Conquering Tahoe’s Via Ferrata

Alpenglow guide Tim Dobbins leads a group of intrepid youngsters up Binky Buttress. | Sean McAlindin

Tram Face. You can’t miss it as you enter Squaw Valley Resort. Its massive walls of decomposed granite tower over the Village at Squaw. For decades, it has been off-limits to climbers due to its loose rock and exposed terrain. But now, thanks to a bit of ancient European technology and some intrepid local guides, that’s all changed. Tahoe Basin’s first via ferrata is open for business.

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We meet at Alpenglow Expeditions base camp office on a perfect summer Saturday afternoon. Their guides are some of the best in the world with experience in many of the world’s great mountain ranges from the Himalayas to the Andes. After a brief introduction from the team, we don sunscreen, gear up in climbing harnesses and helmets and prepare to conquer the previously untouchable face.

The 1,200-foot cliffs are formed of relatively imperfect rock, too loose to protect with standard climbing gear, but just right for the European tradition of via ferrata. Italian for “iron path,” these cable routes have protected mountain paths for centuries in the craggy, often loose rock of the Alps, serving to connect remote mountain villages to alpine grazing pastures far above.

Check Out the Via Ferrata Routes.

The mid-19th Century saw the creation of public via ferratas on prominent summits such as Grossglockner in Austria and Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the French Pyrenees. During the World War I, the assorted network of fixed lines and ladders was expanded as Italian and Austrian troops battled to gain control of the Dolomite Mountains. By the 1970s, the construction of via ferratas was exploding as a way to boost tourism in isolated areas of the Alps.

Jenn Hubert conquers Monkey Bridge. | Sean McAlindin

The main advantage of via ferrata-style climbing is that mountaineers are connected onto a protective metal cable for the duration of the climb, thereby minimizing the distance of any possible fall. Shock absorbers in the harnesses help to mitigate injuries should a participant accidentally slip and tumble for a few feet. This allows people of all ages and climbing abilities to surmount the previously unthinkable.

We lock and load up in the Beast, a four-wheel-drive GMC pickup truck with seatbelts installed on top of its bed. Making our way up the bumpy service road, it feels a bit like a scene from “Jurassic Park.” In fact, Walt Disney based the scenery for his famous Thunder Mountain train coaster at Magic Kingdom after the bulbous brown boulders of this very granite ridge.

We arrive at the base of the route where a short hike takes us to the start of the Via Ferrata. The first section is called Binky Buttress. It is designed to afford participants a small taste of the technical challenges to come. I have been assigned to climb with a group of two other journalists from Canadian Traveller and Explore Magazine, both of whom appear to be equally edgy as we approach the first obstacle.

Alpenglow guide Francis Liaw demonstrates proper Via Ferrata climbing technique. | Sean McAlindin

Our guide Francis Liaw double checks our harnesses as we clip into the via. The first section called Binky Buttress gives us a chance to practice the clipping and unclipping while moving across the rock. Next we test our nerves on a short traverse followed by a ladder of metal rungs. Everybody high fives at the top and we decide to go on to the base of the real climbs.

There are two options on Tahoe Via, both of which lead to the surreal Island in the Sky, a tiny cliff located beneath the first tram tower. The more difficult of the two routes is called Sundial Arête. It leads through ever-steepening terrain, steadily gaining exposure before weaving back and forth among the granite towers of a sensational ridge.

Today, we are climbing Skyline Traverse. This adventurous, yet, doable route ventures up through a compelling series of slabs and ledges until it encounters a narrow chimney where we must work our way up using our hands and feet in opposing directions. From there, we crawl across a section of vivid pink granite, around a corner and to the edge of a large, exposed precipice.

Alison Hodgins conquers the Binky Buttress and is ready for more. | Sean McAlindin

The mental crux of the climb is a 50-foot-long Monkey Bridge consisting of two parallel cables: one for your hands and one for your feet. As I gaze into the void below me, nothing but a 1-inch wire is keeping me free from gravity’s grasp. I am reminded of how sacred this life and land truly are.

We wind up a sheer wall and find ourselves atop a narrow ridge that meanders all the way into the atmosphere. As we rest on Island in the Sky, the full breadth and beauty of Olympic Valley streams out before us and a peaceful confidence fills my soul. |