It's easy to forget that you're protected all the time – harnessed, double-tethered, securely clipped in. Your head knows that you cannot fall, but your shaky knees have their doubts, as you carefully make your way across a swaying steel cable above a raging glacial river whose spray is close enough to spritz your feet.
The 40-foot traverse is just one part of a daylong hike up Conrad Creek toward Conrad Glacier in British Columbia's Purcell Range and one of only a few via ferratas in North America. Italian for "iron road," the via ferrata has its origins in World War I, when the Italian army drilled rungs into big granite walls of the Dolomite range and strung rickety bridges across chasms to move soldiers and arms through the mountains. Today, dozens of newer via ferratas lace the Dolomites and Alps, where they provide a facsimile of big-wall climbing for recreational hikers, with most of the exposure but little of the risk. Canadian Mountain Holidays, a tour company that offers summer heli-adventures from its base in Banff, brought the idea to Canada. It now operates two via ferratas – one to the glacier, the other to the 9,000-foot summit of Mount Nimbus – moving adventurers through spectacular terrain otherwise impassible by all but the most experienced climbers.
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Conrad Glacier is the longest glacier in the Purcell Range, sweeping six miles down from the Conrad Icefield before its melt feeds the "creek" (it looks more like a fairly serious river) that rushes down the canyon. The journey begins with a 10-minute helicopter ride from CMH's lodge and a short approach hike. From there, you begin making your way up a canyon, crossing the raging Conrad Creek more than a half-dozen times. The first crossing is via a 50-foot zip line. Easy enough. But then comes a series of cable crossings, or Burma bridges. Your torso is clipped to one cable and your hands can grasp two more, but your feet still have to do a tightrope act just above the frigid froth. A slip would merely be embarrassing, but the conquering-hero rush of making it across is palpable nonetheless. Another crossing, this one over narrow wooden planks, takes you behind a roaring 70-foot waterfall, while another utilizes a 12-foot aluminum ladder, conjuring images of Everest's Khumbu Icefall.
Then the climbing begins.
Reaching the mouth of Conrad Glacier requires navigating a series of lateral and vertical pitches on rock walls that frame the sides of the canyon. Some pitches use natural ledges, but plenty require ascents using iron rungs as handholds, yielding that sense of "Damn, I'm climbing a big wall" that makes a via ferrata such a rush. About two-thirds of the way up, the group pauses for lunch beside a glacial tarn. You're dared to dive in, and a few polar-bear types do. Others eye the final sheer pitches and opt to save energy. A "flight of shame" back to the lodge is offered at this point. No one bites.
The final pitches transcend almost anything in the hiking kingdom. You're a stone's throw from the now towering maw of the glacier – its deep, dirty crevasses fully revealed, its icy wind sweeping down and turning sweat to chill. Meanwhile, you have what looks like a wall of the Grand Canyon to get up. The last two pitches are 200 vertical feet each, and the first is rungless. You're rock climbing, and it is exhilarating. Finally, after an hour or so of hand-over-foot ascending, you top out on a plateau and look down on the glacier and a view of endless Purcell Range spires. It doesn't matter whether you're a mountaineer or just someone able to grab rungs and keep your heart in your chest. All the appropriate sensations thrum and hero shots get taken. Soon, the sound of an approaching helicopter echoes off the canyon walls.
More Information: Fly to Calgary and drive 80 miles to Banff. CMH will shuttle you to a helipad for the 15-minute flight to Bobbie Burns Lodge in the heart of the Purcell Range. A three-day package offering any combination of the Mount Nimbus Via Ferrata, the Conrad Glacier Adventure Hike, and heli-hiking in the Purcell Range costs $2,780, meals and lodging included. June 29–September 13.