The Odyssey - Saguenay's Via Ferrata / by Naeem Jaffer

A simple mission. A few friends; Andrew, Goldie, Adnan and I planned a quick trip to Saguenay, to climb the largest - and by advertisement - the "hardest" Via Ferrata in Quebec known as the "Odyssey". Via Ferrata means "Iron path" in Italian, and is a means of ascending or traversing a mountain and/or cliff with metal rungs anchored onto the mountain - exactly like a ladder. Via Ferratas are common in Europe but are scarce in North America. If they did exist, they were hardly challenging or exciting. The specific one that we were interested was said to take 6 hours and rated as "difficult". That fit the bill, so we aimed to make it happen. The cost of the Via Ferrata was around $80 per person, which is incredible value for 6 hours of vertigo. Look at it this way, 30mins on the CN Tower's edge walk costs twice as much!

The Via Ferrata is located in Saguenay Fjord national park, a set of mountains and cliffs that line the edge of the Saguenay River. It had a campground nearby, so we booked our climb, booked our campsite, and we set off. Saguenay is a far drive from Toronto, which was the main challenge pulling this off over a weekend. Google estimated 11.5 hours. It took us 12 (we had to stop for gas and food). We left at 9pm Friday and drove straight for the Saguenay Fjords for a non-stop drive. We arrived at 9am the next day, and checked-in exactly one hour before our climb started without really any sleep. (Props to Adnan for driving 80% of the time).

That's a long drive.

Climbing Via Ferratas require a harness outfitted with two stretchable and clip-able lanyards which are used to fasten onto the rungs for protection. Clips are moved one at a time ensuring that the climber is clipped at any given moment. Our guide Cedric gave us a quick crash course on a small mock wall with all the types of rungs and lifelines we'd come across, which seemed easy enough. Half an hour later, we were ready to go.

Getting to the "Ladder"

The first little bit was a simple ladder ascent and took some getting used to. There's a rhythm and sequence to the clipping, but once we figured it out, it was pretty straight forward. It didn't take long before we gained elevation and got a clear view of the fjord.

Even though I took a small camera with me, taking photos off the side of the cliff isn't exactly practical as you'd imagine. Instead, I got GoPro footage! At the end of this post is a short video highlighting the climb in a nutshell. If you don't like reading, you can skip straight to the video.

Most of the course is climbing up rungs like a ladder or traversing while clipped to a horizontal lifeline. But the course is also filled with a few interesting obstacles ("obstacles" inst exactly the right word, but I'll use it anyway). First was a ladder fasted onto the cliff. It looks scary given the exposure, but in reality, it was pretty straight forward, it was exactly - you guessed it - like climbing a ladder.

Our second obstacle was walking along a short 6x6 wooden plank. This too was also pretty straight forward as long as you don't let the exposure get to you.

The third obstacle got a little interesting, it was essentially walking on a single tight-wire, with another lifeline or support cable for your hands mounted at around face height. Turns out there were many ways to do this; face the cable and use both hands as you walk sideways on the cable, face away from the cable with both hands and move sideways, or hold the cable with one hand as you walk straight along the cable. As shown in the video below, our guide handled it like a boss. The important thing was to lean towards the cable. I chose the conservative way, used both hands and faced the cable, and for a split second, I eased up on the lean and started to fall backwards before I pulled myself in - that made my heart skip a beat.

Half way in, we took a break. We rested on a small 3ft ledge still tied off onto the lifeline, chucking down water, having granola bars and enjoying the views. The weather panned out, it was a glorious day.

View of the Fjord from our rest stop. Apparently, the fjord is popular for its Beluga whales. There were many sightseeing tours around.

Moving on, the course started to descend for a short while down to the suspension bridge. Descending down on rungs isn't as straight forward as I would have liked. Similar to mountaineering I suppose, descending is tougher than ascending, but we managed. The suspension bridge wasn't tough, but it was very wobbly. I don't like wobbly so I swiftly made my way across the bridge.

Andrew and Goldie on the Bridge

At the summit, and effectively the end of the Via Ferrata course

A few rungs later, we got to our last obstacle, and IMO the most interesting obstacle, known as the "Nepali" bridge. Similar to the first tightwire, this one was fitted two cables at head height vs one on the previous one. What made this challenging from the first tight-wire was the approach. All obstacles until this point begun on a solid ledge where it's easy to get ready and clip in. The Nepali bridge started off after a traverse with a slight overhang and a lot of exposure. This was by the far the best part.

After the Nepali bridge, it was a straightforward assault to the top. Even though it was easy, it was exposed with the sun beating down on us. But within half an hour we got to the top, where we took some victory pics. By this point, we had spent 4 hours on the walls of the fjord, and we had to descent down (via a civilized trail) all the way back to the guide's shack. The descent took an hour and was tiring. We were pretty spent by the end of it all.

I did say I got lots of gopro footage, so here's the highlight reel:

I should note that the camping facilities in Saguenay is pretty top notch. Services are clean, the campsites are well put together, flat with long driveways, a nice fire pit. The weather in mid-august was cool at night. We slept really well and I'm not sure if that was because of the long drive, or the long climb, or both. We didn't stay long in Saguenay. Once we work up, we packed up and made the long drive back home.

Morning on the Fjord

The last photo from Saguenay's Fjord