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A-Basin’s new via ferrata course offers unique experience

July 4, 2021 GMT

DILLON, Colo. (AP) — Steve and Anna Clendenen of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, had scaled five via ferrata courses before taking on Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s new East Wall climb recently.

The Clendenens were in for the highest-elevation via ferrata — Italian for “iron path” — on the continent. For the couple, it was a getaway to the mountains while visiting their son in Denver.

“And our daughter, who lives in Oregon, sent us this clip and said, ‘Hey, there will be a new via ferrata at A-Basin,’” Steve said. “And since we like doing them, we took a trip to come up and do this today.”

The Clendenens and the rest of the climbing group — led by A-Basin via ferrata guides Dawson Viles and Benjamin Zagrzebski — reached the top of the Lenawee chairlift via a ride on the Black Mountain Express lift to midmountain followed by an all-terrain vehicle ride to above 12,000 feet. Viles and Zagrzebski then took the group on a half-mile hike, following cairn rock piles through talus and boulder fields to the base of the via ferrata route.

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The hike provided an eye-opening experience of just how rocky, gnarly and wild the East Wall terrain — such as North Pole and First Notch — is beneath the snow. Climbers would be scaling iron rungs and footholds affixed to East Wall rock to looker’s left of First Notch, but first Zagrzebski and Viles trained the group on an automobile-sized boulder dubbed Schoolhouse Rock.

While at Schoolhouse Rock, the climbers could see the full-day group scaling the rungs hundreds of feet above them. Viles detailed the equipment and safety specifics of scaling the iron way. The primary focus was to make sure climbers detached and reattached their sturdy carabiner-like clips, or “gates,” one at a time when transitioning from one cable to the next. The other instruction from Viles and Zagrzebski was to have only one climber attached to one stretch of cable at a time while ascending and descending the cables and iron rungs of the via ferrata.

After a short walk from Schoolhouse Rock, the group trudged through small, lingering snow patches to the start of the 900-foot, half-day climb. It’s there they clipped their gates into the first portion of cable and began ascending one rung at a time.

Viles and Zagrzebski, who also work for A-Basin during the winter, are guiding for the ski area after taking part in guide training in recent weeks and months. Viles and Zagrzebski said the via ferrata is a step up in difficulty and challenge from the ski area’s aerial adventure park, which opened last summer. The via ferrata and the aerial adventure park are core parts of the ski area’s expansion into summertime offerings, which also feature new hiking and mountain biking trails and a disc golf course.

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“I don’t think it’s that challenging, but some people do find it more challenging,” Zagrzebski said. “It’s rewarding when you get to the top, and it’s a little taxing in some areas. If you do the full day, there are a few moves that you have to kind of think about before you get around that are really rewarding when you finally get around and get to the top and see that view.”

Though the group did the half-day trip — which ascended to the location of old mining ruins and relics — the climb on the East Wall is not for anyone afraid of heights. The fixed-climbing nature of the via ferrata provided the safest manner to undertake a truly extreme exercise — climbing directly up the iconic East Wall — but the trip is physically and psychologically challenging.

“This is, in my opinion, one of the most Colorado things you can do,” Viles said. “You’re on the Continental Divide at 13,000 feet.”

The climb includes portions dubbed “Falafel Ridge,” “Sugar Cube” and “Frankenrock” — a stretch with red rebar bolted into secure East Wall rock.

The Clendenens said A-Basin’s via ferrata was the first they’ve had to descend. It was also the first via ferrata the Clendenens climbed fully above tree line.

The half-day group got down before sleet started falling on the Continental Divide. The full-day group did not.

The via ferrata is a must-try for those adventurous souls who are not in the least afraid of heights. For those who are, the aerial adventure park is a better option. The Clendenens concurred.

“The concentration it requires, you are engrossed in what you are doing,” Steve said. “There is a little fear factor, but the views are gorgeous. It was wonderful.”