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Via Ferrata: Colorado’s Next Big Outdoor Vertical?

Via ferrata may be the biggest outdoor recreation business you’ve never heard of. Translated, “iron ways” started in the late 1800s as a secure way to climb and traverse mountainsides in the Italian Dolomites. Today, Colorado contains the largest concentration of via ferratas in North America.

Via ferratas give adventure seekers immediate access to jaw-dropping views on heart-thumping multi-hour vertical excursions. Dangling 180 feet above a raging box canyon river, as you do in routes in Ouray, via ferratas are an addictive thrill, mixing tight-roping bridges between cliff sides, scrambling up granite and sidestepping precarious rungs around rock outcroppings, all while manually clipping in and out of bolted steel safety cables.

Colorado’s via ferratas, now in double digits, sit on both public and private lands, making oversight and safety regulations an unfolding mashup of European and American standards that boggle the mind. State inspections are currently run through the Division of Oil and Public Safety, the same one that checks amusement park rides.

But the money is in the guiding, with some longtime climbing services now counting on via ferreta bookings for up to 90% of summer business. In Ouray and nearby Telluride, which installed the state’s first public via ferrata, anyone can climb. All you need is the gear—a helmet, harness and specialized EAS lanyard. And only in Ouray does a ranger check you in. Everywhere else, from installations at A-Basin ski area to the Royal Gorge, you must go with a guide.

Ouray native Logan Tyler, who owns climbing gym, gear and guide service Basecamp Ouray, just opened the state’s newest private via ferrata. “In March 2020, I had 55 cents in my bank account,” he says. “By August, revenue from just guiding the via had saved my business. The economic impact is substantial — way beyond my expectations.”

Tyler’s professionally designed and built via ferrata sits on Gold Mountain Ranch, just outside Ouray, where he struck a deal with a wealthy landowner. Twice the length of the town’s two public courses with 1,200 feet of vertical climbing and a cable bridge through an old mining site, a Gold Mountain half-day starts at $198. Getting his via ferrata through shifting state and county politics was a monumental feat. But as a pioneer in the industry, Tyler knows it’s only up from here.

As he puts it, “It’s an earned experience.”