By Sam Lightner Jr.
The facts on the Via Ferrata?
I’m embarrassed to say the idea actually came from a Greenie: “Why don’t you guys have a via ferrata? You have the perfect terrain for it in Sinks Canyon.” We Wyomingites hate being outsmarted by Coloradans, but when you are right, you are right.
The concept fit perfectly with a discussion a few friends and I had been having for years. We know hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through Lander each summer in route to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Most don’t even bother to pause for the stop-lights, so getting them to drop anchor for a night and have dinner, a room, and maybe a movie, is hard to do. We needed something cool that made them want to stop in Lander, and the via ferrata was perfect for it.
For those that don’t know, a via ferrata is a set of rungs and cables anchored in a mountain wall that allow a non-climber to get some of the thrill that trained mountaineers get when climbing. If you are in decent shape and use a few specifically designed pieces of safety equipment, it’s a safe way to experience mountain climbing. The sport has grown dramatically in Europe in the last decade with over 1,500 via ferratas attracting visitors to various locations.
An independent study conducted on the establishment of a via ferrata in Ouray, Colorado, concluded the city could expect a million dollars in added revenue due to the increased visitation. In their first year the study expected around 1,500 visitors to come to Ouray, with more in subsequent years as word spread.
To their delighted surprise, in the first year Ouray had over 10,000 visitors specifically coming for the new recreation. Clearly, with via ferratas in Estes Park, Ogden, Utah, Slade, Kentucky, and Lake Tahoe, they are growing in popularity.
The first order of business was to see if Sinks Canyon State Park was ok with the concept, and that meant making sure the Wyoming Game and Fish were good with it. The Game and Fish department actually owns most of what is Sinks Canyon State Park and regulates it as a recreational area, which is quite different from a wilderness area.
This makes sense as Sinks Canyon has always been heavily accessed by the people of Lander. In the past it was the main source of lumber for building the town in the late 19th century. It has since been home to a ski area, the original hydroelectric dam that gave Lander its electricity, a university field office, and the NOLS headquarters. It’s bisected by a state highway and is home to the state park office, four campgrounds, and hundreds of rock climbs that attract climbers from all over the planet. “Recreation” is its middle name.
The Game and Fish had two concerns over the proposed via ferrata: would it affect nesting raptors or be detrimental to wildlife migration. The biologists at the G&F knew of no existing nests where we proposed the facility, so a few of us went up there and surveyed the wall. It was perfect for the via ferrata and we found no historic nests anywhere nearby. There were a couple of pigeons roughly 75 feet down canyon, but nothing else.
Over the course of the Covid spring and summer, the biologists came to a firm conclusion that was the case, and we got the green light to proceed. As per migration, if it were found in the future that the hiking trail to the via ferrata caused problems during migration, use could be curbed to accommodate the animals. With that, the Park agreed that it was a good idea, and we began fundraising.
Through 2020 we found we had a lot of allies in creating this. Governor Gordon, a climber at heart, thought it was a brilliant way to bring more dollars to the central Wyoming economy. The Lander Chamber of Commerce and Lander Economic Development Association also loved it, as well as a number of nonprofits, including the LOR Foundation, who contributed to the fund that would purchase the equipment.
All the labor in its construction would be contributed by expert local climbers who have worked with these anchors systems for years. It would be constructed to the international specifications the European Union has created for via ferratas (the US does not have its own specs on most mountain climbing equipment). By the end of 2020 we had raised over $30,000, so enough to make it happen.
All was going great, but then a couple of individuals with a very specific agenda began campaigning against it. Their stated concern was about the potential raptors. The fact that the Game and Fish had studied it and found there to be no problem was not acceptable to them. These folks persisted, and even recently managed to get a newspaper article printed with their gross exaggerations of problems.
They said, for instance, that there were two nesting peregrine falcons across the canyon and that the sense that people were climbing might scare them. More, if the falcons wanted to move to the north facing wall, this would inhibit them. They went as far as to tell the reporter that the via ferrata would “basically remove 50% of their habitat.” At best, these statements are misleading exaggerations, and at worse, well…
Here is the real deal. There was a peregrine nest on the north facing wall in the past, but the birds moved to the south facing wall about 10 years ago and have not returned. What’s more, the nest was not where the via ferrata is to be built. As far as “scaring” them, this facility will be half a mile away and across a highway, the park headquarters, and a powerline. The via ferrata is a few hundred feet from an existing campground and 400 yards from the park headquarters.
Also, if those birds are afraid of climbers in the canyon, they should have shown it by now. Sinks Canyon has been a climbing destination since the 1960’s, and it sees thousands of climbers every year on the hundreds of already established rock climbs.
In fact, rock climbing was never what caused the past problems with peregrine populations (the animals were once, but are no longer, on the Endangered Species List). The use of pesticides, specifically DDT in the 1960’s, caused them to lay eggs with thin shells. The eggs broke and bird numbers declined dramatically, but they have come back to nest not only on mountain walls, but also buildings and bridges.
Finally, the statement that the via ferrata would take away 50% of the peregrine habitat is just not true. It will pass over about 10% of one north facing limestone wall, meaning there is 90% of that wall, plus the entire other side of the canyon (where they seem to want to live), dolomite walls, Madison limestone walls, and granite walls, and that’s just in Sinks Canyon. There are another dozen canyons on the east slope of the Wind River Range, including Sawmill Canyon just around the corner, that sees no climber-traffic.
The fact is, these figures were given to the article to create alarm, and the Game and Fish and State Park have done their due diligence. They are even going so far as to complete a NEPA study (National Environmental Policy Act) to make sure all concerns are met.
Right now the state of Wyoming is in a serious economic recession, if not a depression. Coal mines and oil fields are shrinking, and we need to come up with new ways of expanding our economy. There is not going to be a singular fix to our economic woes; it will take a cornucopia of new ideas.
The Sinks Canyon Via Ferrata will likely make a few Yellowstone bound tourists stop to try out what we in Fremont County already know – Lander is a wonderful place with lots of recreation. Perhaps they will take in the family-friendly via ferrata, then have dinner in town, stay in a hotel, have breakfast, shop, etc. They may even find out that we are a growing center for mountain biking, or that partaking of the via ferrata is a good first step in learning to climb, which they can do in Lander. This will be done using a natural resource we have and in a way that does not harm the wildlife.