First via ferrata in Alaska opens in Tordrillo Mountains, but some have concerns

A climber begins the route up the via ferrata, the first even in Alaska (Photo courtesy of...
A climber begins the route up the via ferrata, the first even in Alaska (Photo courtesy of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge) (KTUU)
Published: Jul. 18, 2019 at 3:40 PM AKDT
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The first via ferrata in Alaska will open next week in a remote area in the Tordrillo Mountains west of Anchorage.

“It's extraordinary,” said Mike Overcast, the owner of the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, which installed the route. “The folks that built the ferrata were from Europe and they've built them all over the world and they had the impression that they had just built one of the finest via ferratas in the world.”

But what is a via ferrata? Essentially, it is a route installed in a mountain side that allows non-expert climbers to clip in and climb or scramble up predetermined routes without the risk of misusing more complicated equipment like cams and belay devices. In ferratas, iron loops of varying sizes are drilled into the mountain every three to thirty feet with a ¾ inch steel cable running through them. Guests just clip a carabiner around the cable and are pretty much on their way.

For Overcast, that was the inspiration for building the ferrata.

“It's really special to take people into the climbing world without them having to train or have fitness or the mindset to jump on a big rock wall like that,” he says.

The route is only accessible by helicopter from the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge -- about an 8-minute ride that brings guests to a saddle on a mountain ridge surrounded by hundreds of feet of rock faces and with a view of Triumvirate Glacier 2,000 feet below.

Route of via ferrata (Image from DNR application)

Guests try out the gear -- just a helmet, lanyard, climbing shoes and a harness -- on a test course and then set out on the course that begins with a steep ascent from a saddle up a granite rock face.

It also includes two harrowing “Burma bridges,” composed of two steel cables as hand rails, and a single cable to walk on. Fortunately guests are clipped in, so a slip of foot won’t be too consequential.

A guest crosses a Burma bridge as part of the via ferrata (Photo courtesy of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge)

“One of them is a thirty foot span and the other is a sixty to seventy foot span from one buttress to the other, so don't look down!” says Overcast.

At the top of the route, guests are picked up by a helicopter after it lands on a narrow stretch of granite and taken back to the lodge.

While the via ferrata offers a novel and exciting backcountry opportunity for paying guests of the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, some local climbers had some concerns about the project.

“The climbing community hadn’t heard about it until it had already been done,” said Lang Van Dommelen, a climber from Anchorage. “It’s really outside the norm of Alaska climbing.”

The project is on Department of Natural Resources land and a public notice of the installation was posted -- but according to Van Dommelen wasn’t publicized outside of the website. During the comment period, only four comments were received, all of them from official agencies.

For these big development projects, the community should have more of a say in what goes on,” said Van Dommelen. He pointed to another project, recently approved heli-skiing operation near Hatcher Pass that drew condemnation from backcountry users because of feared noise pollution, as well as increased avalanche danger.

He called the new project "heavy-handed" and focused on profit. The base cost of a week's stay at the lodge is $15,000 per person, according to the lodge's website. The fact that development is geared towards high-paying tourists over local climbers concerns Van Dommelen, especially since there was little discussion of it.

“The fact that no one had heard about it is the major issue to me,” he said, “And that’s not on the lodge, that’s on the state of Alaska.”

The permit lasts for five years, but Van Dommelen says the impact is lasting, though small.

“Even if they don’t get permits to continue using it it’s there forever,” he said.

Overcast disagrees with this statement and says that the equipment, which is made of steel pins drilled into the granite, can be taken by hand.

“If you go in there with a rock hammer and hit that stuff, you're gonna be able to get that stuff out,” he said.

In any case, he says, the equipment almost unnoticeable.

“I would challenge anybody without knowing where it is that anyone would ever find it,” he said, “It's just a wire rope that sticks to one route and goes up the mountain. The stipulations in our permit are that it has to be removable if the activity fails to be a long-term pursuit. It can all be removed.”

While Overcast argues that making the via ferrata opens up climbing opportunities to more people, many of whom wouldn't otherwise get to experience the mountains for lack of climbing experience, climbers like Van Dommelen argue that their inaccessibility -- and thus their purity -- is what makes them special.

“Generally, that’s how I view most of Alaska like that,” he said, “That’s what makes Alaska so wonderful: you’re able to go to most areas and not see development.”

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