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Nelson Rocks Via Ferrata, WV

Ascending the Headwall

Let’s dispense with the warnings first, shall we? If you’re afraid of heights, don’t climb the via ferrata at Nelson Rocks Preserve. Just don’t. As far as the other warnings go, let’s take a point out of NRP’s waiver, written in refreshingly plain language by Stuart Hammett, lawyer/co-owner along with his wife, LaVonne Hammett: “It's a fact, climbing is extremely dangerous. If you don't like it, stay at home. You really shouldn't be doing it anyway.”

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s concentrate on what the acrophobes are missing out on: two knife-edge quartzite fins jutting up hundreds of feet out from the forest, connected by an aerial footbridge. Green, undulating ridges as far as the eye can see. Sunshine on your smiling face and a stiff breeze waiting to knock you off the four-foot-wide peak (don’t worry, you’re tied in). Kestrels and red-tailed hawks circling below.

Just another day at the office for Jim Flynn, a lifeguard at Nelson Rocks Preserve’s via ferrata. “It’s like a roller coaster, except you do the work,” Jim says between stints of directing visitors up the headwall (that four-foot-wide peak) and playing reggae tunes on his harmonica. “You’re not along for the ride.” Jim’s station is just one stop along the 183 rungs, a half mile of steel cable and a 250-foot-long swinging bridge (it’s 150 feet above the ground) that take you along a via ferrata, Italian for “iron way.”

Via ferratas (or is that vias ferrata?) are fairly common in Europe, especially in Italy’s Dolomites, but there are still fewer than 10 in North America. It’s mountaineering for those without the gear or the skills for mountaineering. Always connected to a safety cable, the route up Nelson Rocks allows anyone with some basic physical fitness to scale sheer rock face and have a peak experience.

Where it's at: About 3 1/2 hours from Pittsburgh; from Morgantown, WV, take I-79 south 50 miles to US 33 (exit 99) east and travel about 70 miles to WV 28, go south on 28 about a half mile. The entrance is on your left.

Contact: www.nelsonrocks.org or (304) 567-3169

Digs: Seneca Shadows Campground, or 877-444-6777; Germany Valley Overlook Cabins, www.germanyvalleycabins.com or 1-800-481-5680

Grub: Seneca Restaurant, or (304) 567-2691

Gear and Outfitting:Gendarme climbing shop, www.thegendarme.com or (304) 567-2600

Cost: $35-$50