approached the marketer, who suggested a better idea.
“What you need is a via ferrata,” he told Hargrave.
To which Hargrave responded: “A via fe-what?”
A via ferrata, in Italian meaning “iron path,” a concept born by soldiers navigating the Dolomites during World War I. They’d bolt iron rungs into the mountainsides and use them like steps on a ladder.
The idea is slowly popularizing in America’s outdoor recreation scene, with Colorado catching on in 2006, when a well-traveled alpinist and hobby welder named Chuck Kroger took his power drill to the ledges of a peak near his hometown of Telluride. Guides ever since have been taking tourists on breathtaking, heart-pounding traverses.
And now comes a via ferrata for one of the state’s most dramatic landmarks, providing access to vistas that have so far been reserved for trespassing climbers and regal hawks catching the wind drifts in these narrows.
The Royal Gorge will debut the guided experience this weekend, a grand addition in the park’s 90th summer anniversary. And along with cash ($135 for the shorter tour, $165 for the longer), visitors also will need bravery.
During a sneak peak this week, harnessed climbers dropped into the wild on a thin trail, stopping at a “practice route” fashioned along a rugged slab bending skyward, some 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. Guide Eric McLemore instructed them to always leave one of two carabiners clipped onto the steel cable while clipping the other onto the next anchor. Have footing on either rung or granite and stay clipped. “Critical,” McLemore said.
“If you mess that up, that’s your life.”
But the iron path could be trusted, the anchors and rebar drilled 4 1/2 inches into the rock and filled by mortar, he said. “This’ll be here many years to come, long after we’re gone.”
And the expectation is that it’ll be used for as long as people seek adventure. Sure, pure climbers north of Cañon City on the limestone formations known as Shelf Road would scoff at the via ferrata — a “sanitized” attempt at the sport, they’d call it.
But of the 300,000 coming to the Royal Gorge every year, of those breaking into the outdoors, the via ferrata could be one epic initiation.
“A really unique introduction to rock climbing,” another guide and avid climber, Spencer Thomson, calls it. A way to get accustomed to the rock and the gear, “but you don’t have to worry about the more technical stuff.”
City Council members knew climbing was popular in their locale. But what was this they were being asked to help fund late last year? A via ferrata?
“It was kind of like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Mayor Preston Troutman recalls. “’Is it safe?’”
They were assured of that. And they also were told their investment in half of the $675,000 project would be recouped quickly (for leasing the park, the city last year received a cut of revenue amounting to $2.7 million).
It was an easy yes, the mayor says. “It’ll be the thrill of a lifetime.”
A thrill that promoters anticipate will be sold to people around the world. Unlike Telluride’s and other via ferratas they tried in Utah and Wyoming, the Royal Gorge routes trend vertical, straight up the cliffs. And then there’s the landscape.
“Some of these views are just unmatched,” said Jeremy Boswell, vice president of park operations.
They’re had from an aerial walkway, spanning a ridge to a craggy throne, overlooking the great bridge above, the river below and the Wet Mountains and snow-capped Sangre de Cristo peaks beyond. And they’re had from the Royal Traverse, which climbers moved onto after the “practice route.”
Though more confident in their abilities, exposure struck fear in them — the rungs scaled towerlike outcrops, ending at the rim in less than a mile. From above, they could faintly make out the remark of someone on the bungee jump.
“Whoa! There’s people down there!”