My Climb on the Via Ferrata at Nelson Rocks Preserve

Here are some pictures from the via ferrata at Nelson Rocks. Most are mine, but I've also used some other people's photos to help illustrate the story. Other people's pictures have a thick black border around them. Unless otherwise noted, they come from the OASC SmugMug gallery (to which I also contributed some of my best shots).

The day of our climb (November 14, 2009) started out overcast but turned out quite warm considering the season and our high altitude. This was the view of the Nelson Rocks, two vertical rock fins, that we had when we arrived at the Preserve's rough dirt parking lot.

We started the adventure by meeting our guide Jim (below, in the blue jacket, orange shirt, and jeans). Jim was quite a character. He told us that we should take our time and not rush through the via, because "I've already had my lunch, I've got rum at home, and I can't get any weed, so I'm not doing anything else today." He was very wiry, and told us that he prefers mountain guiding to working construction, because "I can lose five pounds in a day, working construction." He smoked cigarettes at frequent intervals. On the climb, while the rest of us took backpacks full of water, snacks, clothes, cameras, and other such gear, Jim took only three things: a pack of cigs, an Aquafina bottle filled with cold coffee (which he tied to his belt with a loop of string), and a harmonica.

He had an eleven-year-old son who hung out at the entry station all day after helping Jim to hand out the harnesses and lanyards. Jim lamented that his son would rather be at home playing video games.

During the climb, various aspects of Jim's life came out in stories. Among other things, he told us he had joined a Mennonite church for two years, but quit because he wasn't going to give up drinking and smoking, and it was too hard to be around plain people. Besides, he didn't have a plain suit, and it would have cost two hundred dollars to have his suit altered to be plain, and he didn't have that kind of money.

At the entry station, we got equipped with safety gear for the via ferrata. Here I am showing off the gear:

There are two pieces here: the harness, which goes around my legs and waist, and the lanyard, which is a Y-shaped piece of rope and hardware that attaches to the harness. In the picture above, I'm holding up the two carabiners at the ends of the lanyard. These lobster-claw carabiners clip onto the safety cable that runs the entire distance of the via ferrata. The point of having two carabiners is that you are NEVER detached from the safety cable while on the via: you should, at all times, have at least one carabiner attached. At most times, both carabiners are attached to the same length of cable. It is only when you come to an anchor point in the cable that you detach one carabiner, move it past the anchor point, re-attach it, and then separately detach the other carabiner and move it over.

We took some time at the entry station to get organized. Here is someone else's picture of me taking my camera out.

Not much of an action shot, I know, but look how shiny my hair is!

Once we all were fitted with harnesses, lanyards, and helmets, we headed up a dirt road and a short, rough hiking trail to the start of the via ferrata.

Jim stopped us at the base of the first wall and gave us a brief lesson in the use of the via. He especially stressed the importance of unclipping the carabiners with one hand only. The danger is that if you unclip two-handed, even if you think you're doing each carabiner separately, your actions are more likely to be subject to error. Jim explained that if the first hand doesn't quite get the first carabiner properly clipped onto the cable on the first try, "even King Solomon himself couldn't send the signal to the second hand to stop unclipping." Even King Solomon himself.

There has been one fatality at the Nelson Rocks Via Ferrata, and that happened when a woman completely unclipped herself from the safety cable. Later in the climb, Jim told us that he would rather push us off the mountain himself than have us fall off unclipped, because "homicide would look better than an accident" on his record.

Apart from the safety instructions, the most useful tip I got from Jim's talk was: "if you can't figure out where to go next, straighten out your bent leg. You'll see it then."

Hey, there I am taking up the lower left corner of the frame!

In the picture above, Jim is perched on the lowest ladder rungs of the via while talking with us, but one does not normally climb the via in that "backwards" position. On the rock face above him, you can just make out the glint of some of the staple-shaped steel rungs characteristic of the via ferrata. The route actually consists of a mix of rungs and ledges, with one swinging bridge to cross in the middle of the route; I found the "ledge scrambles" much less taxing than the climbing rungs. The route starts out with some of the most difficult climbing; to get up the first rock face, we used rungs almost exclusively, with just a few short sections of ledge.

Here is someone's picture of the rungs at another point in the via. This gives you a pretty good idea what we were climbing on, except that it's hard to tell from this photo how far apart the rungs are.

A woman named Angie who had climbed the via several times before and was very enthusiastic about it led off our group. Angie is petite, but still, in this picture you can get a better sense for how far apart the rungs are:

For her next move, she'll probably have to lift her left foot up to where her left hand is resting—almost as high as her hips. That was typical of the rung spacing on the via. There were several steps that reminded me of putting the first foot into the stirrups on a tall horse. A couple of the steps up were such an extreme (but still doable) stretch for me that I wondered how the shorter members of the party had managed.

Here's a shot I took before starting the climb myself; it shows members of our party ascending the first rock wall. Maritza (in red and black, on the right) is traversing a ledge while Joley (in blue jeans and green backpack, on the left) goes ahead of her on the rungs. Jen (upper left corner) appears to be taking a photo while perched on a higher bit of ledge.

As we were starting the climb, some of the more experienced climbers joked around about how most of our photos of each other were likely to be "butt shots." You can see why!

Yup, there's my butt on the right edge of the photo frame. Great view of the bottom of my backpack and the sole of my left hiking boot, too.

. . . and there's more of Kristin's butt, as we all ascend the first rock face. I had the dubious honor, during this portion of the climb, of being the next climber ahead of the semi-official photographer for the trip.

Again, notice the placement of the rungs in the picture above. I appear to be getting ready to lift my left foot up onto a rung that is just barely below my hip. As I say, shorter people completed the via successfully, and Jim told us he had recently taken a pair of seventy-year-olds over the entire route!

The picture below shows me resting on a bit of ledge . . .

. . . before squeezing past the tree that was growing out of the rock face and following the other climbers up another series of steel rungs in the rock wall.

Near the top of the first rock face, the safety cable disappeared around a corner known, for good reason, as the "Scheisse Notch." (Before we started climbing, Jim made a few remarks about "when we get to the notch." Maritza, who is from somewhere in South America and has lived in Germany as well as the U.S., asked "what is the 'notch'?" "That's the Scheisse Notch," Jim started his reply. "Oh, I know 'Scheisse'!" Maritza exclaimed.) As you ascend the first rock face, you spend pretty much your entire time facing a flat wall of stone. Then, after half an hour or so of that kind of climbing, you poke your head around the corner where the safety cable goes, and suddenly you see this:

(this photo is not from any of the OASC groups but from this flickr set)

This is the view that gave me my only moment of really feeling my fear of heights while on the climb. I quickly stuffed the fear back down inside myself and repeated the mantra that had gotten me up the first rock face: "There is a concrete floor below me. At all times, wherever I go, whenever I need it, there is a concrete floor below me." And I pictured a solid concrete floor spreading out in all directions, just a few inches below my feet. I wasn't pretending not to be delicately perched on a narrow steel rung, but I was pretending to be perched on a rung just a trivial hop above a nice, safe, flat floor. I knew better than to try hopping down onto the floor, but in my mind I tried to treat it more like a game or an exercise ("ha ha, we could totally be walking on that floor but instead we're using these rungs, just to see if we can") than like clinging on for dear life ("it's so far down and if I slip up oh shit oh shit oh shit").

I made a point of NOT looking down while traversing the Scheisse Notch or, really, at any other point while on the via ferrata. But apparently if you do glance down while approaching the notch, you see something like this:

Those bristly-looking things are trees and they are very far away. "Away," in this case, means "down."

Here's another view down, but taken by somebody standing on the rung in the notch, looking back the direction that they came:

(this photo is not from any of the OASC groups but from this flickr set)

Here's a photo of someone starting through the notch:

(this photo is not from my day of climbing but from a different OASC group)

Look closely at the photo below of someone coming around the corner out of the notch and onto the second rock face, on the opposite side of the rock fin from the wall where we first ascended:

(this photo is not from my day of climbing but from a different OASC group)

You notice that lump of rock that sticks out in front of her thigh and knee? From the perspective of the climber coming around the notch, that lump in the rock face makes it almost impossible to see the rung that her foot is on. When I got to this point in the climb, I had to listen to Jim (who was ahead of me) describing where I should put my foot. By craning my neck a little I was able to glimpse just a tiny corner of the steel, but I basically had to stick my foot out into space and trust Jim's instructions. Technically and psychologically, this was one of the most difficult steps in the climb for me.

Here's another good shot of a climber coming along the rock face after making it through the Scheisse Notch:

(this photo is not from my day of climbing but from a different OASC group)

Not too far past the Scheisse Notch, we were rewarded with a ledge to climb on (while still clipped onto the safety cable), which was less physically and psychologically demanding than clinging to the metal rungs on the sheer rock face. I was able to stop and pull out my camera for the first time since starting my ascent of the first rock wall. I got this shot of another OASC'er (forgot her name) coming along behind me.

After a bit of "ledge scrambling," we came to a wide ledge where we all bunched up and rested before taking on the challenge of the swinging bridge. Jim took out his harmonica and played some tunes.

Once again, Angie led the way.

I took in the scenery from my ledge perch. These photos don't really do it justice. Behind the tree in the photo below, you can see the second rock fin, which the bridge was carrying us over to.

On the opposite hill you can see the continuation of the same fin of rock. I read up on the geology of Nelson Rocks. Apparently the two parallel fins were once the same sedimentary layer. Then they were lifted up vertically and a fault caused the single layer to break into two pieces, with one piece sliding into place parallel to the other, like the slices of bread on a sandwich. The softer rock in between wore away, leaving the hard Tuscarora sandstone fins of rock exposed.

OK, but enough of the geology lesson. Back to that swinging bridge.

Here is a view of the bridge from below. (One person in our party decided not to climb the via ferrata, and instead ascended an alternate path that took him underneath the bridge.)

And here's a great shot from below of someone crossing the bridge.

And now . . . here I am, starting across the bridge:

And turning back to pose for a picture:

For me, that pose was the trickiest part of crossing the bridge! The bridge didn't have too much sway in it when I went across, because there wasn't any wind and I asked to go across alone. (Two or three people can be on the bridge at the same time, but other people's motion on the bridge will get transmitted through the cables and make it less steady.) To turn around and face the camera, though, I had to interrupt the rhythm of my crossing, let go of each hand rail one at a time and re-position my hands, and re-orient my feet on the narrow slats. The actual motion of walking across the bridge, putting one foot steadily ahead of the other and running my hands along the cables, was not so bad. I was able to concentrate on the rhythm of it and avoid thinking about "down" or "below."

I would have to practice crossing that bridge a few times and get a lot more comfortable with it before taking a shot like THIS:

! ! ! !

I believe Jen gets credit for the photo above.

Here's another nice shot that I did not take:

When I got to the opposite end of the bridge, I paused and turned around to take a picture of Katy, who crossed next after me:

Later I discovered that someone else had taken a similar picture of me, though with less zoom:

And finally, here's a picture of me starting up the rock face at the end of the bridge.

Unlike the Scheisse Notch, the mental challenge of the swinging bridge is not followed by a nice, restful ledge, but by more of the same kind of vertical climbing on rungs that we had started out with. This kind of climbing was physically challenging because of the steep elevation gain, but also mentally challenging—in a different way from the notch and the bridge—because every move had to be planned and executed deliberately. Climbing the rungs of the via ferrata was not like climbing a ladder, where you can get into a predictable hand-up, foot-up, hand-up, foot-up rhythm. You first have to figure out where the next toe-hold or hand-hold is, and then you have to figure out which foot or hand is going to use it, and what your other three limbs are going to be doing while you extend your hand or foot to the next hold. The sequence is not always obvious. (It does usually help, though, as Jim said, to straighten out your bent leg.)

After crossing the bridge and climing most of the way up the second fin of rock, we came to an optional spur on the via ferrata at a rock face known as "the headwall." People who choose to do this spur get an additional challenge and an additional reward: they have to climb over a "greater than vertical" section of rock (where the rock face leans out over them slightly), but then they get to sit on top of the fin and take in a great view. I could see that even without the headwall climb, we still had some climbing ahead of us, and I was starting to feel my energy reserves diminishing. I was confident of being able to finish the via ferrata, but less confident of being able to do the headwall climb plus finish the via ferrata without getting so tired as to start making mistakes. Probably I could have done it, but I felt like I had already pushed myself a lot that day—physically and psychologically—and I decided to take the opportunity to rest, drink some water, and have a snack while most of the other people in my party climbed up the headwall and back down.

So, I hung out on a ledge where there was plenty of room to sit, and I took pictures of the others on the headwall. Here's a pretty good view of the route up the wall. On the left are the rungs going up. At the top of the picture, on the right, you can see someone starting down the return route.

I think this is Jen on the return route (not the same person as in the shot above):

And I think this is Matt on his way down:

Here's Angie, almost at the bottom of the headwall return route:

In the picture above, you may notice that the rungs are closer together and more evenly spaced than on other portions of the via ferrata. Jim explained that this is because going down is harder than going up, so the rungs have to be arranged differently. The route is designed to be traversed in one direction only.

While I was resting at the base of the head wall, I also took in the scenery:

. . . and I took a closer-up picture of the two "lobster claw" carabiners that were keeping me attached to the safety cable:

Katy and Maritza had crossed the bridge after me and so came up to the headwall behind me. Perhaps influenced by my choice to rest, they opted to do the same.

Jim didn't climb the headwall either, but chatted with us and told more stories.

And we watched more people come down the headwall. I have a lot of pictures from this part of the via, because I was resting in a safe-feeling place and had my hands free to work the camera.

Once everyone had come down from the headwall, we moved on. Most of what was left of the via from that point on was ledge scramble.

It was still sometimes technically tricky. There was one point where Jim had to point out to us that we had to take one step up into a crevice between two rock faces, and then take a step back onto a higher foothold before we could go forward again. That bit was a little counter-intuitive. I think it was in the crevice shown below, although I don't have a picture of the tricky step; it would be down behind Katy in this picture, perhaps where you can see the white helmet of the next person coming up.

Another tricky bit where we needed tips from Jim was at the ledge shown in the picture below. As in the shot above, there was a crevice between the main rock face and a sheet of rock that had split off from it. This crevice was too narrow to climb through, so we had to walk along the narrow top of the split-off sheet of rock. Then, at the end of it, we had to sit down and then hop down to the foothold that Jim pointed out. In the (blurry) picture below, Maritza is sitting down and about to hop.

There she goes!

Shortly after that ledge scramble, we came to the end of the via ferrata. It felt weird to unhook from the safety cable and walk around unattached. The via did not go down the mountain (which the fins of rock emerged from), but rather ended near the summit. There was a regular hiking trail up to the summit, and we all walked up to take in the views.

Then we took a steep trail with lots of switchbacks down to the base of the mountain. Here I am with a couple of other climbers, celebrating our completion of the via. (Actually the guy in the middle took the hiking trail up, instead of the via, but he still had a strenuous climb.)

Then we all headed back to the cars . . .

. . . and some of us to the outhouse at the parking lot. (I don't know why I like documenting the outhouses that run into on OASC trips.)

It was not until we got to the parking lot and were taking our climbing gear off that I noticed how the steel cable and rough tuscarora sandstone of the via ferrata had worn through the leather palms of my biking gloves, which I had worn as ersatz climbing gloves.

Later, at home before a much-needed hot shower, I documented the bruises on my knees.

I had been banging them into rocks all day!

The bruises were a fair price for a great experience.