Dispatch: Experiencing Via Ferrata in Saguenay, Quebec
PHOTO: Via ferrata at Parc National du Fjord du Saguenay. (Photo by Janeen Christoff)
Have you heard of via ferrata? If you haven’t, get ready to. It may just be the next big adventure travel trend, at least that is the case in the Saguenay region of Quebec, the province’s adventure hub. I can say from experience that if you are visiting on an adventurous pursuit, this activity will be front and center.
Via ferrata dates back to the first World War. It is Italian for “iron road,” and they were used to transport goods. Essentially, it’s a metal cable that runs along a route, fixed to a rock and allowing climbers to secure themselves to the side of a mountain while climbing by clipping onto the cable. This is via ferrata in its most basic terms and it sounds pretty tame. But when you look at the mountains that the via ferratas are enabling “travel” on, you may think twice about whether or not this is something you want to undertake. That being said, if you are slightly fit and have a good head for heights, you are the perfect candidate for via ferrata, making it appropriate for a wide audience of adventure seekers.
It is hard to find via ferrata trails in the U.S., which does not lend itself to what looks like a risky undertaking due to liability issues. Most via ferrata courses would have to exist on private land and there just aren’t that many private sheer cliff faces on which to build a course. That being said, there are still some – in California, Utah, Arizona, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Its surge in popularity right now is mostly due to its ability to appeal to those looking for adventure travel options that are beyond soft adventure but that don’t require too much technical experience. And in this area, via ferrata excels. There’s no climbing experience required, but you are definitely going to be pushed outside of your comfort zone if you’ve never done any extreme rock climbing or rapelling before.
Saguenay, a region in Quebec known for its adventurous spirit – and over-the-top experiences -- is an adventure region dedicated to challenging the most accomplished adventurer. And you can’t go but a few feet without tripping over a sign advertising via ferrata experiences – at least that is what it seemed like during my recent visit to the region.
Our group had the pleasure of taking on two via ferrata courses – each of similar difficulty but showcasing completely different aspects of the experience. One course was very physically challenging and relied on the climber’s ability to move through the course, finding footholds and a path to the top. The other was more of a mental challenge, as climbers navigate a cliff face moving from rung to rung like climbing a ladder up a vertical wall.
Via Ferrata Parc National du Fjord du Saguenay
Within Saguenay National Park, visitors have a variety of experiences to choose from and via ferrata is one of them. There is hiking, biking and sea kayaking among other activities as well.
This was the first via ferrata course I had ever done – I hadn’t even heard of this climbing method before visiting Quebec – so I didn’t have much to compare it to. Most of our group was made up of first-timers as well and we were doing what was referred to as the beginner course.
After a training session, where we practiced clipping in and moving along the rungs, ramps and steps, we hiked up to a fairly vertical cliff and began our ascent. The experience started slowly at first, just moving up rocks and boulders until the real fun began, and we climbed up a vertical part of the wall. At this point, we were still fairly low to the ground and, if at any time you were nervous, you could clip and hang from a ramp or a rung to rest or relax.
The course was fairly easy when it came to finding footholds and moving along the rungs and ramps. Mentally, it was challenging. Upping the fear factor was clipping and unclipping at such a great height. The climax of the climb is a walk across a suspension bridge.
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The feeling at the end of the climb is indescribable. After you unclip for the last time, it’s like walking on air. There’s a definite sense of accomplishment accompanied by sheer exhilaration and achievement. Looking down to see where you just were can only be described as totally awesome.
The entire track is about 295 meters for the beginner path and takes approximately three hours. There are also intermediate and advanced tracks.
Via Ferrata Aventure X
Aventure X in Charlevoix is an adventure park run by experienced climber and best-selling author Francois-Guy Thivierge. They offer a variety of climbing activities, including indoor rock climbing. Our group did the via ferrata palissades ascent, a rambling route that has visitors climbing and traversing a sheer cliff face clipped into the metal safety line. This climb had very few steps, rungs and ramps and mimicked what an actual rock climber would do, requiring climbers to find hand and foot holds, which were marked with red dots.
The palissades was challenging both physically and mentally – possibly even spiritually. There were times when all I wanted to do was get down off of the mountain. But at the end, the views from the top and the feeling of accomplishment made the challenge more than worth it – it was also hard not to channel the enthusiasm of Francois, who personally guided our ascent and rallied his troops saying that this was “the best in Canada.”
However, the experience doesn’t end there. The fun continues as climbers cross a suspension bridge and then rappel down a sheer wall of rock to the bottom.
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Via Ferrata Canyon St. Anne
Just when I thought I’d done the craziest via ferrata, We saw the via ferrata at Canyon St. Anne. While we only tried out the zipline across the canyon, the via ferrata meanders along the raging river, where just a few feet below, the water rushes below you. The course can be combined with ziplines and rappelling as well.
More by Janeen Christoff
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