In winter, skiing and snowboarding reign supreme. In summer, it’s mountain biking, hiking and swimming in alpine lakes. But there is a new activity captivating visitors at Mammoth Mountain: the Via Ferrata. It’s located at more than 11,000 feet above sea level in the Eastern Sierra Mountains of California.
Launched this past August, this unique rock climbing experience is based on some pretty interesting European history. These climbing paths were first created during the initial World War in Italy, aiding troops in crossing dangerous mountain routes. The gist of it is steel cables are placed alongside metal rungs in the rocks that assist climbers in traversing steep terrain. The Mammoth version, one of the first in the U.S. (along with places like Colorado and Wyoming), is recreational instead. It’s fun, offers a great workout and has outstanding landscape views.
Getting Up on the Mountaintop
The experience begins at the Adventure Center across from Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge. Try on some perfectly-gripped shoes and stash your gear in a backpack then head up the mountain.
After a few quick rules, you’ll climb aboard Mammoth’s gondolas. The aerial lift system is used to whisk guests up the mountain—to the Via Ferrata and much more. On the quick ride up, you’ll have some pretty views of the mountain and will be able to get to know your guide. While most tours will have numerous adventurers along for the ride, I was lucky enough to try it out on my own with my instructor, Mitch.
After hopping off the gondola, we put our gear on and went over the safety instructions and general rules of the Via Ferrata. Then, we stepped out into the fall wind and walked over to the test site, where I was able to traverse a small course to try everything out. Then, once we had finished the trial run, we headed along a dirt path to the starting point of the Via Ferrata.
Climbing the Via Ferrata With a View
There are five different routes visitors can take, each with a different difficulty level. It ranges from Face Time, the beginner’s route, to Nose, the most difficult path that is modeled after a climbing route at nearby Yosemite’s El Capitan.
Before beginning the climb, there is a quick descent route to get to where the Via Ferrata routes start. Head down the hill, over rocks and along the path, double clipping your carabiners to the cables that run along the iron rungs. Once at the bottom, it’s ready to head back up—and between the activity and the elevation, you’re sure to get your blood pumping.
Standing on the iron rungs, pull yourself upward to move along the face of the cliffs. As you go, move the carabiners as well. With two to move each time, you’re safely attached to the rocks, protected in case of any accidental falls. This modified version of rock climbing ensures a safe way to try the sport without having to worry as much about injuries. While you might expect the Via Ferrata to give you a great arm workout (and it does), what it really works is your legs. Use the rungs as handles to pull yourself upward, but don’t underestimate the power of your legs as your climb.
In addition to the routes, there are a few other perks to enjoy along the way. One is the impressive view. If you’re lucky, your guide will point out the names of the mountain peaks and lakes that can be seen in many different directions. We got lucky with a clear blue sky on a September morning, meaning we could see all the way to Mono Lake, the region’s only saltwater space.
Another benefit of the Via Ferrata is the chance to cross a suspension bridge. Climb up one of the toughest routes or head down from the cliffs above to wander across the metal bridge. The walkway is only the width of one foot so it’s a thrilling experience that you’re not likely to forget.
The Experience of a Lifetime
While this climbing experience may not sound like much, completing it is actually pretty outstanding. I’d only done indoor rock climbing before I tried it, nervous to take it outdoors and on the rocks. But the strong cables and carabiner system assured me that I’d be alright if I kept my wits about me and focused on the task at hand.
As my first outdoor adventure, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. A wonderful workout, the Via Ferrata helped me overcome a bit of my fear of outdoor rock climbing. Because of the rungs, it’s perfect for those of any age level, though Mammoth’s rendition requires visitors to be 10 years or older. It’s a great way for groups to get on the mountain in later summer or early fall. Enjoy it during the warm sunshine before the cold chill of winter when snow sports take over.
Since opening earlier this summer, even guests over the age of 80 have enjoyed the attraction. The bonding experience is unlike no other, offering views of the sea of trees below and lakes in the distance. It’s also a great form of exercise and a way to enjoy something you’ve almost surely never tried before.
Mammoth Mountain is also in the process of opening the Mega Zip. The impressive zip line drops 2,100 feet in elevation as participants travel across only two lines.