Mt Norquay Via Ferrata – Banff, Canada
Today we had a pretty epic adventure planned to explore Banff– our first time doing a via ferrata. Via ferrata means “way of iron” in Italian and is a system of rungs, ladders, and cables that allow you to climb a mountain while carabineer’ed in. A popular alternative is to take the gondola in downtown Banff to the top of the mountain for an amazing view but that just isn’t our style. To the via ferrata we go.
Mt Norquay is a short drive from Banff and looks like an incredible winter skiing destination but during the summer months, the via ferrata is available. There are multiple courses that can be completed varying from an hour to eight hours depending on how much you want to do. After much examination, we decided to complete one of the middle course – The Alpinist. This would take about 4 to 5 hours to complete for a total of 2 km distance with a 305 meter ascent, reaching 2355 meters at the peak. The reason we selected this course was the opportunity to walk along the top and see the Norquay “Panoramadome” and get an amazing view of the valley – I did not want to complete this via ferrata for nothing! This course also includes a suspension and cable bridge for some added fun / terror depending on which side of that coin you were on.
From where we were staying in Canmore, Mt Norquay was a twenty minute drive and we arrived around 8AM for our 830AM session. When we parked and got a good look at the mountain, it was hard to believe we were going to be on top. We checked in and since we didn’t have the gear they recommended, we got fitted for boots and backpacks. We were also instructed to bring layers as the temperature drops at the top, a snack, and plenty of water.
Our next step was meeting our guide, David, and getting suited up with the carabineer gear. I do not think I could make the harness any tighter if I glued it to my body – I wanted it as tight as possible. We were also given gloves which ended up being a lifesaver for our hands.
All set, we were sent up on the gondolas which set us probably more than half way up the mountain. The views were already incredible from up here. There was a “bunny slope” via ferrata near the lift where we got a full safety briefing and got to try out the carabineers for real. It was very chill when the ground was just below you, the question was going to be how this was going to translate when there was no ground below. Looking ahead, we could see a group ahead of us half way up the mountain and we also saw the first suspension bridge. What on earth were we thinking?!
We all cleared the “bunny slope” and started a short hike up the mountain. It did not take long before we encountered our first via ferrata component and once it started, it was up and away we went – good bye solid ground. You start to get a rhythm going after a few minutes – I have to say you are so focused on foot and hand placement and then moving the carabineers that seeing the surroundings was non-existent (at least for me). We all gained a bit of confidence as we moved through the via ferrata.
Then we came upon our first bridge – a wood suspension bridge. This one was accessed via a plank that had no hand supports so that was way more stressful to maneuver. The bridge was super shaky so I crossed in a giant swat the entire time to keep myself grounded as the rest of the group enjoyed the thrill of the swinging motion. For me, it was one bridge down, one to go.
We resumed climbing until we go to a flat area where we got to take a break. We drank water and enjoyed the snacks while finally taking in the views. It was incredible how high we were and we were only continuing up from here. We did not break long since we had much more to go.
This section of the climb was probably the most challenging part of the via ferrata. While going straight up is fine, it was going laterally across the mountain that I found particularly challenging and a bit stressful since it exposed you to the surroundings. Going up, I can focus just on the rungs and rock but going sideways, my eyes had to travel beyond and see the gravity of just how high we were. At each tough change of positions, I let out a tennis styled yell which seemed to help release the stress a bite. Thank god I was doing this with all family (thanks fam for being so Almost at the top, the wind went from zero to one hundred whipping back and forth. I paused for a second and that was all my brain needed to start unwinding. I refocused on the next rung to avoid a breakdown – once again realizing what other options did I have at the moment but to keep going? Going down the via ferrata was a hard pass and this was not a rescuable position – it was up, that was the only way.
I felt like a crawled the final steps lifting myself over the final peak onto the top of the mountain. I did it. What an unbelievable feeling to be on the top of this mountain! The view was spectacular. One by one, the rest of the group joined me on top the My Norquay as we celebrated an incredible mental and physical accomplishment.
Now I had already established with our guide that we were not taking the via ferrata down and unless you are exceptionally skilled one does not take the via ferrata down anyway. I was certainly looking forward to hiking down though this feels like a great spot to paraglide down – I would have paid for that! While there was so cabling on the way down, I just went on my butt to keep myself close to the ground while everyone else found the trust in the cables to have fun with it.
Then we came up to the cable bridge – honestly I had kind of forgotten about this since I was so focused on getting to the top. Crossing this forced you to face the wide open space and side step across. I fully expected to losing it which I only did briefly but our guide David kept pressure on the cable to limit the sway while I crossed. It actually was far easier than the suspension bridge earlier – maybe that was all in my head. Regardless, I was happy to cross and watch the rest of the group thoroughly enjoy their cable bridge which they all agreed was the highlight of the via ferrata.
It was finally time for the hike down which for me felt like the weight of the world off my shoulders – I could relax and enjoy the rest of the time on the mountain. There were a serious for legit stairs built (thank you to a recent rehab to build this!) along with rocks and dirt towards the bottom of the mountain. We would get glimpses of the gondola loading station as we zig zagged down the mountain until we eventually met with it. We hopped on the gondola and enjoyed our victorious ride down, blown away but what we just did.
Exhausted and exhilarated, we returned the gear and made plans for the rest of the day. All in, it took us 4.5 hours to complete the Mt Norquay Alpinist via ferrata. Everyone absolutely loved the experience and it was definitely the best way to see Banff and the surrounding area if you are able to do it. It is definitely physically challenging so you need to have confidence in yourself to complete it. On the scary scale, this was certainly up there for me but I will say the cave in Belize actually exceeded this on the scary scale. With the via ferrata, you are connected in so while there is still a possibility of getting hurt, you aren’t falling to your doom despite the height. Overall, this was a much cooler way to see the top of the mountains than the gondola ride so if you can do it, go for it.