Alaska’s First Via Ferrata Opens at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge

Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Lodge goes the extra mile with the addition of the state’s only via ferrata climbing route, and we were there to experience it last week. ~EK 

A relentless sun warmed the back of my neck as I worked carabiners along a stiff steel cable anchored into a stories-high slab of rock. Looking anywhere but straight down, I fixed my gaze upon the road ahead, in this case, seemingly miles of ladder and the aforementioned cables. The end was nowhere in sight. 

Climbers of the Tordrillo via ferrata are secured at all times by a dual-lanyard system. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

I was partway up Alaska’s only via ferrata, a 1,200-foot “iron path” snaking up a section of one of many rock faces in the Tordrillo Mountains about an hour northwest of Anchorage. A style of climbing that dates back to the 19th century Italy but made famous during efforts of Italian soldiers in World War I to hide themselves from enemy troops, via ferrata has long been popular in Europe and Canada. The United States caught on after resorts realized they could introduce novice climbers to the sport of climbing in a safe, approachable manner – along with exposing said visitors to some pretty stellar landscapes. Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming have established routes consisting of rungs, ladders, suspension bridges and pegs. Now, it’s Alaska’s turn. 

Mike Overcast, owner of Tordrillo and an enthusiastic supporter of giving people as much adventure as possible, is thrilled with the way the via ferrata turned out, and what it means for visitors (heck, and residents, too). 

“To me, this is the Alaska people have in their minds,” he said, speaking about the Tordrillo mountains, the glaciers, and all the activities available, via ferrata included. “If we remove people from the road system, turn them on to the natural features, this will change their way of thinking.” 

Tordrillo’s via ferrata consists of cable stretched in a carefully-executed route covering 900 vertical feet. It features natural footholds combined with rungs and pegs designed to assist — but not enable — climbers toward the top. In addition, the route also requires participants to cross two suspension, “burma bridges,” Overcast calls them, spanning jaw-clenching gorges connecting one side to the other. 

Early via ferrata users had no safety equipment, relying on skill and, probably, a good deal of good fortune to scale a mountain’s face. Today’s climbers, thankfully, are set up for safety success. Tordrillo’s process is wholly confidence-building: secure climbing harnesses, helmets, approach shoes, and a double-lanyard system that allows for no one, at any time, to be unclipped from the cables. 

Mike Overcast, owner of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, instructs new via ferrata participants in the clipping and unclipping procedure during a recent climb. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

A “test” line of cable affords a chance to practice clipping and unclipping from the cable, a process that is intellectually simple, but emotionally challenging for some climbers. Then, it’s go time. 

Reach, clip, step, clip, grip, breathe. Overcast led us up and over with the confidence of a seasoned pro, checking in and offering options when perplexing features presented we novices with more than one way to proceed. My teenage son, 14, found it easy, reaching up with long fingers to secure his carabiners and sliding with all kinds of confidence from one section to the next. Occasionally he’d glance back, checking in with a raised eyebrow, making sure I was still there and not dangling from the end of my safety line. 

During a midway break, I asked Overcast how old was old enough to participate in the via ferrata. Like many Alaska activities, he replied, it depends largely upon the kid. Following directions, enjoying rigorous activity, heights — all that factors in to the decision. But for via ferrata, young climbers must also be able to reach rungs and footholds, so Overcast and his guides take care to vet each potential child participant. That said, Overcast has an eight-year-old daughter, and he told me emphatically he’d “bring her out without hesitation.” 

An hour later, we’d done it. Sweaty, tired, but triumphant at our accomplishment. My knees were scraped, my fingers blistered, but I’ll be darned if I’d let that detract from the fact I had climbed a freaking 900-foot slice of Alaska geology. 

Querying my son, who at the moment was sucking from a water bottle and gazing upon the peaks level to our perch, I asked if he’d do this again. 

“Oh yeah. Tomorrow, even.” 

For more information about Tordrillo Mountain Lodge and the via ferrata, visit the property’s website HERE

Via ferrata: If you go

  • Know that once you start climbing, there is no other way but up. Rehearse with kids the concept of via ferrata. 
  • I wished I had held on to the cable less and the rungs, more. The constant rubbing of cable to fingers left me with an enormous blister on one hand. 
  • Wear clothing to allow for flexibility; capris, pants, or tights are a good bet. Add a top layer to guard against a mountain breeze. Apply sunscreen, even on a cloudy day. 
  • Bring a light pack with water and that extra layer, and don’t forget your camera, although Tordrillo staff will also be glad to carry a few small things and take photos. 

 

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