Conquering the Royal Gorge Via Ferrata

Lisa on the Royal Gorge via ferrata with red rock in the background


By: LOWA ambassador Lisa Ballard

I am not afraid of heights, but I am afraid of getting stuck on a cliff-face without a clue where my next move should be. I’ve had this hang up since started rock-climbing in my teens in Europe, and again when I climbed the Grand Teton in my 20’s. After getting through those momentary panic attacks, I retired my helmet and harness. That said, via ferratas have always interested me because there’s something guaranteed to hold onto. I finally got to climb one last June, on the granite cliffs of Royal Gorge in Colorado.




“Via ferrata” is Italian for “iron way”. The first ones were built in the Dolomites during World War I to allow soldiers to ferry supplies up vertical terrain. The climber clips into a series fixed cables as they make their way up the rock. In addition to cables, the via ferratas in Royal Gorge (there are several routes) also have steel rungs that look like large staples in the rock. A climber can grab or step onto one when the granite offers no secure handhold or foothold.


two photos one is a close up of hands getting ropes clipped into the wire and one of the route of the royal gorge via ferrata


I dusted off my LOWA Sassa GTX’s (Delago GTX Lo’s have since replaced them.) On a via ferrata, approach shoes are fine as long as the rubber tread is sticky enough to grab onto an inch or bigger toe hold. Don, my guide, outfitted me with a harness and a helmet, then I followed him and my friend, Andy, down a steep footpath, dropping about 600 feet into Royal Gorge canyon to the start of the route. When I looked up, I could see a series of vertical walls separated by a few small ledges, and ending at the rim of the canyon. It was a long way up!

I watched Don, then Andy navigate their way up the first cliff. I clicked two carabiners onto the first cable, then followed them, reaching up to an iron staple. Instantly, my brain shut out everything but the task of climbing. Left foot on a staple. Right foot a little higher. Reach with the right hand, then with the left. Move my protection over the bolt. Reach to the crack...higher and higher.


Royal Gorge Via Ferrata view of a red rock canyon


At one point, Andy shouted, “Look down!” My right foot stood on a staple a dizzying 800 feet above the roiling Arkansas River. Andy owned Echo Canyon River Expeditions. We planned to raft the canyon the next day. Perhaps he thought I would enjoy a peregrine’s view of it. "Better to look up, or I might not make it to tomorrow,” I thought. 

The crux of the climb was a 60-foot wall, then a smaller one to the rim. I slowly, methodically made my way upward. Fatigue nagged at me. I reminded myself to be decisive with each move. 

When I finally reached the rim, elation swept over me. While a via ferrata might seem pedestrian to a world class rock climber, to this hiker, it upped the ante in a thrilling but not quite as death-defying way. 

Photo Courtesy of Lisa Ballard