Wandering Amylessly: Experiencing Jackson’s Via Ferrata

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By Amy Larsen
Wyo4News feature writer

In a few days, I turn 48. I am not really sure how I feel about it as I’m not sure if I am technically going uphill, at the top of the hill, or already over it. I haven’t figured out the age range that defines each of those locations or if it is more how you feel. If it’s the latter, I can tell you daily I hit all three!

While I am not sure where I am in life stages, I know I am definitely not where I thought I would be at this stage of my life. Not good or bad, just not living out the dreams of the little girl in pigtails and ballet shoes. As I have been thinking about this, I also have started to wonder who came up with a hill as a metaphor for where we are in life. If given a choice, I don’t want to be on a hill. I would much rather be on a mountain. The climb might be a bit tougher, but dang, the view from the top of a mountain is like nothing else in this world.

In August, I had the opportunity to experience the Via Ferrata up at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. When I was first given the opportunity, I thought either someone was out to kill me or someone thought I was much cooler than I was. I’m 47, not in the best shape, have three screws in my right knee and two screws in my left ankle, am not athletic, and they think I can climb a mountain! Um, have they met me? Thankfully, I realized this was going to be an unforgettable experience for me and my guide one way or the other, so it was time to #kissthemoose. I don’t want to spoil the ending just yet, but I did survive!

I had no idea that Wyoming had a Via Ferrate, and honestly, I also had no idea what exactly it was. For those wondering what it is, it is Italian for “iron path.” They have protected climbing routes that are more popular in the Alps and other European mountain ranges but making their way into the United States. They have cables, rungs, ladders, bridges, and other features affixed to the rocks allowing climbers to attach their harnesses to them, reducing the risk of falls.

Submitted photo by Amy Larsen

I had read a story somewhere about how the Italian soldiers often used these during World War I to help troops ascend steep peaks. To be honest, learning what a Via Ferrate was somehow didn’t dimmish my complete fear and even doubts about taking on this challenge. Mostly I was worried about disappointing myself and the realization that there were things I may not be able to do. I think it was the first time I started to really consider that with age come natural limitations. I was beginning to feel a bit old. The ironic thought I had going into this was there is a reason I have never tried rock climbing before; I wasn’t built for it!

After I got all geared up, my guide and I headed over to the route. He stopped right at the base of a rock that went straight up. I looked at him and asked where the route was, and he pointed straight up the rock! I could barely see it, but I took a deep breath and reminded myself to just take it one step at a time, and whatever I did, don’t look down!

As we were going up, I just kept thinking to myself, “where is my next handhold?”, “where is my next step?” and “are you clipped in?”. Never once was I concerned with where I had just been or even how I got to the spot I was currently at. I just followed my guide, trusted myself, and just went for it. Before I knew it, I was up the initial rock face and had gone up even further than I realized.

When we stopped to take a break, I initially didn’t look down at first but just out at the world in front of me, a world I hadn’t seen from this viewpoint before. It was incredible! Even when I finally looked down, I wasn’t scared but overwhelmed at how far I had come. Unfortunately, as we were getting ready to head up to the next section, we got the alert on the radio that lightning had been detected in the area, and we would have to make our way down. Of course, I was disappointed as I couldn’t believe I had made it that far, and to be honest, I felt unstoppable. I had found strength and confidence within that I didn’t know I still had. I didn’t want to let go of that.

One piece of equipment I didn’t mention I had with me yet was a GoPro, and at different points along the way, I turned it on.

Submitted photo by Amy Larsen

When I returned to my room that evening, I plugged it into my computer, and as the videos played, tears started falling down my cheeks. I can’t entirely explain why other than at the time of the climb, I was so caught up in the moment. I truly was unaware of what I had done. Looking up at the route, down towards the small piece of rock my foot was balanced on, making sure I was safely clipped to the cable, it was all overwhelming, especially knowing one misstep, one wrong hand placement could have had a bigger effect on me than anything else I had done that day. It was a feeling I had never had before, but then again, how often do you get a bird’s eye view of your life at any moment?

As I reflect on this in light of my next rotation around the sun, I am more convinced than ever that I want my life to be measured by a mountain, not a hill. You see, a hill is considered to have less than a 2,000-foot summit, can be man-made, can be created and destroyed by erosion, and is easier to climb. A mountain, on the other hand, can go up for what seems like forever, 29,035 feet for Mt Everest. I know that once I have reached the summit of one, I can always aim to reach a higher one, and the view continues to change.

A force of nature made a mountain, layers over millions of years. It is sturdy and strong and contains so many different stories, stories that, over time, continue to be told. Sure, climbing a mountain is a greater challenge, but those challenges help define us and give us the courage and strength we didn’t know we had. Sometimes we have to free-climb it, and other times we find ourselves with a guide on the Via Ferrate, able to clip in and know exactly where to put our hands and feet. No matter how we get to the summit, we get there with bumps and bruises, tears and smiles, and we see a view few else has ever seen.

Maybe in the distance, we see another summit, one for another year, and perhaps we are okay at the top of the recent summit and want just to sit and take it all in for a bit. Or maybe we choose to go back down and see what other paths lie ahead for us. That’s the beauty of a mountain; the possibilities seem limitless because, you see, on a mountain, age doesn’t matter, it really is just where you are at that time in life, and I am ready to celebrate that.

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” -John Muir

P.S. You can bet in year 48, I will complete the Via Ferrata, and can’t wait to share the experience with all of you.