Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
TAOS SKI VALLEY – A 100-foot-long metal bridge about six inches wide dangles 50 feet above the ski run called Nastar 12,200 feet up on Kachina Peak.
Anchored deep into the stone at both ends, the bridge barely sways in the slight breeze that rustles the nearby pines.
Named the Sangre de Cristo Sky Bridge, it is reached by scaling a series of iron anchors and cables that enables guided visitors to inch safely up the mountain’s granite face.
The span is the centerpiece of the easier of two tours in the just-opened Via Ferrata, a three-hour rock-climbing excursion. It is the newest addition to Ski Valley as operators continue to add entertainment options in an ongoing move to become a year-round destination, said John Kelly, Taos Ski Valley operations director.
The second, or intermediate level, route includes a 250-foot climb, as well as a harrowing toe tap across the Double Cable Catwalk, a 30-foot-long, single-cable-width bridge to sidle across, with a single cable to clip into with the carabiners, sitting about 15 feet above the terrain. The truly fit can combine the two routes into a full day on the rock.
Translated from Italian, Via Ferrata means iron road and dates back to World War I when warring armies struggled to get troops unfamiliar with climbing techniques through the treacherous mountain passes in the Dolomites.
Via Ferratas have become quite popular in Europe, Kelly said, because they give people a taste of rock climbing minus much of the inherent danger the sport usually entails.
Telluride was one of the first areas in North America with such a course, but it is more informal.
But Kelly, who worked in that area before coming to the Ski Valley five years ago, kept it in the back of his mind as a possibility for Taos.
“It really stuck with me,” he said. “I hadn’t been a climber, but that was a very unique climbing experience. We wanted to do more summer recreational opportunities, but we didn’t want to do an alpine slide or a zipline. We wanted something that people could be more engaged in and advance in. A Via Ferrata seemed like a natural fit.”
The process started several years ago when Taos Ski Valley officials needed to get U.S. Forest Service approval and made it through several public comment meetings during which people were more curious than concerned.
Kelly also met with Adventure Partners owner Michael Friedman, who built a Via Ferrata at Jackson Hole.
“You’ve got something here,” Kelly recalled Friedman saying after they scouted the area.
Work started last fall, then finished up this summer, with hopes that an additional route can be added next spring, Kelly said.
The routes use about 1,000 feet of cable strung through 417 rungs, with the highest single climb going up about 250 feet in one pitch, said lead climbing guide Matt Rogers.
The cables and rungs were tested by withstanding from one ton to 3,500 pounds of vertical pressure for five minutes, he said. Most of the rungs were set into pre-Cambrian granite that is 1.7 billion years old.
Each climber is nestled into a Petzl harness with an energy absorption system designed to arrest a fall should a climber lose purchase.
“If you fall, it slowly extends out to break your fall,” Rogers said. “If it stopped you abruptly, even if it was a short fall, you could still get hurt.”
Before anybody starts climbing, Rogers or another guide explains how to use the double lanyard climbing carabiners that can be opened with one hand.
“You always have to have at least one of these hooked into the cable,” he said. “Because if you have them both unhooked at the same time and you fall, it doesn’t do much good. And you have to have three points of contact with the rock. Either two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand. So that kind of prevents you from taking two carabiners off at the same time.”
He explained some rudimentary climbing techniques, such as smearing, which means keeping a large amount of the sole of the shoe against the rock; and climbing using the legs and not the arms.
“Females tend to do this better, mostly because they’re not trying to he-man it up,” Rogers said. “We want to teach how to experience and engage the rock.”
And that means that, at times, the next move will not be an obvious one with a rung involved. It could mean finding a suitable hand-hold on the rock, or sliding a foot into a crevice or narrow shelf.
“It’s still about the adventure and finding your way,” he explained.
Since climbers are spread out along the lines and wearing masks, the activity is a perfect one in this COVID-era, Kelly said, especially since guides go up with groups of no more than five other climbers.
“You’re spread out and distanced,” he said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is give families a climbing experience that they can’t get anywhere else and to create a memorable experience.”