Tag Archives: mountaineering

Don’t look down! My first via ferrata

As I look up all I can see is metal staircases, stretching up seemingly right up towards the sky. I’m in the middle of one of them, gripping so hard my knuckles are going white, as I re-clip my carabiners onto the next chain. Click one. Click two. Phew…safe.

Ferrata ladder

Via ferrata is not for the faint of heart – it’s an experience that requires a bit of a head for heights, arguably to a greater extent than “proper” climbing. Some via ferrata have a great deal of exposure, and falling off is really not the best idea, despite being protected along the way.

Via ferrata – Italian for “iron road” – is a protected climbing route, usually by a steel cable or chain that runs up the rock, which is fixed to the rock at 3-10 metre intervals. They range in difficulty from 1 to 5, the latter being the hardest, and also tend to have grades for the exposure element.

Its origins go back to World War I, when ropes and wooden bridges were scattered all over the Dolomites to help troops move around at altitude. Decades later, after World War II, these were replaced by steel cables, metal ladders and chains, a network which now covers over 1,000 routes and is maintained by the Club Alpino Italiano, the Italian Alpine Club.

Via ferrata gives you that mix between sport climbing and hiking up a mountain, and the result is exhilarating. That’s something I’ve been missing with sport climbing so far – though we go outdoors quite a lot, we haven’t transitioned on to doing lots of multi-pitch routes(yet!), so although the fear of falling is ever-present, it rarely satisfies my need for height.

As I said, vie ferrate are not for the faint of heart. At times, there’s a huge amount of exposure, and I have to confess I felt a monumental sense of relief that I didn’t dive head first, as I normally do, and organise a trip to do one of these with a group of friends. It was something I planned for a while, but on my first time doing this thing, I don’t think I would have been of any help if one of my friends panicked, and I feel that is a distinct possibility on a route like that (even though ours was pretty easy by ferrata standards).

Don’t get me wrong – the experience is incredible and I would recommend it to anyone who loves the mountains. But having done it myself, I would suggest taking an instructor to anyone who doesn’t either climb or scramble on a regular basis.

Ferrata bridgeWe did a route called Gamma 1 in the mountains around Lake Como, Italy. It’s a relatively simple route, with a 2.2 rating (out of 5), so it wasn’t necessarily hard technically, but it was very tiring! It requires stamina and upper body strength, and a bit of disregard for the skin on your hands, as well as tolerance to many accidental bruises.

In many places the route was really polished – either because it’s simple, and therefore popular, or simply by virtue of being close to the lake and getting eroded by wet air day in, day out, for years. So often we had to resort to pulling ourselves up using the chains and smearing on the wall with our feet, instead of employing any form of climbing technique!

And the equipment. The equipment deserves a whole post on its own, but there are a number of those online, so I won’t try to replicate them.

I’ll say this though: as climbers, we assumed until last minute that we can forgo the precautions used by “normal people”. Our plan was to just attach some slings to our climbing harnesses, stick a carabiner on the end, bingo! Luckily, we did a bit of reading around, and that’s not quite how it works…

It turns out that, while a sport climber is likely to encounter a fall factor of up to 2, the fall factors on a via ferrata can reach 5. Without too much technical detail, it would suffice to say that even a small fall on a sling can burst it into pieces, so using them for a via ferrata is a very, very bad idea. But it turns out that even normal dynamic rope won’t take a fall of such force, though many people use DIY equipment anyway. We decided to be better safe than sorry!

The bottom line is, if you want to go, make sure you buy a lanyard – a special via ferrata set that will keep you safe as much as possible. There are quite a few expensive sets out there, but French brand Simond do a perfectly suitable lanyard for £34.99, which you can buy in Decathlon. Then all you need is a harness and a helmet, and if your hands are particularly soft, a pair of gloves could help. We were too hardcore/cheap to buy suitable gloves, so we just went for it. I have to be honest, my hands felt really, really sore afterwards. But what’s adventure without a little bit of physical hardship?

And anyway, it was all majorly worth it for the views. Nothing can ever compare to looking down on the world from the top of a mountain, in my personal opinion. And I never ever feel quite as happy doing anything else as I feel in that moment. It’s like all the worries of the world simply slip away and all that’s left is just childish, boundless joy of being there. That what the saying “I feel on top of the world” really means!

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Addiction to adventure: in love with the pain

Every step I take up the steep winding steps sends shooting pains up my knees and thighs, and the worst thing is I know it will hurt twice as much on the way down. But I can’t help laughing at the crippled predicament I’m in, that we’re all in.

Slowly we shuffle up the staircase, wincing every time we put weight on our tortured limbs, all the time wide ecstatic smiles dancing on our faces. We made it to the top of North Africa yesterday!!! What’s a few extra flights of stairs?

There is something addictive, something so appealing and irresistible about the pain and struggle we put ourselves through in our fight to get to the top, to reach the finish line, to fight until we have nothing left to give. We are all drug addicts, who, having tasted the bittersweet poison of adventure, battle through our day-to-day activities like zombies in anticipation of the life-giving elixir of the next challenge, the next fight, the next push.

It is now nearly a year since a group of us hiked to the top of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains (4,167m). The altitude and long hours of hiking took their toll on us. There were illnesses, arguments, and exhaustion, but what I remember most vividly now is the exhilaration of getting to the top, and the sense of accomplishment and deserved rest the following day.

I miss that feeling terribly, and I want to experience it again. And again. And again.

I want to push myself to the top of a mountain again, suffering the headaches, the nausea, the exhaustion. I want to be forced to search for those last reserves of energy to cover the remaining few hundred metres, to stand at the top and spread my arms out to the sides, breathing in the cold, crisp air. I want to feel like I’m on top of the world again. I don’t care if it will be physically painful, because I know it’s SO worth it!

People often ask, what it is about climbing and mountaineering that’s so appealing? Adventure sports is a drug that’s so much stronger than the chemically induced highs that keep people dancing throughout the night in clubs. It’s an addiction so powerful that no amount of going “cold turkey” could ever cure it. It’s feeling bright amid a nondescript grayness.

When I’m climbing a route outdoors, or scrambling up some crumbly scree, my mind goes blank, in a way I have never managed to achieve through any amount of meditation (I usually just fall asleep!). All the everyday worries, insecurities and petty annoyances just slip away, leaving pure focus. On the rock in front of me, the pebbles under my feet, the steel pieces of equipment in my hands, and the rope tied into my harness. Beautifully simple, the uninterrupted concentration on staying safe and making it up to the top.

That’s what I climb for – that inner calm and composure, more than the adrenaline, or even the gorgeous views at the top of a mountain or a multi-pitch route.

Falling in love with mountaineering isn’t a phase, nor is it an unhealthy obsession. It’s simply the elation of finally discovering what it feels like to be alive, and holding on to that feeling with everything you have. Because nothing else compares, and nothing ever will. And it’s worth all the money in the world.

So…….who’s up for doing a 5,000m peak with me? 😉

‘Because it’s there’: Everest review

In 1923, renowned British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” His reply was: “Because it’s there.”

Stories of Everest climbs are no longer as scarce as they were in Mallory’s days, but few are as heartwrenching as the account written by Jon Krakauer after the expedition in 1996, which turned out to be one of the most memorable disasters in the mountain’s recent history.

Not that there have been few of those: the mountain has claimed over 250 lives since people began trying to scale its peak. But I guess the story told by the film, based on Krakauer’s famous book Into Thin Air, is the best known from that era (that’s what happens when you take a journalist on an expedition with you!).

It’s not an easy subject to translate into a film, so I really wasn’t sure what I would feel about this adaptation. I have a tendency to get very irritated with film adaptations that don’t reflect the book the way I think it needs to be represented, and that was definitely a possibility with this one. Then of course there’s the fear that the director, Baltasar Kormákur, won’t have the faintest idea about the compulsion to climb and conquer mountains, and will therefore miss the whole point of the story.

I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed the way I thought I would be, and I walked away from the cinema with a renewed yearning for high altitude – a dubious response to such a tragic story, I agree, but I’m a climber, so I knew that would happen.

Of course, I have issues with some elements of the film, that’s not to be avoided. I wasn’t convinced by the character of Scott Fischer, for example – the lack of exposure he got on screen, the way his character wasn’t allowed to develop and flourish, and even, frankly, the choice of actor. I also felt some other parts of the story were dropped after an initial mention, making them a bit redundant (the sub-story with the South African team, for example) – either commit to it, or leave it, I would say.

But that’s by the by, because despite its commercialisation and the typical Hollywood over-sentimentalising, the film nearly made me cry by the end, and that’s despite me knowing the story. I think the tragedy of the 1996 climb is so powerful, and the mistakes we see in hindsight so painful to watch, that it almost doesn’t matter how well the film is made.

That sounds like I’m belittling the efforts of the director though, but that is not at all my intention. He did a lot of things right. He stuck to Krakauer’s account of the story, which in my opinion is the key. He succeeded in creating a spectacle out of the words on the page that almost makes the viewer feel the crippling cold, headaches and lack of oxygen up above 27,000 feet, and he managed to create at least some likable characters.

The over-sentimental tone of the film, though perhaps not quite in the spirit of mountaineering, is necessary to translate the story into something accessible to the masses, and not just the relative minority of mountaineers sitting in the cinema and feeling chilled to the bone by the mere images of the cold, unwelcoming mountain terrain. The over-reliance on family stories sort of fits in. And anyway, that family connection and the painful connection to ‘real life’ was a key and memorable part of the book for me, it may just have been exaggerated somewhat in the screen adaptation.

I loved the humanity of the film, the personal heartbreak it lays bare, the sacrifices made to the mountain and the difficulty of managing inter-human relations on an expedition like this. The human error that always becomes our undoing.

When I criticise, I do so because it is in my nature to be over-critical, and because I see it from the point of the view of a climber that has often contemplated what it would be like to “do” Everest.

And I doubt I’ll ever stop wondering, but I also doubt I’ll ever let the compulsion drive me to the top of an 8,000m peak.

Everest is too expensive and commercialised anyway, but that’s not it. There are plenty of other 8,000-ers I could work towards. But the stakes are just too high.

For me, I think that’s what this story is ultimately about.