Cautiously stepping out on the narrow plank that bounced beneath each step, I tightened my grasp on the thin cables helping me maintain my balance and glanced down past my feet to the valley floor below and wondered yet again, “what was I thinking?” I’m not a thrill seeker. I don’t dream of scaling mountains.
In fact, I tend to avoid risk. But then I hear the voice of my teen daughter urging me on and I remember. This. This is why I agreed to do the Mt. Norquay Via Ferrata in Banff. Because she loves rock climbing and adventure courses. And I love her.
There is nothing quite like facing and conquering a physical challenge to boost your confidence and up your bad ass quotient. And there is not a teen girl around that couldn’t tap into that well of self-confidence and sense of accomplishment when facing the daily obstacles of high school. And frankly, most moms of teens could use that too when looking down the barrel of the challenges of parenting.
Challenging ourselves, pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones, and doing it together. This is what creates the mother-daughter bonds that I strive to build. Bonds that will last over the test of teenage angst and the growing pains of adolescence.
I want my daughter to look at me and not see a “cool mom,” but see a strong mom — a strong woman who is able to take on fears and physical challenge and got the job done. My hope is that she will grow into a self-confident, empowered woman who works hard and realizes that the best things don’t always come easy.
Is that too much to expect from a four-hour climbing tour on the Mt. Norquay Via Ferrata? Probably, but it is a lifetime of these activities and challenges that have brought us to this point. And so far, she is shaping up to be pretty awesome, and maybe just a little bit bad ass.
What to Expect from the Mt. Norquay Via Ferrata
Note: We received complementary admission to the Via Ferrata from Mount Norquay in exchange for this honest review. All opinions are my own.
A Via Ferrata is an assisted mountain climbing experience. Italian for “iron road”, I presume for the iron holds and rungs used to assist your climb, you can find Via Ferrata courses in mountain destinations around the world, such as Quebec, Alaska, Switzerland, and, of course, Italy. However they aren’t as ubiquitous as a treetop adventure course, so when we saw the opportunity to do one when visiting Banff National Park, we knew we should seize the chance.
Mt. Norquay, one of Banff’s “Big 3” Ski Mountains located just minutes from the town of Banff, offers four different Via Ferrata guided climbing routes in the summer. There is the 2.5 hour Explorer Route, 4 hour Ridgewalker Route, 5 hour Skyline Route, and 6 hour Summiteer Route. These cover different terrain and have different features or obstacles, so you could easily go back again and again for different experiences.
Each adventure starts at the base lodge where you get geared up with helmets, harnesses, carabiners, and any rain pants, footwear, or day packs that you need to borrow. Certified guides lead each small group and conduct a short demonstration and safety briefing before everyone boards the chairlift.
On the way up, keep an eye out for the big horn sheep that love to graze on the slopes and near the Cliffhouse Bistro at the top. Once you unload at the top, everyone goes through a short climbing course to practice how to clip into the steel cable that is your safety net throughout the climb. When you reach the end of the cable, you need to unclip one carabiner, keeping three points of contact on the wall at all times, and clip back onto the next section before moving the next carabiner over.
You are responsible for your own safety out there but the dual system and harness will save you from falling all the way off the mountain (although dropping and banging against the stone wouldn’t be too fun either.) To climb the Via Ferrata, you don’t need any mountaineering or rock climbing experience, but you do need to follow instruction and be prepared for physical exertion.
We joined a four-hour Ridgewalker tour of about 8-10 people, which started with a steep hike from the Cliffhouse to the beginning of the course. After clipping in, our first challenge was the plank suspension bridge.
Usually these don’t bother me. I certainly didn’t have any trouble crossing the rope bridge in Northern Ireland, although that had sturdy netting along the sides. This one threw me for a loop though, as it was bouncier than expected and didn’t have the side netting, I couldn’t help feeling like I was going to topple off.
Luckily the group didn’t mind too much as I shuffled along, eager to put this behind me. It turns out that was the most challenging part of the day for me, and only because of that irrational fear that can sometimes paralyze us. But thankfully Hannah’s encouragement and my desire to not lose face in front of my daughter made me push through because it just got better from there.
This is when we really started to feel like we were mountain climbing. Shuffling along narrow ledges. Using iron rungs to pull ourselves up sheer rock wall. Balancing on tiny footholds, and looking for crevices in the rock to hang onto. Hannah was in her glory.
Earlier in the trip she told me that she had always dreamed about touching a cloud and wondered what it would feel like. Would it be fluffy? Something you could actually feel? Soon our heads were literally in the clouds and feeling a damp mist on my cheeks I reminded her that she was now touching a cloud, even if it wasn’t like she had dreamt.
After a short break where we gobbled up a quick snack, sipped our water, and shed a few of our layers, we headed up for the final ascent. The last bit on the cables was straight up. There were times when my calves were cramping from balancing on tiny footholds while waiting for the group up ahead to slowly find their way.
Yet the slow pace allowed me to manage in my own way. I can only imagine how quickly Hannah, who has been climbing at indoor gyms for years, would have scurried up that mountain and how I would have lagged behind otherwise.
There were definitely a few moments when I had to tell myself to just not look down. Yet there were others when I felt like I was on solid ground and I was able to look around and enjoy the view, chuckling to myself about how much my husband would absolutely freak out if he was asked to do the Via Ferrata. And I admit, I like getting mom points when I can do something better than dad.
When we unclipped at the end of the route, we learned that we weren’t quite at our final destination. There was still a short hike up to the actual summit of the mountain. The views of Banff, the Rocky Mountains, and the valleys below were absolutely amazing. The sun was shining and it was a perfect day. We were tired but felt so proud of our accomplishment.
However, our time at the top was limited as clouds started to roll in and no one was excited about hiking downhill in the rain so we quickly began our descent. There were times when the route down was steep and we were clipped onto cables once again. But the hardest part was probably the impact on my old knees as we creeped down the steep slope. Luckily we were almost back to the Cliffhouse before the skies opened up.
Instead of riding the chairlift back in the rain, we decided to use our discount coupon to have lunch at the Cliffhouse Bistro. I enjoyed a well-earned beer and some delicious lime-chipotle beef gorditas while Hannah chowed down on some bao buns. It seemed like a much better choice than the fare offered in the North American Lodge cafe down below.
By the time we finished, the rain had cleared for our chair lift ride back down the rest of the mountain. In the end, I was exhausted and my body was aching everywhere. I couldn’t wait to get to our next stop in Lake Louise and soak in the jacuzzi tub. I was also really, really happy that we did this adventure together. Especially when she thanked me emphatically and told me she was proud of me. Well earned I say, well earned.
But now that I’ve shared my side of the story, I’ve asked Hannah to share her take on our Ferrata adventure.
A Teen’s Take on the Via Ferrata
When you think about it, doing a Via Ferrata is very intimidating. You’re climbing a mountain without a rope, and the only thing separating you from falling hundreds of feet is your harness and a cable. However, when we climbed the Via Ferrata at Mt. Norquay in Banff this summer, I was hyped.
For some background, I love rock climbing, so this probably wasn’t as scary for me as it would be for the average person. When my mom told me about it, I jumped at the opportunity for the adventure. The Via Ferrata was one of the things I was looking forward to most on our trip.
I mean, it’s not exactly an experience you can get anywhere, and we were about to do it in Canada’s beautiful Banff National Park. What’s not to love? Anyway, I was super excited to get to do it, and so by the time we got up the chairlift I was itching to go. And, after a quick safety presentation, we did.
We started by hiking up to a plank bridge across a small valley. I love these types of features in adventure courses, so I was having a little fun with it: taking a peek over the edge, stopping to admire the view (and for a picture!), and even seeing how much I could get the boards to wiggle beneath my feet before I got nervous.
Many of the other people on the tour (my mom included) weren’t so enthusiastic about that particular element, but I loved it. As we made our way up the mountain, I found myself slipping into an easy rhythm: clip, unclip, clip back on.
And so we climbed the mountain, bit by bit. There weren’t any more tricky plank bridges, but there was one point where we got to hang off the mountain for a photo opp, which was pretty cool.
After a long vertical climb, we got to the top. Well, almost. We first stopped for a quick snack and then hiked the rest of the way to the peak.
Once we were there, we had the opportunity to look around and take some pictures of the surrounding area, which is absolutely beautiful. After taking in the view, we walked across the mountain ridge and started carefully picking our way down the valley to the base of the trail where we began the climb. At the end, we rode the chairlift back down and let our experience sink in.
Surprisingly, we both really loved it. I went into it expecting to love it, but I knew my mom wasn’t quite as excited as I was about the prospect of climbing a mountain. Despite that, we both had a really good time and enjoyed getting to have a unique experience together in such an extraordinary place.
It was a refreshing change of pace from simply hiking around the national park; you get to see the area (and get some exercise in) while still getting to appreciate the natural beauty of the park around you.
Tips for Climbing the Via Ferrata Banff
- Bring a good size day pack that can hold an extra layer of clothes, snacks, and water. If you don’t have one, you can borrow one for free.
- A rain layer is recommended but if you don’t have rain pants, they can lend you one.
- Wear comfortable clothes and sturdy hiking boots with good tread.
- Bring easy to eat snacks like fruit, granola bars, etc. — just remember that you need to carry out your trash.
- Make sure to pack a large water bottle.
- Wear or bring sunglasses and apply sunscreen to your face and exposed areas as the sun can be strong at that altitude.
- Use the bathroom before heading up the mountain as it will be a few hours before you have another chance.
- Don’t plan to climb the Via Ferrata Banff on your first day in town. Instead, give your body time to adjust to the altitude and drink lots of water when you arrive.
- If you are afraid of heights, the Via Ferrata will be very challenging. If you really want to try it, start with the shortest course.
- You may want to talk to customer service before choosing a course to find out what features each course uses such as the plank bridge, cable bridge, etc. in case there are some that you are not comfortable with.
- The climbs go out rain or shine, unless there is lightening in the area. If you don’t want to climb in the rain, you may want to wait to book until you can see the weather forecast.
If you are planning a Canadian Rockies vacation, be sure to check out my Canadian Rockies itinerary suggestions.