The high-alpine Cloud Ladder has a different type of superlative: With some 600 feet of sustained upward climbing for most of its length, it’s billed as the steepest via ferrata in the United States. If I’d been a first-timer, I would have opted for the adjacent and easier Peregrine Arete. But having previously ascended other via ferratas, I was game for a challenge — which I found on the second of two heart-pumping suspension bridges, where I hovered on a tightrope-style cable that spanned 45 feet across a 200-foot chasm. I won’t pretend that I didn’t think twice before heading across it, even though I was secured to two other cables at shoulder height.
As on all via ferratas, in addition to a helmet, I wore a waist harness with a bungee-style lanyard holding two large carabiners (known as lobster claws) and an energy-absorbing device that would lessen the impact in the unlikely event that I fell. (I didn’t.) As for the carabiners, you clip them onto the cables and leave them attached, sliding them along as you climb, except when you arrive at one of the many anchor bolts along the route. There, you unclip one carabiner, clip it in again after the anchor, and then unclip and clip the second one. “Never double unclip,” my guide, Nick Golden, had cautioned.
Though climbing a via ferrata may look like a daredevil outing, it’s more attainable than you might think. The challenges tilt toward psychological rather than physical. “We regularly see people getting past self-imposed boundaries,” said Sean Kristl, the general manager of the guide service Alpenglow Expeditions, which provides via ferrata tours in Olympic Valley, Calif.
Last summer I brought a friend, Lauren Stanley, 56, an architect from Austin, Texas, to climb the via ferrata in Taos, N.M., with me. Afterward, she told me she was reassured by the knowledge that carabiners and cables were always close at hand. “I felt like a lizard crawling over beautiful rock faces, with just enough adrenaline to keep me sharp and aware,” she said.