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.
The Lanyard System
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.
Rope Technique for Via Ferrata
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.
- Lanyard System: Your life line and an essential purchase.
- Harness: A good quality lightweight Alpine style harness will suffice but you may want to upgrade to a fully adjustable padded harness for extra comfort. Another essential.
- Gloves: A dexterous set of fingerless via ferrata specific or belay gloves protect your palms from rough cables and rock and are highly recommended.
- Helmet: Non essential but as in rock climbing highly recommended.
- Rope: Whilst not 100% essential the option of a rope does increase your options greatly, especially if you travelling with less experienced people and highly recommended for kids. A 30m to 50m 8.5mm to 9mm dynamic single rated rope is the best compromise between safety and weight.
- Belay Device: If you are taking a rope don't forget an appropriate belay device.
- Guide Book: It's always worth having a decent guide whatever you are doing in the mountains, we have a reasonable selection of Via Ferrata guides within our book department.
- Insurance: As with any adventurous holiday, always take out the appropriate level of insurance cover. The BMC is always a good port of call in this regard.
New Safety Standards
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:
- A wider range of user weights have been tested (40 kg and 120 kg).
- The new standard tests 120 kg under wet conditions.
- In addition, a tensile testing of 12 kN for the entire system will be required (EN 958:2011 currently only requires testing of 9 kN).
- A tensile testing of 15 kN for the non-elastic lanyards is now required.
- For the first time ever the new standard requires that the wear resistance of elastic lanyards is also tested.
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.
Via Ferrata with Children
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.
Where can I try it out in the UK?
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.