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.
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.
We 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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