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One of the best via ferrata experiences that I’ve had in the US (if not the world) was climbing the via ferrata klettersteig course in Nelson Rocks, West Virginia. This post details what to expect from the Nelson Rocks via ferrata, where to stay near Nelson Rocks, and our experience climbing the NRocks klettersteig.
I’ve done via ferratas/klettersteige in five countries now. As a big fan of climbing, my husband and I have done a number of via ferratas in different countries, but I still often think back on one of my first via ferratas in the United States. The Nelson Rocks via ferrata is a great introduction to this fantastic sport that requires little equipment.
What is via ferrata?
Via ferrata or klettersteig is a form of climbing where you utilize steel cables that are drilled into the rock in order to climb. Attached to your harness will be a special via ferrata kit that includes two clips. You need to be attached to the rope at all times and you want to ensure both clips are attached to the cable for your own safety.
Via ferrata was invented by the Italians as a way of fighting in the mountains and easily passing troops through the Alps during World War I. Many of these original routes still exist today although they’re used for leisure climbing.
One of advantage of via ferrata compared to other forms of climbing is that you don’t need to have a belayer. In convention rock climbing, someone needs to be ensuring that you don’t fall. With via ferrata, you are responsible for yourself to ensure that you stay safe in many cases. This is true for most via ferratas in Europe, but in the United States, liability laws result in having instructors there to monitor your safety. (You can read more about via ferrata here.)
Nelson Rocks: the rock itself
Hidden in the knobs of West Virginia, you’ll find some stunning “fins” that jut out of the ground. These fins are part of the Allegheny mountain range, which are part of the Appalachian Mountains. Driving along US33 is a stunning drive as you’ll see many of these formations from the road.
The rock is made of quartzite and sandstone, which makes the rock easy to grip although a bit sharp at times. Originally, there were many arches in this area, however these arches eroded over time, leaving the fins that you can still climb today.
About the Nelson Rocks via ferrata
The Nelson Rocks and some of the surrounding areas (including Seneca Rocks) was originally used by the US Army (the 10th Mountain Division) as preparation for fighting mountain assault troops in Italy.
For many years, this land was privately owned although it was opened to climbers in 1998 after being opened as part of the private Nelson Rocks Preserve. Although Nelson Rocks is not the first via ferrata in the United States, it is certainly one of the most scenic ones. At this point, unguided climbing is prohibited on the property and all climbing is regulated by the company that owns the property.
You must be 13+ as well as in good physical condition to climb. The highest part of the climb will be about 300 feet up on the air if you choose to climb to the top of the head wall, but the main route is about 200 feet off the ground. The bridge is 150 feet off the ground.
The overall trip for us took about 4.5 hours as one of the climbers had to downclimb at some point, which took some time. Our group was on the smaller side, which allowed for instructors to stop and help when people were struggling. Afterwards, that’s a great spot for photos in case you’re not comfortable taking one during the via ferrata.
Is the via ferrata safe?
There was an infamous death at Nelson Rocks some years ago. This occurred while a woman was climbing with the proper gear, but completely unhooked herself from the safety cables while going around a tree. She slipped and fell 150 feet.
With via ferratas, you are supposed to remain hooked in at all times, so you can imagine how deadly a fall can be if you slip from 150 feet off the ground. When encountering a tree, you need to keep one clip attached while attaching the second clip to the cable. Your safety is dependent on you as the guides can help, but there is only so much they can do if you do not follow proper via ferrata technique.
Climbing can be dangerous. There is no doubt about it. It’s important to have good technique and to check into how often the via ferrata is maintained. Still, you must be aware of weather as a cloudy day can create dangerous conditions on many via ferratas.
I don’t write the death at Nelson Rocks as a way of scaring you, but a way of reminding you that you must remain attached to the cable, follow conventional safety advice, and to listen to the instructions of your guide.
Should you climb this via ferrata if you’re afraid of heights?
There’s not an easy answer. Both Jacob and I struggle with vertigo/a fear of heights and for us, being attached to the cable in the air is exhilarating. It can be can downright terrifying at times, but for me, those moments of fear are drowned out by the overarching feeling of completing the route. You need to know yourself. Unfortunately with many via ferratas, many people can underestimate their fear of heights and turning back can be more difficult than you think it might be depending on the route.
While climbing the Nelson Rocks via ferrata, there was a man who really struggled with his fear of heights who had to downclimb from the summit climb. He managed to get through the course, but he said that he was done climbing for good.
I’d recommend trying out conventional rock climbing at a gym first as the adrenaline as well as the drop at Nelson Rocks (especially after the first turn onto the fin) can make your fear worse if you’ve never really challenged your fear of heights before. If you have a paralyzing fear of heights, this is not the place to try to conquer it first.
Our experience with the via ferrata
We lucked out with the weather, however if you’re driving to Nelson Rocks solely to the via ferrata, I’d recommend ensuring that you’re there for two days in case the weather doesn’t cooperate on one of the days. Although they can accomodate people walking in, I’d recommend making a reservation to ensure that you can climb.
We lucked out with the weather and set off from Pennsylvania with a group of adventurous friends ready to conquer the via ferrata. One of the friends has returned with his parents to climb Nelson Rocks again since the first climb. We ended up staying overnight in nearby Elkins (keep reading for where we stayed.)
We signed our indemnity forms first. You’re not allowed on the via ferrata without doing so… After this, we were given our gear along with a safety instruction to show us how to properly use our via ferrata set. The Nelson Rocks via ferrata provides your equipment, including the helmut, the harness, and the via ferrata set. Our guides were friendly experienced climbers who were able to instruct many of us in some rock climbing techniques that were helpful for more difficult sections.
First, you’ll scale the wall that will bring up up the fin. This is a typical ladder found with via ferratas. After this point, you’ll turn onto the fin. This part was the most exhilarating and terrifying bit for me. Once you turn the corner, you’re 150-200 feet up in the air with a sheer drop along the cliff face with good foot and hand holds. We climbed horizontally along the wall until we reached the point where the bridge is…
The scariest part of the via ferrata (for many): The Nelson Rocks bridge
At least for my friends, they found the bridge to be scariest part. Luckily, there’s a good place to rest and have a bite to eat there while you watch others going across the bridge.
It’s best to make it so that only one person goes across the bridge at a time as a second person can make the bridge move a lot. The bridge is 150 feet off the ground with a gap of about one foot between the steps.
The optional summit climb
Many people chose not to do to optional summit climb (another 100 feet up), which consisted of ladders leading up to the summit of one of the fins. You’ll need to climb down a different set of ladders to get back to the bottom. That said, the view from the top was incredible. You can climb in to get a 360 view of the area from the top.
I got a bit unlucky and I was behind someone who decided about halfway up that he didn’t want to complete the climb. With via ferratas, there are typically more footholds for downclimbing as it is more technically difficult as you have less visibility, so that wasn’t my favorite moment.
What to bring with you
If you intend to take photos, I recommend bringing your GoPro as the views are great and it’s the easiest way to capture stunning photos of the via ferrata without having to stop. They can provide a helmet that has the GoPro mount.
I brought my DSLR, which was a bit difficult to climb with. My husband tucked it into his backpack, however taking it out was very difficult. If you intend to take your DSLR, I recommend having a good strap attached to your DSLR to make it easier to take out of your bag.
In general, I’d recommend bringing a backpack for your stuff, water, and snacks. The climb is fairly long and you don’t want to get dehydrated. I brought a box of granola bars with me, which was helpful for helping me find the extra energy to climb. Bring sunscreen with you as the direct sun can be a bit intense if you’re higher up!
We climbed on a sunny day in October and I brought a sweatshirt with me, however I ended up putting it in the backpack after I got sweaty from the exercise. I use an army surplus backpack for climbing and always bring my Nalgene water bottle with me! I recommend wearing pants instead of shorts as the rock can be a bit sharper and you’ll want to protect your legs from getting cut up.
I wore a good pair of hiking sneakers, athletic clothes, and my fingerless climbing gloves. I bought this after my first via ferrata. If you get nervous, fingerless climbing gloves can be helpful as they prevent your hands from getting too sweaty to grip the rock/ladders well–and prevent your hands from getting too cut up.
Where to stay near Nelson Rocks, WV and getting there
You need a car if you’re visiting It is possible to stay on lodges at Nelson Rocks itself, however we ended up staying in the nearby Elkins, West Virginia as there were more options for food. There’s a hostel and brewery called Brewstel in Elkins with a homey atmosphere that is perfect for groups. There was an really nice diner in town that we went to before heading out.
Most of us did not have good cell phone service at all in the area. My husband who had service through Appalachian Wireless was the only one who had a decent connection, so it’s best to go old school with buying a map or printing out directions before you go.