By Greg Chapman
For those unfamiliar with the predominantly European pastime of Via Ferrata, this is a method of exploring the more exposed and less accessible parts of the greater ranges – most commonly the Southern Alps – with little in the way of technical rock climbing equipment or advanced rope techniques. The system focuses on protecting these high level footpaths, ridges and crags with fixed steel ladders and cables, which are in turn used as both protection and a means of ascent.
Via Ferrata, or Klettersteig as it’s known in the Germanic speaking parts of the Alps, originated in the Italian Dolomites and Austrian Tyrol during the First World War, to help enable troop movements through previously inaccessible or difficult to navigate geographical areas. In later, more peaceful times the network was taken over by mountain guides and used as a method of showing the inexperienced mountain lover the wonders of the high Alpine countryside. As the cables and ladders became ever more popular to guides and individuals alike the original networks were improved and additional more adventurous systems were built on previously virgin crags.
In times past, protagonists of Via Ferrata were advised to build there own Clip or Lanyard system using a length of 9 to 10mm dynamic rope and a pair of screw-gate carabiners, due mainly to the lack of specific products made by manufacturers and the presumption that the stability of the insitu equipment would counter any inadequacies in the mountaineers kit. In recent times, however, it has been shown, in rope test houses across the world, that due to the nature of the falls in Via Ferrata - that they are some of the most forceful in all forms of mountaineering - the system must incorporate a purpose built shock load reducing feature, or "ripper" as they are sometimes known. Most modern purpose built lanyards come with this as standard. We cannot overstate enough how you must use a purpose made via ferrata set to remain safe!
Use of the Lanyard lanyard-system
Image 1. With Y-shaped lanyards, the two carabiners must always remain on the cable, with the gates opposed.
Image 2. Passing intermediate anchor points on the cable, where one of the two carabiners must be unclipped, must be done with care.
Image 3. On difficult sections, you must not hesitate to take a rest on the short lanyard, to avoid reaching the point where the fingers open (a frequently observed phenomenon on via ferrata routes).
On difficult sections, do not hesitate to rope up. Don't forget that a fall on a via ferrata is always serious, even with the best energy absorbers. In spite of all that is said about via ferrata (simplicity, accessibility, the fun aspect etc.), it remains a mountain activity, and what is more, takes place in a steep to vertical environment. A dynamic rope must always be in the pack, to complement the energy absorbing lanyard on difficult sections.
The principle is the same as in climbing: the leader passes the difficult section at the head of the rope, and sets up a belay to protect his companions. Refer to the section on climbing techniques for information on belays. If none of the members of your party are competent in rope techniques, employ a professional guide to look after your safety.
As of 2017 most newly released via ferrata sets are tested to the new, revised standard - EN 958:2016. This is expected to become legally effective and required as of 2018.
Most equipment produced before spring 2017 conforms to the EN 958:2011 standard. This is considered valid and safe and anything rated as such will be allowed to be sold for a yet to be confirmed period (probably 2 years).
The revised standard, EN 958:2016, will provide a higher level of safety for all participants:
This latest EN 958:2016 standard will a number of clear benefits for the consumer, most notably; lighter and heavier people will be safer when participating in via ferrata climbing.
- The impact force may not be higher than 3.5 kN for 40 kg and 6 kN for 120 kg.
- The maximum fall height is 5m and the shock absorber cannot exceed a length of 2.2 m.
Updated testing and ratings of via ferrata equipment ultimately means the pastime via ferrata is becoming ever more safe.
However old you are, thanks to high, exposed situations, via ferrata requires a a good head for heights. It's also a committing endeavour as a via ferrata is a fixed route - once you've started you need to be able to finish, there’s generally no escape half way up. If you’re unsure how you or your children will react to heights, it’s worth taking them on a climbing session or high ropes adventure course before plunging head first into a via ferrata trip. This will familiarise you and your family with using via ferrata style equipment and operating at height.
In general, it is advisable that children are a minimum of age 7 before they try out via ferrata, but it very much depends on the child. If they are already participating in sports such as climbing you might consider taking younger children, however ensure the weight of your child is appropriate for the lanyard system they are using. It's also advisable to belay younger children.
There is a well equipped via ferrata in the English Lake District. This tackles the steep outer incline of Fleetwith Pike above Honister Pass. A private enterprise, the Honister Slate Mine Via Ferrata is open to the public throughout the year. A 2-3 hour excursion costs around £40 (see video below). Further info and booking options can be found at their website: honister.com
Imagery courtesy of Petzl Sport.