Ouray recreation climbs to new heights with Via Ferrata opening

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The soon-to-open via ferrata adds another human-power activity. But it hasn’t come without controversy

  • Mason Disser, left, and Charlotte Vanderploeg, both of Ouray, navigate a section of the Ouray Via Ferrata this week. Photo by Mark Iuppenlatz.
    Mason Disser, left, and Charlotte Vanderploeg, both of Ouray, navigate a section of the Ouray Via Ferrata this week. Photo by Mark Iuppenlatz.
  • Nate Disser and his son, Mason, cross a cable bridge over the Uncompahgre River in the Ouray Via Ferrata. The 4,000 linear-foot course has been in the works for four years. Photo by Mark Iuppenlatz
    Nate Disser and his son, Mason, cross a cable bridge over the Uncompahgre River in the Ouray Via Ferrata. The 4,000 linear-foot course has been in the works for four years. Photo by Mark Iuppenlatz
  • From left to right, Nate Disser; his son, Mason; Charlotte Vanderploeg; and her father, Hans, navigate a section of the Ouray Via Ferrata this week. The climbing route in the Uncompahgre Gorge will open to the public Memorial Day weekend, with early access and free guiding services in the day leading up the holiday. Photos by Mark Iuppenlatz
    From left to right, Nate Disser; his son, Mason; Charlotte Vanderploeg; and her father, Hans, navigate a section of the Ouray Via Ferrata this week. The climbing route in the Uncompahgre Gorge will open to the public Memorial Day weekend, with early access and free guiding services in the day leading up the holiday. Photos by Mark Iuppenlatz
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The long-anticipated Ouray Via Ferrata is scheduled to open to the public on Memorial Day weekend, adding another human-powered activity to Ouray’s long list of outdoor recreation pursuits and potentially providing a significant economic boost to the area.

The nonprofit organization behind the climbing route, the Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata, will mark its opening with early access and free guiding services for local residents in the days leading up to the holiday weekend.

The via ferrata is located on city-owned land within the Uncomphagre Gorge and will be free to access for anyone, though the use of a guide is recommended for those unfamiliar with this type of adventure.

Members of the Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata believe it is an ideal type of recreation in these times of social distancing requirements, as spacing will be one climber per section of anchored cable.

Mark Iuppenlatz, a Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata board member and co-owner of San Juan Mountain Guides, said the via ferrata supports Ouray’s claim as the self-proclaimed outdoor recreation capital of Colorado.

“This will be potentially transformative for the Ouray community and really cement us as a different type of community,” he said.

Adventurers can explore the beauty of the gorge for approximately 4,000 linear feet — three-quarters of a mile — of anchored cable and rung enhanced trail. The route includes a 35-foot bridge at the entrance consisting of a single cable to walk on like a tight-rope with two hand cables. Another bridge named the Skystair is 70 feet long and made up of four cables, with the bottom two cables connected by rungs to step on and a steepness similar to that of a staircase.

The Ouray Via Ferrata is rated 4B on the Italian via ferrata scale. The number represents technical difficulty ranging from 1-5 and the letter represents the level of commitment involved from A-C. For reference, though it has not been officially rated, Iuppenlatz estimates the Telluride Via Ferrata at a 2B.

The Telluride Via Ferrata is longer with several flatter areas that are more like a hike. The Ouray Via Ferrata is shorter but more intense, with 850 rungs. Iuppenlatz estimates the amount of rungs on the Telluride Via Ferrata at less than 200.

The Ouray Via Ferrata is easily accessed by a quarter-mile walk off Camp Bird Road (County Road 361) along the Ouray Perimeter Trail beginning at the Ice Park Kids Climbing Wall. The adventure starts at the south end of the New Funtier ice climbing route. Climbers will emerge at the finish above the Rescue Barn on Camp Bird Road between the two bridges.

Funds to cover the operating budget of the Ouray Via Ferrata will come from sponsorship from local businesses, donations and fees collected from the guiding services who use it.

The Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata has raised nearly all of the $250,000 it says it needs to complete construction. Donations so far have paid for planning, engineering, purchases and installation of special materials and signage that is currently being installed.

Local engineers and climbing professionals were employed for the design and installation. The work meets or exceeds the standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials and the European Committee for Standardization. It is the first via ferrata in the United States reaching these standards to be free to the public.

The board of directors has hired two full-time “via rangers” to be stationed at the start of the via ferrata seven days a week. The rangers will answer questions and check visitors’ gear before they access the rungs.

Board member Alan Cook said part of the rangers’ job will be to see that visitors are equipped with energy absorbing lanyards as required by ASTM.

Iupenlatz described this specialized equipment as an added safety feature providing shock-absorption in the event of a fall to protect the person’s body as well as the anchors affixed in the rock from a sudden shock.

The lanyards will be available for purchase or rent at various locations in Ouray.

Plans for the Ouray Via Ferrata have been in the works for four years. The idea was originally proposed to the city and county by Nate Disser, co-owner and director of San Juan Mountain Guides in early 2016.

The Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata expects the new opportunity for adventure to bring visitors to the area, supporting the local economy.

An economic impact study conducted in 2016 by Andrew Klotz, former managing director of San Juan Mountain Guides and co-founder of the Rural Planning Institute was submitted to the City of Ouray during the early stages of the project in July 2018. The study estimated the Ouray Via Ferrata would result in nearly $5 million in new local expenditures, 48 new full time jobs, $145,000 in additional tax revenue, more than 4,000 additional lodging nights and nearly $14,000 in new lodging tax revenue in its fifth year.

Ouray city councilors on Monday unanimously approved a management agreement with Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata that grants the group the ability to operate on the property and the right to host an annual Ouray Via Ferrata Festival and other events. The group will be responsible for managing commercial activities and concessions within the via ferrata, and will charge fees to commercial and institutional users and split the revenue 50-50 with the city.

The arrangement is nearly identical to the one the city has with Ouray Ice Park Inc. for operation of the ice park in the winter.

But the pact between the city and Friends of the Ouray Via Ferrata hasn’t been without controversy. The council was originally scheduled to vote on the management agreement on April 20 but postponed a decision for two weeks after some members of the climbing community expressed concern about the agreement — primarily that the city would allow a private entity to manage a city-owned recreational asset — and asked for more time to review it.

At the time, Mayor Pro Tem John Wood said he was weary of ongoing disagreements between climbers and noted that the effort to build a via ferrata had been years in the making.

“Council Member Wood, during the ZOOM meeting you sounded frustrated that members of the community wished to voice their concerns regarding OUR resources,” Rigging for Rescue instructor Kevin Koprek wrote in an email to Wood on the afternoon of April 23. “If that is too much burden for you, please consider removing yourself from the position. LISTENING to your constituents is the primary reason that seat exists for you. Most of us are not the least bit interested in you TELLING us anything.”

The email was sent to all five city councilors and Acting City Administrator Melissa Drake and copied to the Plaindealer and Ouray Climbing Alliance board member and Ouray resident Dolgio Nergui.

Wood fired back two hours later in an email that was sent only to Koprek, Mayor Greg Nelson, Councilor Peggy Lindsey and City Attorney Carol Viner.

“Until you display the testicular fortitude to actually finish a political campaign or run for Council, I’m not overly concerned with your opinion on how I do my job as a Councilor,” Wood wrote.

Koprek ran for council last fall but pulled out of the race in September, citing recent events related to his family.

In an April 27 reply to Wood’s email, Koprek offered more details on why he withdrew as a candidate. He said his mother had developed dementia and his family needed to move her into an assisted living facility. He also said he had become too consumed with his work, and that had affected personal relationships with other members of his family. He said he realized his impact on the council would be “seriously flawed.”

“In closing, I’d like to address the response I received from Council Member Wood,” Koprek wrote. “My intent was to highlight your tendency for self-aggrandizing behavior and it’s detriment to this Council. While I expected to hear from you, your reply (copied above in this email) took my message to an entirely new level. Congratulations!  I certainly don’t owe you any explanation after your comments. But I can’t pass up an opportunity to highlight what an insignificant human being you are.”