It’s the summer of ‘98. I’m 10 years old and about to live out my nightmare while discovering a brand new fear.
Perhaps that’s a touch dramatic, but the 10 metre-high rock climbing wall at Jackson’s Point summer camp on the shores of Lake Simcoe, Ontario, has me shaking. Literally, and quite visibly.
Halfway up what was likely an excruciatingly easy climbing route, I take the ever-dangerous, and typically ill-advised, gaze downwards and that’s where it begins.
My legs begin to shake. Slowly, at first, but with an increasing amount of intensity, so much that it becomes plainly obvious for my fellow campers down below.
Inevitably, laughter ensues. Before long, the howls reach a crescendo. Even the camp counsellors are fighting to hold back their chuckles.
Eventually, I finish the climb, descend, and am officially branded with a new nickname: Chicken Legs. Or something along those lines.
I guess you could say my mild fear of heights began with that incident at summer camp, and while it’s rarely stopped me from trying new things, it’s always been a quiet, but audible, voice in the back of my head
It returned last Thursday when I was strapping on a harness outside of Eagle’s Eye, readying myself for the Ascension tour of the brand new via ferrata at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Italian for “iron road”, via ferratas, as my excellent guide Nick Comstock would later explain, were heavily used during World War I as a way to move troops through high altitude terrain. A typical course involves a series of rungs, steps and pegs. Participants are secured into a cable for the entire trek, allowing climbers of all abilities to participate and making this an infinitely accessible activity for the utterly and hopelessly inexperienced. Which is exactly what I am.
After a debrief from Comstock, myself and the seven others on the tour take part in a quick warm up session near Eagle’s Eye in order to familiarize ourselves with the gear.
The lanyard/cable system is ultra modern, allowing climbers to be comfortably locked into the system the entire trip. After ripping through the practice course, I’m feeling surprisingly confident, although the butterflies persist.
The butterflies were a little too much for one young girl, who decided to bail once we had reached the Terminator 1 trailhead. She decided to wait for her father – who continued on the trip – from the comfort of Eagle’s Eye.
I’m mildly envious of this young girl. A hot breakfast sounds pretty good right about now, especially with how threatening some of the clouds in the distance appear.
The opening segment of both the Ascension and Discovery via ferrata tours is all but guaranteed to weed out anyone who might not be cut out for the hair-raising heights that the tour promises to offer.
After locking into the system, the first bit of vertigo inducing thrills begin with a 65 metre walk along a thin suspension bridge, taking climbers from the ridge line onto the face of T1. Because there’s no climbing involved on the bridge, this is the perfect time for taking photos and it offers a chance for participants to get acquainted with their surroundings.
It’s also a perfect time to realize that you are dozens of metres off the ground, travelling across a bridge that sways with the movement of its users.
I pause just long enough to take it all in…before hurrying to the other side to wait for the rest of the party from the comfort of stable ground.
From there we begin the ascent, working our way both upwards and across the north face of T1.
The views are extraordinary and my comfort level increases with every step.
Even skiers and bikers who know this terrain front and back will appreciate the scenery from the via ferrata as it offers a wholly unique perspective on the rest of the mountain, one that simply wasn’t possible before its installation.
Eventually we reach a crossroads where the shorter Discovery tour branches off from the Ascension route. Discovery heads straight up from that point, which is approximately right below the T1 peak, before crossing over and concluding at a sub peak.
The route I’m on, however, takes us further over before ascending to the ridge line for the eventual push to the summit.
Shortly after the crossroads comes the most fear-inducing portion of the three hour journey, the so-called “Monkey Bridge”.
The “bridge” is in fact just a single, inch wide cable that spans a portion of exceptionally exposed terrain, with only an eye-level cable to help you maintain your balance. The exposure from this point is extreme, a drop of a couple hundred feet by my best guess at minimum.
With my first step onto the cable, I can feel the leg shakes starting up. I can nearly hear the laughter from those campers all those years ago. Slowly, one step at a time, I “tight-rope” across the span, looking down occasionally because I simply can’t resist.
It proved to be both the most thrilling part of the trip, and the most terrifying.
I loved it.
The rest of the journey flies by as we climb towards the top ridge line and gain the rest of our 106 metres of total vertical on the way to the summit, where we finally unhook from the system and are free to roam around and take photos, before beginning the descent back to Eagle’s Eye.
Indeed, this very unique Kicking Horse offering – just a handful exist in Canada – is another feather in the cap for the resort, which is continually expanding its summer products and becoming a diverse destination for locals and tourists alike.
It’s an intensely satisfying, euphoric feeling to have reached the top and conquered a few fears along the way, while also ridding myself of a certain nickname from what now feels like a lifetime ago.