I’m pausing on a sturdy ledge on the side of a rock face, catching my breath hundreds of feet above terra firma after climbing the first section of the Cloud Ladder, the via ferrata offered by Estes Park’s Kent Mountain Adventure Center (KMAC). Italian for “iron way,” these mountain routes were first used in WWI to help troops traverse treacherous peaks. Today they provide an accessible way for everyday adventurers (including kids) to ascend rock walls using fixed iron cables, steel steps, bridges, and ladders without needing technical climbing skills. And there’s just one more section I have yet to climb.
“We’re roping up for the steepest section of the via ferrata,” says KMAC guide Samie Todd, looping and tying a neon-pink rope she’ll use to put me on belay, another protective measure in addition to the two carabiners on “leashes” that keep me safely hooked into the route. “We’ve done the first bit, and our adrenaline is pumping, so we always just want to make sure that there’s never going to be any chances for you to come off.”
It’s a sobering thought as I glance at the vastness below me, a carpet of pointy pine-tree tops stretching into the horizon toward cobalt-blue bodies of water, including Rocky Mountain National Park’s Lily Lake to the south and Lake Estes to the north. Above us awaits blue sky and another section of iron rungs, cables and steps creeping up a challenging headwall that will lead us to South Summit Cathedral Peak at 9,282 feet.
“On belay!” Todd yells down to me, the slack of the pink rope tightening as she reaches the summit and awaits my climb.
The next few minutes are humbling, the steepness challenging my body to cling to the rungs, my concentration focused on unlocking and locking one carabiner at a time into the cables and rungs above me as I ascend. I know I’m safe, but I’m careful not to look down.
“Good job!” Todd praises me as I reach her at the summit.
“I’m glad I had no idea how scary that was,” I say. “I don’t think I need to do that again.”
But I would do it again. And I’d definitely take my children, although I might opt instead for the mellower route, the Peregrine Arete, the first via ferrata on KMAC’s Alpine Jewel experience. Opened in 2017, it’s rated like a beginner or intermediate ski run, green circle/blue square, and is perfect for families. The newer Cloud Ladder is rated black diamond, offering 625 feet of vertical climbing, plus two 40-foot suspension bridges spanning a 300-feet-deep ravine. Both routes allow kids around age 11, but the new one is challenging enough that they should have some climbing experience and preferably experience on a via ferrata.
“The Cloud Ladder is certainly steeper and offers a lot more exposure (a term that’s used in rock climbing to describe situations where there is a lot of air below your feet), both on the climb and on the bridges,” says Reed Woodford, operations manager and guide.
A great mountain activity that brings people to spots that were formerly only available to rock climbers, he says, navigating the via ferrata is also a unique way to experience the popular mountain destination. “Sometimes Estes Park in the summertime can be overwhelming: lots of people, crowded trailheads,” Woodford says. “The Via Ferrata is great because it’s so close to town, but you get the feel like you’re moving through the mountains with some privacy. You get to escape the crowds and have a bit of solitude that’s harder and harder to find close to the Front Range.”
Need to Know: At Kent Mountain Adventure Center, customers can choose from a half-day or full-day price starting at $289 per person. (Per-person rates decrease with more people.) Minimum age is around 11, maximum 265 pounds. Climbers should wear layers, hiking or yoga pants to protect knees while climbing and hiking shoes/boots, as well as a small backpack to hold shedded layers, water, and snacks. Each tour includes a 15-minute drive to a private location and an easy 30-minute hike to the starting point, where guests are fitted with gear. Both routes end at the same summit and with a 30-minute hike down to the starting point. Tours range from two to five hours, depending on group size and speed. All KMAC tours offer a one-to-four guide ratio. Families may also want to try KMAC’s “cliffnic,” a picnic lunch or dinner on a portaledge—a fabric-covered, metal-framed platform climbers use to rest or sleep on during multi-day climbs—perched about 75 high (involves a short hike/climb or rappel). Minimum age is 8. Prices start at $449.