A BRAND-NEW VIA FERRATA IN OURAY TAKES NEOPHYTE CLIMBERS ON A CLOSE-UP JOURNEY THROUGH SOUTHERN COLORADO’S MINING PAST.
The five-cable suspension bridge is the Gold Mountain Via Ferrata’s main event. PHOTO BY TRAVIS PERKINS
I WALK HEEL TO TOE ACROSS THE BRIDGE as if it were a balance beam. But it’s not as easy as that. The bridge is a round ¾-inch cable stretching 55 feet between two cliffs. There are two more cables on either side that make for a thin handrail. Our guide points out that halfway across the bridge there’s a view of an old mining portal. But I never see it, because I’m staring at my feet—while trying not to look down. The valley floor appears to be a thousand feet away. “Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?” my husband, Jeff , says to me once we cross the bridge. “Ditto,” I say.
We’ve taken our three kids to test out the Gold Mountain Via Ferrata, a brand-new route in Ouray that rises 1,400 feet in elevation past—and literally through—old mining structures, up a series of rock walls and across two heart-in-your-throat cable bridges.
The Gold Mountain Via Ferrata has some 950 rungs and 3,000 feet of cable. PHOTO BY TRAVIS PERKINS
“IT DEFINITELY REQUIRES A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF TENACITY.”–LOGAN TYLER, BASECAMP OURAY FOUNDER
Via ferrata is Italian for “iron way,” meaning the route is charted out with a path of iron rungs, essentially U-shaped rebar, and cables permanently affixed to the rock. Via ferratas were developed during World War I to move troops and supplies in the rugged alpine terrain of the Dolomites. In recent years, they’ve been springing up on rock faces across North America (you’ll find them in Telluride, Arapahoe Basin, Estes Park, Buena Vista and Royal Gorge). Logan Tyler, founder of Basecamp Ouray (basecampouray.com) and our guide for the day, built the Gold Mountain Via Ferrata in spring 2021, with the aid of a local crew. Tyler had helped construct the Ouray Via Ferrata, which runs along the rock walls above the Uncompahgre River in the Ouray Ice Park. The new route, set on 1,200 acres of private property called Gold Mountain Ranch, is a more exclusive affair. While you can tackle Ouray’s public via ferrata on your own, the Gold Mountain Via Ferrata is guided only. “We’ll do no more than 30 clients a day, max,” Tyler says. “On a busy weekend, the Ouray Via Ferrata could see upwards of 200 people.”
In the documentary Free Solo, professional rock climber Alex Honnold climbs Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes. This is totally not like that. You wear a climbing helmet and a harness with two lanyards that are purpose-built for via ferrata climbing. You clip the lanyards’ carabiners to a steel cable that runs along the metal rungs. When you get to the end of one cable section, you “bump” the carabiners—one at a time—over the anchor and onto the next section. As long as one lanyard is clipped to the cable, you’re never in danger of a big fall.
The very first pitch on the Gold Mountain Via Ferrata is one of the most technical. I get a crick in my neck watching the kids scurry up the rock, each channeling their inner Spiderman. This, I think to myself, is where they separate the wheat from the chaff. At first, I thought it would be as simple as climbing a step ladder, but there are points on the via ferrata where you need to find your next handhold and foothold in the granite.
“THERE’S SO MUCH HISTORY RIGHT HERE.”–LOGAN TYLER, BASECAMP OURAY FOUNDER
Midway up, we come across the old Memphis Mine ore house. Gold Mountain Ranch, set on some 120 mining claims dating back to the 1880s, is home to a geological feature called The Blowout. When it formed 65 million years ago, it created part of the Gold Belt’s lucrative mineralization. The via ferrata follows the same gold vein the miners were chasing.
The first cable bridge begins at the end of an old mine tunnel. PHOTO BY TRAVIS PERKINS
At the Memphis mine, there’s a decision to be made. We can take the Hardman’s Pitch or an alternate easier path. The hard way starts with a vertical pitch and a 15-foot section with a slight overhang that’s the equivalent of 5.9, in rock climbing parlance. “It’s definitely a pretty high pump factor,” Tyler says. The kids follow him up the double-black-diamond Hardman’s, while Jeff and I walk along the easy path and get in position to take photos. When Tyler and the kids come into view, they’re traversing a rock that looks like a giant fist. They move their feet across a path of iron rungs, finding handholds in the rock knuckles some 800 feet from the valley floor. “It definitely requires a certain amount of tenacity,” Tyler says.
Next, we walk through a mining tunnel, following the railway for the ore carts until the tracks—and the ground—disappear. That’s when we cross the vertigo-inducing three-cable bridge. To demonstrate safety, Tyler has done “controlled weight displacements,” which means he has fallen off the bridge on purpose. The lanyard-harness setup is designed to break a fall.
Metal rungs and a top-to-bottom cable mean weekend warriors can climb vertical slabs of rock without years of rock-climbing experience. PHOTO BY TRAVIS PERKINS
The route then crosses through a century-old blacksmith shop, the building’s weathered wooden slats surprisingly intact. “This is where the miners prepared and maintained their equipment,” Tyler says, pointing out ancient drill bits, metal rods and even an old miner’s boot lying in the dirt. “There’s so much history right here.”
“IN THE BEGINNING, THE IDEA WAS SO BIG, SO WILD, IT SEEMED UNREALISTIC.”–XANDER BIANCHI, FOUNDER OF GRAVITY LINE
After another series of steep pitches, we arrive at the via ferrata’s main event—a five-cable, 273-foot suspension bridge. “Tell me again what’s holding this bridge into the rock,” I say. Tyler promises the anchors are embedded between 38 and 40 inches. He drilled the rock and seated the anchors himself. “Every component is engineered far beyond the forces humans are capable of generating,” he says. Tyler, along with a crew of six, spent three months building the via ferrata. They had initially budgeted for a helicopter but decided to carry everything up by rope, essentially rock climbing and rappelling the route multiple times a day with packs loaded with 50 to 80 pounds of generators, rigging equipment, iron rods and heavy drills. “We’d also have mountain goats knocking rocks down on us,” Tyler says. “We embraced the suffering vibe of the 1800s miners.”
“When you’re up there on the edge, feeling the massive exposure, you really get a sense of how bold and adventurous the miners were,” says Xander Bianchi, whose company, Gravity Line, provided expertise in technical rigging for the project. “In the beginning, the idea was so big, so wild, it seemed unrealistic. But Logan is one of the most inspired people I’ve ever worked with.” At the end of each day, the crew would stand at the bottom and look up at the evolving route. “We knew that what we were doing was breathing life into a dream,” Bianchi says.
For the route’s piece de resistance, we clip into the bridge’s overhead cable so we never have to bump our carabiners from cable to cable midbridge. This is a plus; I’ve got a whitek-nuckle grip on the cables. The base of this bridge is constructed with a grip strut, which is effectively like a steel two-by-four. It feels more stable than the first bridge, but it’s a lot longer. Longer, in fact, than the wingspan of a 747. Stepping foot on solid rock on the other side, Jeff and I feel a mix of exhilaration, euphoria and relief. But mostly euphoria. The kids cross next, one at a time. “That was totally sick,” my son says. “So cool,” my daughter adds as she exits the bridge. I’ll tell you this, impressing teenagers with outdoor adventure is like striking gold. It’s a eureka moment.
The Wilmont’s high perch lends privacy. PHOTO COURTESY OF GOLD MOUNTAIN RANCH
Horses take in the view of Ouray from The Wilmont. PHOTO COURTESY OF GOLD MOUNTAIN RANCH
THE WILMONT (goldmountainranch.com) is a private ranch house perched at 9,308 feet on Gold Mountain Ranch, high above the town of Ouray. Playing off the owners’ last names (Rick Wilson and Sandra Montgomery Wilson), The Wilmont is the property’s crowning jewel. This luxury enclave is available for short-term rentals with room for 12 to 20, depending on how cozy you want to get. Guests can choose to do a guided via ferrata tour or a horseback ride on historic mining trails combined with four-wheeling (to and from the on-site stables). Or just sit on the balcony and watch the alpenglow settle on the San Juans. –HO
Interiors have a Western vibe. PHOTO COURTESY OF GOLD MOUNTAIN RANCH