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Tackling a via ferrata in Quebec's Mont-Tremblant National Park

A test of physical and mental strength, scaling a mountain face can take nerves — and gear — of steel, especially when tackled by via ferrata.

Published 2 Oct 2019, 15:00 BST
Via ferrata in Mont-Tremblant National Park.
Via ferrata in Mont-Tremblant National Park.
Photograph by Christian Savard

I’ve never had a problem with heights. But clinging to a rock way above the forest floor is changing that. Jelly-legged, I teeter one foot at a time across iron rungs anchored into the rocky slab, desperately trying not to think about the 650ft drop below me. 

At least the views are good. Far beneath my shaking feet, a sea of birch, spruce and maple trees stretches to the horizon. The silver-smooth Diable River snakes through the greenery, while mountains dotted with ski slopes loom in the distance. My vantage point is unparalleled — and experiencing it from an exposed mountain edge makes it all the more thrilling.  

I’ve agreed to be clamped to a cliff to try a via ferrata in Mont-Tremblant National Park, in Canada’s Quebec province. Literally an ‘iron road’, a via ferrata is a vertiginous climbing route of steel staples, cables and bridges. They originated during the First World War to help troops travel safely through the Italian Dolomites, but are increasingly popular around the world with adventure lovers looking to tackle otherwise impassable cliffs and ledges.

“It’s more accessible than regular rock climbing,” says my guide, Laurie Gravel, as I slip into a safety harness at the start of our route, the Grande Virée. “You don’t need any climbing experience — just a reasonable level of fitness and a sense of adventure.” 

The 1km-long Grande Virée travels to the top of the Vache Noire mountain with a series of metal cables, ladders and bridges. There’s an easier, 500-metre-long option — perfect for youngsters (aged eight or above) or a taster session — but I’m keen to test myself with this more advanced trail. 

The sun is strong as we set off up a forest track and reach our first climb, a two-storey-high rock with metal rungs hammered into its face. Laurie shows me how to use my safety gear, which consists of a harness, energy-absorbing lanyard and two carabiners. I watch as she scales the ladder, unhooking and rehooking her carabiners to move higher up the rock. “You must have at least one carabiner clipped to the cable at all times,” she says sternly. “Now you try.”

I climb, starting slowly, but before long I’m crossing beams over dried-up riverbeds and wobbling along walkways through the trees. With no one else in sight, I feel like we have this little slice of nature to ourselves.

As we climb, pausing between sections to catch our breath and eat sandwiches, Laurie points out landmarks. “There’s Mont Tremblant,” she says, nodding to the tallest peak, a skiing area in winter that’s covered in hiking trails in the summer. “And that’s Mont Toque, which is Québécois for ‘beanie mountain’,” she adds. “Check it out: it looks like a little hat because it’s small and round.”

Via ferrata may be easier than traditional rock climbing, but it’s far harder than I’d anticipated. The rocks radiate heat and sweat pours from beneath my helmet. My legs ache and my hands are sore and smell of hot metal. It’s mentally draining, too — not only from fear and adrenalin, but also from constantly checking I’m clipped in. 

As I haul myself up the final rung, I feel exhausted yet exhilarated. Around me, the mountains seem somehow larger, more brooding, as though my immersion in these surroundings has altered my perception. After five hours of climbing, I set off down the mountain, this time on foot. But I’ll still be on a high. 

Via ferrata: the lowdown

Is it difficult?
While via ferrata can be physically challenging, it doesn’t require prior experience. You only need a reasonable level of fitness and a willingness to scramble along metal ladders and bridges embedded into a mountain. 

What kit do I need?
You’ll need a helmet, harness and via ferrata kit (all provided by tour companies) and sturdy shoes, like decent trainers or walking boots. Gloves and a small rucksack are a good bet as they’ll make the experience more comfortable, too. 

Where can I do it?
In Chamonix, the relatively new La Via des Evettes features a spectacular Himalayan-style footbridge, while Peru’s Sacred Valley, Mount Kenya and the San Juan Mountains in Colorado also feature via ferrata. Honister Slate Mine in Cumbria has both an outdoor and underground version.

There are a range of tour operators offering tailor-made packages to Quebec including Trailfinders, Wexas and Canadian Affair.

Published in the Adventure guide 2019, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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