Climb: The Via Ferrata at Nelson Rocks, West Virginia was the activity my brothers and I selected to supplement our hiking during our siblings trip. I think I found it on a Google search (then 2 days later randomly saw it on Outside.com) but it looked like the just the kind of activity the 3 of us would all enjoy–part thrill-seeking, part gorgeous scenery, part climbing (a new activity for my brothers).
From the Nelson Rocks (Nrocks) website:
Italian for ‘by way of iron’, the Via Ferrata is a permanently installed system of steel rungs and cables that allows you to climb up and over two towering rock fins. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth the effort. Participants MUST be 13 or older and weigh between 88 and 265 pounds.
Most of the Via Ferratas around the world are in Europe, so this is a rare occurrence, to have one so close to us here in the US!
Further details… this is what really sold me (bold font added by me):
The Via Ferrata at NROCKS is a one of a kind adventure experience, offering a mile of fixed-anchor, professionally-guided rock climbing. During this 3.5-5 hour climb you’ll gain 1085 feet in elevation, cross a suspension bridge that is 150 feet high and 200 feet long, and reach exposed heights of 280 feet. All you need for this day on the rocks is some physical ability, an appreciation of the outdoors, and of course a desire to have a great day outside! The double-fin rocks provide the unique combination of physical challenge and overwhelming beauty!
Goal: As always, complete this climb safely, and have fun doing it!
Gear: After a very chilly night camping at Spruce Knob, I knew I would warm up quickly–yet I still wore my jacket to start off. I wore my Smartwool running pants and base layers (and socks), plus my Altra Lone Peak shoes, and the recommended fingerless cycling gloves. I somehow still had these gloves, despite not riding my bike since this triathlon in 2017, and must say they really helped, by protecting my palms but allowing the grip with exposed fingertips. I chose not to bring sunglasses (didn’t want to lose/break them). In hindsight, I should not have worn wool pants but everything else worked out well.
I also took my Osprey daypack, as they recommended, with 1.5 liters of water, and a few snacks. I thought 1.5 liters was overkill, and almost didn’t bring that much, but the Nrocks staff insisted–good thing I listened, I drank nearly all of it! I used my Peak Designs camera clip to attach my Canon to the daypack. The ONE piece of equipment I forgot for this trip–because every trip must have at least one 🙂 –was my wide angle lens. I brought a lens bag that I assumed contained said lens, but it was actually my zoom lens (which hadn’t been used since the days of the buffalo and big horn sheep).
Weather: My Garmin says it was 48°–however, when we finished, I believe it was closer to 70º! Which felt great, except when the sun was beating down on us, and we exerted ourselves… I became a sweaty mess (we all did). Definitely dress in layers for this activity. My zip-off pants would’ve been a better option than black wool pants.
Pre-Climb: We emerged from our tents, in the thick spruce forests of Spruce Knob, around 6 AM that day. Matt built a fire quickly, we packed up the tents and gear, and I boiled water for our breakfasts (freeze-dried Mountain House “Breakfast Scramble”) and coffees.
We didn’t need to rush, since the Via Ferrata climb was scheduled for 9, but they recommend arriving 20 min early. We left Spruce Knob around 8, and got to NRocks well before 8:40. We had time to enjoy their free Wi-fi, after having little to no signal up on Spruce Knob.
We met the 4 other climbers in our group (a couple celebrating her birthday; a father-daughter duo–the father was nearly 70 years old!), and our guide, Chandler, showed us how to get our helmets and harnesses adjusted to fit properly. Since my recent reincarnation of rock-climbing curiousity–as in, I’ve been climbing several times in the past 2 months in an indoor gym–I got mine on quickly, then helped Matt & Joel get their harnesses tightened.
We headed up to an old rickety bus…
… And got a ride to the hiking trail, where we walked up some rock steps and to the base of the mountain/rock face.
The Via Ferrata:
Chandler patiently explained how to use the harness’ safety system:
- The primary means of safely traveling on the Via Ferrata’s steel cables is by clipping in both carabiners, which are attached to lanyards (a Y lanyard) that attach to your harness.
- When moving to a new set of cable, you simply unclip one carabiner (with one hand–there’s a squeeze mechanism that makes this easy) and clip into the next cable
- Repeat that step with the second carabiner–using the same hand as you did with the first, so you don’t have a situation where you’ve unclipped both (one in each hand) and take an unfortunate tumble.
- Continue on up/over the cable, keeping the lanyards on/near your hand/arms so they don’t get tangled in your legs or in trees.
- If you need to rest, simply lean back–with both carabiners clipped in of course, OR use the safety carabiner (a larger one, in the center of the lanyards) to clip into the cable, or into one of the many steel steps.
- Basically, you should have at least one carabiner clipped into the steel cable at all times. The second carabiner is an additional safety feature, so that you’re always attached to the mountain with at least one.
- If you need to give your grip a break, use your arm in the upward direction (upper cut) on a step, so if you happen to fall down, your arm won’t get stuck (snapped?!) in the step.
- Leave at least 3 cables in between you and the next climber, so you don’t accidentally fall, and then fall into someone, and have a domino effect all the way down.
This all made sense to us.
After our safety lesson, we were ready to go!
Matt led us off, followed by Joel:
Chandler watched from above, then had us go around him, and stop at a certain point to wait for the group.
Everyone got the hang of it very quickly, without any issues. We warmed up after just a few minutes, and needed to shed our outer layers.
We climbed up the first of the fins–huge pieces of rock jutting out of the earth, like the fin on a shark. Actual name: quartzite outcrops. They are easily spotted from above on Google Earth:
At the top, a little notch in the fin provided just enough space to squeeze through, and emerge on the other side:
This is the point I realized that a GoPro would’ve been able to capture the enormous distance between us and solid ground far below, way better than my camera did (especially without the wide angle lens–I was stuck with 24mm as the best I could get).
This couple did an excellent Youtube video of their Via Ferrata experience (to see the “notch” I’m talking about, go to the 2:50 mark of their video).
Also, this spot is where I had my only “close call” of the day–not of any huge importance, but my Whoop band came undone and I almost dropped it (which means I would’ve never found it, hundreds of feet below). Thankfully I saw it dangling from my wrist and I got it secured. Whew! Full disclosure: Our guide had warned us about losing phones, watches, jewelry, etc. But being stubborn, I didn’t listen, and wore my Garmin watch and Whoop band.
We went from shade to sunshine, further intensifying my sweat rate. I paused a minute here, to inhale deeply while admiring the amazing view of the Allegheny Mountains–this was a blast, and I wasn’t nervous at all about being up so high. The Y lanyards/carabiners made me confident in my movement up, down, and across the rocky fins.
Our next portion of the adventure was crossing the above-mentioned 200 foot suspension bridge, hovering precariously 150 feet above the ground. Thank God for that steel cable!
I convinced my brothers to let me go first on this section–not because I was feeling especially brave, nor to have bragging rights that I went first–I just wanted to get pictures of them as they came across. They agreed!
All of the Army training I did that years ago involving heights (and there was unfortunately a lot of it!) prepared me for this moment… and I still felt a tad nervous, yet mostly confident, that I could cross the bridge without incident. I went slow and steady, and I could tell when Joel started behind me because the bridge got a tad more wobbly, and when Matt started, even more wobbly. So I just tried to go nice and smoothly, so I wouldn’t add to the wobble. I didn’t dare look past my shoes, or even out at the horizon. I just focused on getting to the next wooden step. The steps were spaced just a little too far apart for comfort 😛
We had a bit more climbing to do before the “bonus” section.
The last vertical section was optional, but everyone chose to do it. It was the longest section, so I took a quick break halfway up to let my arms and hands rest.
I didn’t find it too difficult, but still relieved to reach the top (and also relieved to find we could still be connected to the steel cables at the top).
My quick iPhone video from the top:
We went in reverse on the way down, so Matt led the way, then me, and Joel.
The only difference going down was to clip to the next cable when the carabiners were about eye level, and to let them drop down below on the cable (vs keeping the carabiners on your hand/arm).
Going down was a bit like descending a ladder… yet I still felt thankful when I was back on flat ground 🙂
With a bit more climbing, we finished! Since we were the first group, we sat down at the end to wait for the others.
We hiked a short bit upwards, to a lookout spot, which marked the end of our roughly 3 hour climb:
Lastly, we took the bumpiest (and most stifling–no AC and no windows down) bus ride back to the main building, then headed for lunch!
Recommend: 100% YES. This was such a fun experience–all 3 of us loved it. For me, it was an incredible experience to climb with my brothers in a safe and very non-technical way. The views were magnificent, it was just the right amount of challenge, and I never felt bored (or the opposite end of the spectrum, scared or stressed). We had a gorgeous day, but I’d love to return in springtime or fall, to see the leaves changing–or both 🙂
Maps: Not sure if my Garmin adequately captured this, but here’s the map anyway. I stopped my watch before the last little hike up to the overlook.
Up Next: Backbone Mountain (aka Hoye Crest), Maryland!