Our third day in Banff was meant to be a fairly relaxed one: a mountain climb on the Via Ferrata on Mt. Norquay, a cruise on Lake Minnewanka and finally an evening ride up to the top of Sulphur Mountain by gondola.
Via Ferrata, or the “iron road or way”, is a protected path for mountain climbing. It typically has a few strategically-placed iron rungs and toeholds in difficult sections of the mountain face to enable safe access for climbers. The rest of the track is climbed using naturally occuring crevices, footholds, tiny ledges and outcroppings. The climber wears a harness with a lanyard to which two carabiner clips are attached, helmet and gloves. Good footwear with proper treads are very important for grip. Once at the via ferrata, the climber attaches to a steel cable that runs along the length of the track using the carabiner clips, thus ensuring safety in the event of a fall.
There are several Via Ferrata spread across the world. I have read that the idea originated in Italy to ascend mountains that were hard to access. The French then borrowed this idea to help troops cross difficult mountain terrain during WWI.
I have fancied the idea of a mountain climb since I came across the Via Ferrata in the Alps, a couple of years ago. When this opportunity presented itself, it was too good to pass up. And the family was equally enthusiastic.
The Via Ferrata on Mt. Norquay offers four different routes, the shortest being 2.5 hrs and the longest at 6 hours. This is the actual time spent on the routes, ascending and descending.
Our time slot was for 9 am and we were to meet our guide half an hour before. I was filled with nervous anticipation as heights and I are polar opposites. From Banff, the Mt. Norquay visitor center is only about a 20 min drive. After we checked-in, the staff checked our shoes to ensure they were right for hiking. They also rented out (for free) small rucksacks where we carried water. We wore sunglasses and sunscreen and layered clothing. There are no restrooms on the climb, so we had to make a quick trip before leaving. Then we met John, the manager at Via Ferrata Mt. Norquay, and our guide for the day. We were also joined by three siblings from the US, who were spending a week together in Banff. They were younger, perhaps in their late 20s.
John first led us to the equipment area where we donned our harness, attached our carabiner clips and put on our helmets. We wore our weatherproof jackets on top of the harness.
We then set off on the chairlift to the top of Mt. Norquay where John gave us a quick demonstration of how to stay harnessed properly all the time, how to climb the iron rungs and use the small iron footholds. Next, he had each of us demonstrate our skill. It can be a bit nerve racking to appear calm and climb in front of seven pairs of eyes! But we all did it!
A few photos later, we were on our way, climbing a narrow foot trail to the mountain side to start the climb. I was the last on the trail. I worried about being the slowest of the group and needing the greatest help. Apparently, John must have felt the same. As we reached the mountain track, he asked me to come forward, attach my clips and start! As I stepped on the very first iron rung, it struck me that this was the moment of truth and I was actually climbing, right behind John, with the others waiting patiently behind me. The adventure had started!
After fumbling a few times, my confidence grew. John stood by, watching me with a hawk’s eye but let me work on the climb by myself, only giving me instructions if I was well and truly stuck. It occurred to me then that we must possess natural instincts, unbeknown to us, ingrained in our DNA ages ago, for self-preservation. What else could have explained my ability to naturally choose footholds and grips where there were no iron ones, to learn to climb and scramble quickly to get to where I wanted to go.
Mr. JJ followed me, with the kids and the three sisters behind him. And so we climbed, over rock faces and ledges up one side and down a bit on the other. Very soon, we had to cross a suspension bridge hung over the valley. Of course, we stayed attached to the steel cord throughout, but it was still a bit unnerving as the narrow bridge swayed with people walking on it ahead and behind. What was more worrying was at the end of the bridge when we had to scramble onto the other cliff side, a narrow space for human feet. But with a deep intake of breath and confidence in John, I stepped off the safety of the bridge and onto the ledge.
Around the side of the mountain face where the trail was a little straight, I heard Mr. JJ exclaim about the beauty of the valley. So, overcoming my fear of heights, I looked down for a few seconds and was entranced by the amazing scenery. We continued to climb upwards, breathing heavy in the clean mountain air, trusting our bodies to find a grip, using arm and leg muscles long since forgotten, to pull ourselves upward and forward. John ensured we gave each other adequate space and that we stayed safely attached to our steel cable. He talked about his work, about Banff, and asked us about our lives, all the while keeping us focused on the track.
It got warmer as we climbed and we were sweating freely. Eventually, we got to a shady area where we took a break from the steel attachments and stood on solid land. It was time for a water break, to peel off unwanted layers of clothing (it was too hot for jackets) and of course, the quintessential photos.
At our highest point, we were about 7000 feet above sea level. The day was perfect for a climb, with the temperature being just right. We walked further without any attachments and climbed a slope until we came to the highest gain on our ascent, about 720 feet from where we started.
The descent was every bit as exciting as the ascent. While going up, I was focused on looking at the rock face and finding a grip, thus keeping me from looking behind or below me and making me nervous. On the way down, we were mostly attached to the steel cable, but there were times where we had to walk without attachments. Again, these are narrow foot trails and my usual tendency is to get close to the ground and try to slide down. But John asked us to stay upright and keep “our nose to our toes”. This I found harder to do than climbing. But once I realised he was right, I started taking short, sure steps like him, and was better able to manage the walk downhill.
One of my goals on this trip was to not slow down the group. And I am proud to say, I accomplished that. Everyone was new to climbing, so we all took our time and did what was asked of us. We watched for roots that stuck out, paid close attention to being safely attached and generally followed directions. Our group managed to have a safe and fun-filled trip.
Climbing the Via Ferrata doesn’t need experience, but does need patience, paying attention to safety rules, a sense of adventure and perhaps, some regular physical activity. Just as with the ziplining adventure in Dallas, this is not something we could have managed as well if we didn’t have a regular workout schedule. My leg muscles were quivering on the way down but the sense of excitement and fun overruled my body’s concerns. Although we had gloves for use on the descent, only a couple of us used them. They help protect the palms as the hold on the steel cable increases on the way down.
Once down at our base, we thanked and parted ways with our guide and the siblings. We then went in to the Cliffhouse Bistro (which is right next door) for some much-needed nourishment. Two and half hours of mountain climbing had left us famished.
We ordered the Black bean lime gorditas. They were really fresh and lipsmacking tasty! The views from the Bistro were incredible and we enjoyed a quiet lunch. This is a great place to grab a bite, so long as you are not in a hurry. The service was great, just not as quick as we are used to. But we took our own sweet time!
As we left the Bistro, we saw a few mountain goats grazing on the mountainside. After watching them, we took the chairlift down to the visitor center, where we returned the rucksacks and began our journey to Lake Minnewanka. We had a one hour cruise booked through the Ultimate Explorers package.
Lake Minnewanka is supposed to be an awesome place for wildlife spotting but at that time of the afternoon, we knew our chances were slim. En route, we caught a quick glimpse of the back of a bear as it lumbered away into the forest from the meadow.
The Lake Minnewanka cruise was a pleasant distraction. The Lake is very beautiful although it was a bit grey and raining during the first half of the cruise. The guide talked to us about the wildlife in the area, how to spot them, how to stay safe from them and keep them safe as well.
After the good lunch, it was a bit hard for me to stay awake for the second half of the tour as I kept nodding off, although the others did just fine. While the tour was a touristy, bucket-list check off, it didn’t really appeal to me. Perhaps because we were seated inside the boats, even though they had wide windows. Or, perhaps, we have cruised large and deep fjords and lakes and the mind automatically tends to compare and contrast. Its one of the perils of traveling, this reflex thought process. On an open boat, at a different time of the day, perhaps my feelings about this cruise may have been different.
Back at the hotel, we slept for a while before taking the hotel shuttle to the Banff Gondola entrance. The Upper Banff hot springs are also located near here. The Banff Gondola offers free rides from two different locations, one being the Fairmont, but we were told the last ride was at 5 pm. Our ticket to the top was at 6:30 pm.
The Banff Gondola ascends over 2200 feet on an eight minute ride to the Summit of Sulphur Mountain. The views from the top are stunning. There is a boardwalk trail to the observatory at Sanson’s Peak and several scenic hiking trails around as well. We eschewed the trails in favor of perusing the Above Banff interpretative center. It has many displays of life and weather in the Rockies, and is very kid friendly. We also watched the short movie in the theater before heading out to the rooftop observation deck. The Sunset festival was on and there was a local singer performing,
There are three dining options on the Summit: Sky Bistro which is more of a fine dining, Northern Lights which is a family style buffet offering vegetarian options, amongst others and Castle Mountain Coffee company for a quick grab-and-go style meal.
We chose to dine at Northern Lights and had soups, pastas, curry with rice, pizza, potatoes and veggies, a whole range of dessert and beverages. It was less formal than the Sky Bistro and had amazing views of the valley below and the mountains around us. The walls carry posters that highlight the various measures taken to ensure fuel efficiency, resources protection and sustainability. Once at the base of Sulphur Mountain, we asked the front desk to call in a taxi for us to get back to the hotel.
We had conquered mountains, seen a couple of wildlife, cruised a beautiful lake, ridden to the Summit and enjoyed a quiet meal, surrounded by amazing vistas. A fitting end to a superlative day!