Explore Colorado

Climbing the Ouray Via Ferrata

“Step out of your comfort zone, change begins at the end of your comfort zone” (Roy T. Bennett). “Be willing to be uncomfortable” (Peter McWilliams). “Do one thing everyday that scares you” (Eleanor Roosevelt). “Whatever makes you uncomfortable is your biggest opportunity for growth” (Bryan McGill). We’ve all heard these sayings and quotes when you face your fears.

I’m afraid of heights. I know that sounds odd for someone who is an avid hiker and is sometimes in precarious high altitude locations. It also sounds odd for someone who has jumped out of a plane twice. I often step out of my comfort zone to face my fear that can instantly paralyze me, sending me into a sweaty shaking mess, especially while rock climbing. The weird thing is I enjoy rappelling – once you can get me over the edge. My fear of heights is at its worst when I’m rock climbing up and my back is exposed. I’m sure there’s some reasoning for it, but for me in the moment it can be debilitating.

During a trip in Southwest Colorado with my childhood friend Sarah and her family, I got talked into doing the Ouray Via Ferrata with them. It’s different that other via ferratas where you might be walking across iron foot and hand holds 300 feet above the ground. Via Ferrata means “iron path” or “iron road” in Italian. They originated during World War I as a way to get men and equipment into strategic positions in the rugged terrain of the Dolomites.

Sarah and Chris along with their two daughters Aria and Caroline have their own climbing gear as they’re an avid climbing family. I rented gear from San Juan Mountain Guides, where you can also book a guided Ouray Via Ferrata tour. Before we started, a ranger checked our gear and made sure we had proper climbing helmets, harnesses, shoes and gloves for the trek.

The initial part of Via Ferrata wasn’t too bad for me. It felt more like scrambling down the slide of a mountain than rappelling. When we got down to the “Entrance Bridge,” a 35-foot cable bridge stretched above the Uncompahgre River, I watched Aria and Sarah zip across. I took a deep breath and gingerly made my way over the river. It boosted my confidence a little and with everyone else, I easily traversed the cables and rungs several feet above the river on the section called the “Mars Wall.”

The first big test to my fear of heights was going up the section called “Stairway to Heaven.” I steadily climbed it while focusing on the rungs in front of or slightly above me while not looking down. This was also the section that really activated climbing muscles in my arms. They’re totally different muscles that what I use doing pushups and weights while strength training.

With my arms shaking and now high above the river, we went on hiking and climbing. Having the hiking sections have my arms a break. I really enjoyed this section with hiking and traversing. Chris and Aria are super fast and went on while Sarah and Caroline stayed with me. Somewhere hear the Arrowhead section, I went into a full meltdown. It was a very short section where you have to lean back then reach up for a couple of rungs. After a couple of minutes of shaking and crying, Sarah backtracked a few rungs to pat me on the head and reassure me I could do. Very slowly I did with Caroline following behind me and giving me guidance of where to put my feet. No pics or video of that section. When your hanging on to metal rungs high above a river, unable to move and crying, well pics and videos are the last thing on your mind.

We came up to the Bail Out Point on the route and Sarah asked me if I wanted to go that way. I said no and I wanted to do the rest of the course feeling like the hardest sections were already done as we continued through a mainly hiking section.

Near the end is the “Sky Ladder.” The open step ladder ascends the Uncompahgre Gorge at a 35-degree angle for 75 feet. Sarah went first to show me how to hook and slide the cables as you climb the ladder. I took a deep breath and started my climb. I actually loved it and this was my favorite section of the course.

We still had a little more traversing on rungs, including around a couple of dicey corners, but near the end I was all smiles posing for pictures. Perhaps because I could see the end was insight as we got close to the “Upper Bridge”. When we were done Sarah asked me if I would do it again and I replied, “Maybe…I only cried once.”

Afterwards we celebrated with well-earned ice cream at Mouse’s Chocolates and Coffee on Main Street in Ouray. The huckleberry ice cream is delish!

The Ouray Via Ferrata is approximately 1.2 kilometers (.77 miles) long and takes 2-3 hours to do. It’s open summer and fall. It was built by professional climbers and guides in Ouray and is owned by the town.

Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively across Colorado and is considered an expert on travel and outdoor adventures in the state. Check out blogs One Night Stay in Ouray and Drive the Million Dollar Highway for more ideas of what to do while in Ouray.