Words & Photos by Andrew Findlay
The only thing between me and countless free falling vertical metres of alpine air are some rungs of steel drilled into the rock, and a climbing harness tethered to steel cable. I grasp a rung, scuff a boot onto a ledge as wide as a deck of cards, then pause to study the quartzite in front me, its surface checked and split like a well used map.
I’m clinging to the face of Terminator Peak following what the Italians refer to as a via ferrata, or “iron road.” It’s the latest addition to Kicking Horse’s menu of summer alpine experiences and it’s a winner and today one half of an alpine duathlon of sorts – via ferrata in the morning, bike park in the afternoon. Via ferrata originates from World War I when Italy clashed with the Austro-Hungarian forces in the rugged Dolomite Mountains that divided these two powers. Italian soldiers equipped the mountains with fixed lines and ladders, an ingenuous and much safer way to scale difficult or otherwise un-climbable cliffs. When fighting ended the via ferrata was forgotten, until mountaineers began restoring and repurposing these routes for recreation, launching a new form of mountain adventure. Via ferrata consist of steel rungs drilled and glued into the rock, suspension bridges, and steel cable bridges spanning chasms that can feel like tiptoeing a cross a thread of silk. With a harness, a leash that’s connected to the cable for safety , some sturdy hiking shoes, helmet, and a little coaching from an experienced guide, pretty much anybody from grandmothers to grandkids can experience the thrill of scaling alpine rock.
“We hatched the plan to develop a via ferrata last year, and our crews started working last spring scaling loose rock from the route, then drilling and installing more than 800 metres of steel cable,” says Max Cretin, director of business development and guest experience for Kicking Horse Resort, who has joined me on this new via ferrata.
I pause on a ledge and turn to face the precipice below. The roof of the Eagle’s Eye Restaurant is a splash of red next to the gondola top station. A group of hikers, ant like from these heights, follows the trail descending from Eagle’s Eye to the meadows and alpine pools at the foot of Terminator. I’m accustomed to climbing mountains the conventional way, burdened with an arsenal of shiny metal tools and implements. This is only my second kick at a via ferrata, and for the first 15 minutes I feel sort of naked. However soon I’m enjoying the fluidity and relative unencumbered simplicity of the activity. Grab the metal rung, step upwards until the specially designed aeroligne carabiner slides up the paralleling cable and passes over the steel plate affixing the cable to the rock. At the crest of a 10-metre slab of vertical quartzite I hesitate, to rest my calves.
Kicking Hores offers two via ferrata options. Ascension delivers you to the summit of Terminator Peak. For the less ambitious, or beginners, Discovery provides a shorter option that exits lower down Terminator’s easy ridge. However both routes start with an exhilarating crossing of a 30 m long suspension bridge that spans a steep chute that skiers know as Think Twice in wintertime. After two hours, we top out on Terminator’s summit, with time left to scramble down the ridge and back up to Eagle’s Eye for a 12:30 lunch reservation. I keep it simple, a juicy Alberta beef burger and garden salad, accompanied by a glass of cabernet sauvignon.
After lunch I switch modes for the second half of my alpine duathlon. I strap on some shin and elbow pads and full face helmet, then saddle up a DH bike for the 4000 foot vertical descent to the base village. My guide Ryan Harvey, who works mountain safety in the winter and patrols the bike park in summer, has a route planned, that showcases what Kicking Horse’s park is renowned for – sweet alpine riding. After a quick zip down the loose and rocky cat track, It’s a 10, we roll into smooth and flowy Pipestone, which feeds quickly into the swooping burmed chicanes of Dragon Chaser. Western anemones and Indian Paintbrush blossom trailside. Chute to View drops us into the subalpine forest, followed by Home Run and then Showdown, which descends in big loops skier’s right of the Gondola. By the time I pause to summon courage at the top of the black diamond- rated Rock and Roll, a steep rock slab, my forearms burns from squeezing brake levers. I’m an XC rider at heart so I do whatever it takes to keep the rubber on the ground. Next up is LYM, built by Harvey and his crew; it’s a fantastical corkscrew of elevated ramps that defies logic but works. It’s 2:30 pm when we roll to a stop in front of the Black Diamond cafe. I opt to perk up with an afternoon espresso, before reloading the gondola for another ride. Why not? It’s summer, the days are long and this alpine duathlon isn’t over.