Via Ferrata.  Via What????

by Norman Harris

I must admit that when a friend was telling me about his Via Ferrataing holiday in the French Alps I was puzzled initially as what on earth he was talking about.  Turns out, I thought from his description, it was a sort of ‘mountaineering for wimps’ (how wrong I was!)

Apparently, during the first world war, (no, I don’t remember it!) it was important for the Austrian and Italian troops, who were fighting each other, to have troops move around in comparative safety before being shot, in the Dolomites.  So they started putting permanent lines and ladders into the rocks for the troops to use.  These became the first Via Ferrata (‘way of iron’).  The original ones became so popular with climbers that lots of new ones were built and they are now very common in the Dolomites and the French Alps.

Enough history.

I was told what to buy in the way of equipment I should explain that the kit needed for this consists of a climbing harness, a ‘round the waist and round the legs’ jobby.

It was explained to me that the legs bit was if I fell these would take my weight without injuring any soft, vital bits.  The waist bit was for if I fell and ended up upside down.  Very reassuring!  Getting in to this was not easy and the sort of thing I practiced at home so as not to look a complete plonker when I strapped my left elbow to my right knee!  The other bits were the two yellow lanyards, about a metre long with carabiners on the end for clipping on to the cables and on to the harness.  You are supposed to look cool by wearing them around your neck when not using them.  Looks good in the pub.  Then there was the essential helmet.  This was to stop me being hit by rocks dislodged by other climbers.  It would also stop me banging my head if I fell.  Stop talking about falling!  The last and vital bit was a ‘fall arrest’.  I do wish they’d stop talking about falling!  This is a 2m rope (the blue rope) which, should you fall, slides through a friction device to ‘arrest’ your fall and let you fall onto the rocks a bit slower.  Please stop talking about falling!

Sandy and I drove to Pelvoux in the Hautes Alps to be met by a group of 12 other experienced VFers.  Interestingly, the average age was about 60, the oldest being 67.  Don’t let that let you think this was easy, these guys, and gals, were serious CLIMBERS!  With my inexperience they decided I could manage a second category climb (there are 6 categories) as my first attempt.  Expecting to see a nice gentle climb up a nice gentle slope, I was not prepared for a 300m/1000ft vertical rock face!  In the picture there is a little white dot bottom left just above the tree, that’s me.

Perhaps I should explain that where there are no obvious foot or hand holds there are ‘stepules’, like a big staple fitted into the rock as a hand/foot hold.  So up I went quickly finding that where there are no stepules there were ‘obvious’ foot/hand holds.  I say ‘obvious’ because these needed pointing out to me by the more experienced climbers.

My idea of a sensible, obvious, hand hold is NOT a crack 25mm/1in wide when I’m dangling 500ft in the air!  The other thing to remember is the carabiners have to be clipped and unclipped every time you pass one of the bolts holding the cables in place.  A real pain when you have just struggled 6ft past a bolt and have to go back down again to unclip your carabiners.  The books on the VFs mention things like ‘airy traverses’, which sound really nice.  WRONG!  By this they mean you are possibly edging along a 2in/50mm ledge (like in the photo) with a mere 1000ft/300m drop below.  I’m not joking!  On one of these airy traverses they guy behind said to me “I’m going back to check on someone, make your self comfortable”.  This was not MY idea of comfort, standing on a peg with the most astonishing drop below me!

How do you get down again? Well, strangely enough there are not many ‘down’ VFs, the way down is usually a long walk back to your car, but there are a few.  They are hard, as going up you can see the hand holds and you’ve passed the foot holds so you know where they are.  On the way down you have to guess/feel for the foot holds as you lower yourself over some ridiculous drop.  Scary!

I actually did 4 of the VFs, the hardest one by far was the Lauzet which topped out at 2611m/8000ft but started at about 1300m/4000ft with a 500m/1500ft trek up to the start.  OK I admit it, I was exhausted by the time we got near the top but I did get to the top!  Would I go and do it again?  You bet!