by Graeme Carey
“Over the years we’ve indeed seen a significant increase in the number of people trying our via ferratas,” says Simon Boivin, spokesperson for Société des établissements de plein air du Québec (Sépaq), the agency responsible for overlooking the province’s parks and wildlife reserves. “It’s an activity that’s thriving and growing in popularity.”
Described as a cross between hiking and rock climbing, via ferratas – Italian for iron paths or roads – are an experience all their own. And with the aid of steel cables, iron rungs, bridges and ladders, they are designed to be enjoyed by participants of nearly all ages and skill levels. In many cases professional guides, who help provide an added sense of security, accompany climbers.
Although relatively new to Quebec, early examples of via ferratas found in the Alps can be traced back to at least the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the early 1900s that they became more commonplace, starting in Italy.
During the First World War, the Dolomites served as a key battleground between the Italians and the Austro-Hungarian forces. To help troops navigate treacherous high-altitude conditions, several via ferratas consisting of ladders and permanent lines were constructed throughout the mountains. Some of these paths have since been restored and modernized, and are now maintained by the Italian Alpine Club. Today, there are over 400 via ferratas in Italy alone and more than half of them are in the Dolomites.
By the late 20th century, via ferratas became more popular as they were seen as a way to promote tourism. Eventually construction of protected paths began moving beyond the Alps to other regions around the world, including Quebec. A far cry from their wartime origins, many modern via ferratas incorporate activities like zip lining as an added appeal to those looking for a fun adventure.
Boivin says via ferratas are an ideal fit for Sépaq’s network because they encourage all kinds of people to experience Quebec’s great outdoors firsthand. “Offering via ferratas allows us to meet the needs of different client profiles, especially thrill seekers, but also families who want to interest their teenagers in outdoor getaways,” he says. “We also have different circuits according to skill levels, whether participants are novice, intermediate or advanced enthusiasts. It’s also a different way to discover new landscapes and have access to views that you cannot otherwise see. The activity provides a different contact with nature, for example, through feeling the texture of rock.”
Sépaq set up its first via ferrata circuit in 2008 at Parc national du Mont-Tremblant. In response to growing demand, they have since developed three more circuits throughout the province, each with its own unique appeal.
Sépaq’s via ferratas are inspired by the ones found in Europe, including Italy, except for one main difference. “We’ve added the guided aspect,” says Boivin. “All groups are accompanied by a guide, who not only teaches via ferrata techniques, but also talks about landscapes, flora and fauna.” This personal element is a key reason why via ferratas are so popular in Quebec. It’s not just about rock climbing; it’s also an opportunity to engage with and learn about the environment, from the smallest rocks to the biggest mountains and waterfalls.
In total, the route des Via Ferrata du Quebec consists of no fewer than 12 destinations, from Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux in Saint-Fulgence to Parc des Chutes Coulonge in Mansfield. Western Canada has since followed in Quebec’s footsteps, with via ferratas opening in Alberta and British Columbia – including North America’s largest protected climbing path, located on Mt. Nimbus in the Columbia Mountains and accessible only by helicopter.
To Boivin, all of this is further proof that “more and more people are looking for safe and fulfilling ways to break out of their comfort zones.”