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Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!


Postby Pointless Parasite » Sun Oct 17, 2021 2:27 pm

Date walked: 27/09/2021

Time taken: 666

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For those that don't know, via ferratas are the device of the cloven hooved one, designed to allow non-climbers the chance to climb difficult routes and cliff faces. Purist mountaineers and climbers often hate them, but they're insanely popular in Europe. Via ferratas always feature a steel cable bolted onto the rock at regular intervals, and usually various other climbing aids such as U-shaped metal stemples, small footplates, simple metal pegs, ladders, cable bridges and balance beams.

To climb a via ferrata route, you need a harness, a helmet and a set of via ferrata lanyards. These are usually in a Y-shaped arrangement, with two carabiners at the ends and a shock absorbing unit at the 'stem' of the Y. The central principle of via ferrata climbing is that you're always clipped into the cable with at least one of the two lanyards. To get past a cable attachment point, unclip one carabiner and clip it onto the cable on the other side of the attachment, then do the same with the other.

A Camp 'kinetic' via ferrata set with a shocking absorbing section:
Image

Source

There are only a small handfull of via ferratas in the UK. As far as I can tell, all are commercial operations and cost money to use. In contrast, via ferratas are everywhere in Europe (there are about 50 in Canton Bern alone) and are almost invariably free. They are put up by various groups including local tourist boards, climbing groups and sometimes companies like Mammut.

I have put together a short report of the first five via ferratas I've done, all of which are in Swizerland except for the Jacques Revaclier, which is over the border in France.

Champery: Via ferrata de Tière
My first experience of via ferrata climbing was the via ferrata de Tière, on the lower slopes of the Dents du Midi (Valais). The route is split into two parts. The first is a fun and easy climb up among some waterfalls, including a couple of wobbly bridges. The second part is more comitting, and much more exposed.

The first section begins with a very easy walk along a path alongside the river:

champery VF1.jpg


Then a short climb up to the first of two bridges:

champery VF2.jpg


The second bridge is much longer and more exposed. In both cases, the base of the bridge is not attached at the ends, meaning it can sway about.

champery VF3.jpg


The second part of the via ferrata starts after an easy walk along a cable protected path. After a short climb up you reach the final headwall. This involves a traverse under a small overhang, up to the point where the girl in orange is, then a climb up, followed by a traverse back above the overhang:

champery VF4.jpg


The photo below is looking down on the section above the overhang. The stemples were wet and I had a minor slip on one but managed to hold on.

champery VF5.jpg


A further vertical section led up to the end of my first via ferrata 8)


Mont Saleve: Via Ferrata Jacques Revaclier
The Jacques Revaclier via ferrata is located just outside Geneva, on the French side of the border. This is a really strange route. The first part is nothing more than a path with a cable alongside:

JV VF1.jpg


When you reach a little cave with a memorial to Jacques R, the nature of the route changes abruptly. You find yourself edging out around two thrids of the way up a cliff and the sense of exposure is seriously unnerving :crazy:

I reached a little spike of rock and looked down at the trees about 60-70 m below. "I can't do this" I thought to myself. In fact I probably said it out aloud.

Image

I stood there for about 10 minutes wondering what to do. I'd decided to give up, but didn't actually turn around. The strange thing was, despite the huge drop, I felt quite secure attached to the cable. It was just the thought of going further up that bothered me.

JV VF2.jpg
The route doesn't feel exposed until you reach the spike of rock seen at the top


JV VF3.jpg


Image

Eventually I started moving again, going up not down. The route climbs up a few metres, then crosses a shallow cave (short cable bridge) then climbs a short overhanging section before an easy climb to the top. I was pleased I'd managed to find the courage to finish the route but continued to find the exposure unsettling. I lay awake that night plagued with 'what if' thoughts, imagining myself plummeting down after forgetting to clip in :crazy:


Leysin: Via ferrata Plan Pratz
The Plan Pratz is a very popular via ferrata located 10 minutes walk from Leysin (Dougal Haston's home town). This is a very different route to the others and rather typical of the new breed of 'sports' via ferratas being built in the alps. It's not exposed but it's much more technically demanding. Rather than climbing up, the route mainly involves traversing across a large rock band in the woods.

PlanPratz VF1.jpg


The big problem with the Plan Pratz is evident from the photo below: both climbers are leaning back. In fact large portions of this route are overhanging, not by much, but enough to throw your centre of gravity behind your feet requiring you to use your arms to pull yourself forward. This is OK for a while, but quickly becomes tiring, especially when you need to clip and unclip the lanyards.

PlanPratz VF2.jpg


PlanPratz VF3.jpg


One nice thing about this route is that it has 2 'escape points', meaning you are not committed to finishing the whole route. I needed to leave at the first escape point to apply some first aid to a bleeding finger, and also managed to get some rest. I set off again, and within about 30 seconds the plaster started peeling off. That's what you get for keeping hold of red cross plasters with a use by date that was probably in the last century :roll:

PlanPratz VF4.jpg


Back on the rockface, the route continues over a couple of bridges and then climbs up again:

PlanPratz VF5.jpg


PlanPratz VF6.jpg


Next there is a second escape point (down a wooden pole with ladder rungs) before the route climbs up towards the first of two ladders.

PlanPratz VF7.jpg


Both ladders are of the outward facing variety, meaning you need to climb facing away from the rock face. They feel exposed but are technically easy and are much less tiring than the rest of the route.

PlanPratz VF8.jpg


In between the ladders, there is a sustained section of overhang. By now I was getting increasingly tired and there was no opportunity to rest my arms. Eventually I felt an overwhelming sense of fatigue sweep over my arms and after a few seconds my hands let go. I didn't fall. The lanyards simply took my weight, with my feet still on the lower stemples. I waited for a few minutes for the feeling to come back in my arms, before pulling myself back up and continuing to the ladder at the end.

PlanPratz VF9.jpg


PlanPratz VF10.jpg


I'd completed the route but had learmed a serious lesson: bring a rest lanyard. This can simply be a screwgate carabiner attached to the loop on the shock absorber of the lanyard, but most people use a quickdraw with screwgate carabiners, either attached to the shock absorber loop or the belay loop of the harness. The one thing you must never do is clip the quickdraw into both the shock absorber loop and the harness as this bypasses the shock absorber. I'd also learmed that gloves are a good idea. It's very easy to scrape the skin away from you figures if you get them in between the cable and the rock.

Afterwards I wandered down to the cemetary to look for Dougal's grave. He was killed in an avalanche on La Riondaz in 1977 and is apparently buried here. I walked around the whole site but couldn't find him. The Swiss 'recycle' graves, but surely 44 years was too soon? There were a few headstones that had fallen into disrepair and were unreadable. Perhaps one of them was his. If so, it seems pretty remarkable that one of the greatest climbers of all time could be lying in an essentially unmarked grave and forgotten about :(

Grindelwald: Schwarzhorn klettersteig
Via ferratas are knowns as klettersteigs in German. The Schwarzhorn (also called Schwarzhoren) was one of the reasons why I took up via ferrata in the first place. Although there is an easy hiking route up the mountain, there is a much more interesting looking route that leads along a long ridge, beginning with a series of ladders bolted to the rock:

Schwarzhorn VF1.jpg


Schwarzhorn VF2.jpg


Note that all photos of theses ladders makes it look like they are leaning to the side. They aren't. It's just a trick of perspective. The first set of two ladders begins after a short scramble up some rocks:

Schwarzhorn VF3.jpg


The second set of three ladders:

Schwarzhorn VF4.jpg


Actually the ladders were much less exposed than I'd expected. The biggest problem is the need to keep stopping to clip and unclip the ferrata lanyards. Since the last climb, I'd bought a pair of belay gloves at Decathlon. These looked good, but I soon discovered they are no use for via ferrata because the fingertips kept getting trapped in the carabiners and preventing them from closing properly. After the first set of ladders I took them off.

Once at the top of the second set, the cable continues most of the way along the summit ridge. This was very easy and I mostly just walked along without clipping in.

Schwarzhorn VF5.jpg


To be honest, the Schwarzhorn is probably the easiest via ferrata I've done and has the added bonus of including a 2928 m summit with great views of the Bernese Oberland. If you're in the Grindelwald area, there's another via ferrata route on part of the north face of the Eiger called the Rotstock. It looks fun, although I've not done it yet.


Saas Fee: Mitaghorn klettersteig
The Mittaghorn is probably my favourite via ferrata I've done, so far. It's more of a protected scramble than anything else and is fairly easy and unexposed throughout. Most of the climbing is done on rock and there is only a handful of U-shaped metal stemples and pegs. The main problem is the altitude. Climbing between 2687 m and 3142 m, it is noticeably more tiring than the valley routes and there's an increased risk of the weather turning bad and snow/ice on the route.

The ferrata leads along the ridge on the right in the photo below:

Miiatghorn VF1.jpg


I walked to the beginning from Saas Fee, but the easiest way is to take the Alpin Express cable car (you get a free pass if you're staying locally) to the first stop and follow the klettersteig signs from there. A vague 'Alpine wanderweg' (blue/white markers) leads over very rocky terrain up to the start of the ferrata, marked by a large flag.

Miiatghorn VF2.jpg


Miiatghorn VF3.jpg


Miiatghorn VF4.jpg


The photo below shows one of the most awkward sections, involving a scramble up a groove in the rock. Notice the lack of other climbing aids in the photos.

Miiatghorn VF5.jpg


I could see the ridge stretching away and it looked like I was hours away from the top. But then I realised I was actually looking at another mountain entirely, Egginer, and after one short climb up a steep slab equipped with stemples and pegs I was on the summit.

Miiatghorn VF6.jpg


The summit is marked by a huge aluminium cross. From here, you can descend a steep footpath down the east face of the Mittaghorn, then north to Plattjen and then down to Saas Fee. I was vaguely intending to also do the new via ferrata that's been put up behind the nearby Brittania hut, but the Mittaghorn had taken too long and I needed to get back early to visit the guides' office. Overall, a superb day out and good acclimatisation for nearby 4000ers (I climbed Allalinhorn a couple of days later).

After completing these five via ferrata routes I can certainly see the appeal, although I'm more interested in the 'mountain' routes like Schwarzhorn and Mittaghorn that involve reaching an actual summit. As well as being fun, I feel like my climbing and scrambling confidence has increased and I'm less bothered by exposure than I was previously. The question is, could non-commercial via ferratas ever catch on in the UK?
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby jacob » Wed Oct 20, 2021 9:55 pm

Great pictures, interesting read. My thoughts on the subject: it's true that Via Ferratas are common on mainland Europe, and the fact they're free, and a great way to reach peaks or heights you normally wouldn't reach without climbing or severe scrambling, and they do their job in making people more used to exposure, makes it a nice way of entering mountaineous terrain.

However, no matter how much one appreciates them, they are a disturbance of the untouched mountain, they are a scar in the landscape and I do like the UK for not having them the ways mainland Europe has them. And mind you: I've got my VF set, I've done more than 1 VF in France and the Alps, and I did thoroughly enjoy them. But I surely hope they DO NOT catch on in the UK.
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby Alteknacker » Wed Oct 20, 2021 11:08 pm

Fantastic report - thanks so much for posting, and including so much detail :clap: :clap: :clap: . My bro and I have been talking about doing some of this for some years now, but we really need to get our collective asses into gear before we reach 70 (not long now!), and this should prove the necessary catalyst.
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby arjh » Thu Oct 21, 2021 12:02 am

Have done several in the Dolomites, French Alps, Pyrenees, great fun. Recommended to keep an eye on the clock and guidebook times as you don't want to be on a giant lightning conductor when the early evening continental storms move in...

Only fell once, at the final overhang move at the top of a route where I was very glad the lanyards held me - had they not a short fall to a thin strip of a ledge would have resulted, followed by a 700ft fall onto a forest :lol: The exposure you get on some routes is just stunning.

On my first couple of trips I used a pair of ancient leather driving gloves, a bit sweaty but superb for gripping the metal.

Highlight was a route that went to the top of the Marmolada, there's a video of the route below involving glacier crossings, some WW1 tunnels and some nicely exposed ferrata, which was coated in verglas when we did it!

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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby Pointless Parasite » Fri Oct 22, 2021 5:52 pm

jacob wrote:Great pictures, interesting read. My thoughts on the subject: it's true that Via Ferratas are common on mainland Europe, and the fact they're free, and a great way to reach peaks or heights you normally wouldn't reach without climbing or severe scrambling, and they do their job in making people more used to exposure, makes it a nice way of entering mountaineous terrain.

However, no matter how much one appreciates them, they are a disturbance of the untouched mountain, they are a scar in the landscape and I do like the UK for not having them the ways mainland Europe has them. And mind you: I've got my VF set, I've done more than 1 VF in France and the Alps, and I did thoroughly enjoy them. But I surely hope they DO NOT catch on in the UK.


Some interesting thoughts there Jacob, thanks for sharing. I appreciate the issue of impact on the landscape will always divide opinion and can certainly see the problem with certain VF elements like bridges and ladders. But the standard cable and metal stemples are virtually invisible unless you're actually climbing the route, and no more of a scar than footpaths, fences, walls, cairns etc. A further point, in the case of many routes (including the first three described here) not only the via ferrata but the rock face itself is virtually hidden in woodland. These are the kind of crags nobody even notice are there and are often quite difficult to find. Places like abandoned quarries would be ideal for via ferratas. You don't need to put one up on places like Striding Edge!


Alteknacker wrote:Fantastic report - thanks so much for posting, and including so much detail :clap: :clap: :clap: . My bro and I have been talking about doing some of this for some years now, but we really need to get our collective asses into gear before we reach 70 (not long now!), and this should prove the necessary catalyst.


Thanks. Go for it! I think you would probably enjoy the 'mountain' VFs like Mittaghorn more than the 'sports' routes like Plan Praz lower down, but both have their advantages.


arjh wrote:Have done several in the Dolomites, French Alps, Pyrenees, great fun. Recommended to keep an eye on the clock and guidebook times as you don't want to be on a giant lightning conductor when the early evening continental storms move in...

Only fell once, at the final overhang move at the top of a route where I was very glad the lanyards held me - had they not a short fall to a thin strip of a ledge would have resulted, followed by a 700ft fall onto a forest :lol: The exposure you get on some routes is just stunning.

On my first couple of trips I used a pair of ancient leather driving gloves, a bit sweaty but superb for gripping the metal.

Highlight was a route that went to the top of the Marmolada, there's a video of the route below involving glacier crossings, some WW1 tunnels and some nicely exposed ferrata, which was coated in verglas when we did it!


Thanks, looks amazing. Italy is not so great for public transport users like me though, which is why I tend to stick to Switzerland.
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby past my sell by date » Fri Oct 22, 2021 9:50 pm

Nice report and pics
They are great fun and as long as you follow the procedure correctly, quite safe
You should try the Daubenhorn one at Leukabad 1158m Standard K5 -K6. At one point you go into a cave and pendule across (often thru a waterfall to grap a rope on the other side and pull yourself in. When they built it Klaus (my guide) said " this will make good practice for the Matterhorn" but the guy replied " No the Matterhorn will make good practice for this"
The one at Kandersteg is also quite good, but the Zermatt one is a bit "mickey mouse"
. For pure scenery the three (or more) day traverse of the Brenta Dolomites mostly on via Ferata is quite stunning, but it is Italian and bits are apt to be missing :lol: :lol: :lol:
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby past my sell by date » Sat Oct 23, 2021 11:06 am

jacob wrote:Great pictures, interesting read. My thoughts on the subject: it's true that Via Ferratas are common on mainland Europe, and the fact they're free, and a great way to reach peaks or heights you normally wouldn't reach without climbing or severe scrambling, and they do their job in making people more used to exposure, makes it a nice way of entering mountaineous terrain.

However, no matter how much one appreciates them, they are a disturbance of the untouched mountain, they are a scar in the landscape and I do like the UK for not having them the ways mainland Europe has them. And mind you: I've got my VF set, I've done more than 1 VF in France and the Alps, and I did thoroughly enjoy them. But I surely hope they DO NOT catch on in the UK.

The hills/mountains of Britain are several hundred million years older than the European Alps - and as a result have stabilised (fallen down) to a much greater degree, so that there is not here the proliferation of steep and often unstable faces that are home to these sort of routes. I agree we neither want nor need them here in the UK
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby dav2930 » Sun Oct 24, 2021 3:00 pm

Yes, great report and an enjoyable read. I've always been in two minds about VF's, but I have to say they do look really spectacular and allow people to get up places that would otherwise be impossible. I was especially impressed by the Swartzhorn with its ladders - looks quite surreal in your fine photos.

I suppose the downside on the continent, where there is undoubtedly a place for them, is the possibility of over-proliferation and encroachment onto established climbs. It wouldn't be so good, for example, if the classic 1938 route up the Eiger North Face became a VF. In Britain I think they're ok up places like Honister Crag and in other big quarries, but I think our trad climbing ethos is really worth protecting (i.e. even from bolting, let alone VF's).

Incidentally, in the section on the Plan Pratz where the rock is gently overhanging for some distance, the natural tendency is indeed to pull your body in with your arms. But that is exactly what tires you! The thing to do, though it seems counter-intuitive, is to keep your arms straight and do the work of climbing with your legs (bigger muscles). Same principle applies whether on VF or actual rock.
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby Pointless Parasite » Mon Oct 25, 2021 7:28 pm

So I guess the answer to my question at the end is a resounding 'non, merci' for UK via ferratas :lol:

past my sell by date wrote:Nice report and pics
They are great fun and as long as you follow the procedure correctly, quite safe
You should try the Daubenhorn one at Leukabad 1158m Standard K5 -K6. At one point you go into a cave and pendule across (often thru a waterfall to grap a rope on the other side and pull yourself in. When they built it Klaus (my guide) said " this will make good practice for the Matterhorn" but the guy replied " No the Matterhorn will make good practice for this"
The one at Kandersteg is also quite good, but the Zermatt one is a bit "mickey mouse"
. For pure scenery the three (or more) day traverse of the Brenta Dolomites mostly on via Ferata is quite stunning, but it is Italian and bits are apt to be missing :lol: :lol:


Thanks, yes the Daubenhorn VF looks spectacular, although I don't think I've got the nerve for the huge ladder :crazy:


dav2930 wrote:Yes, great report and an enjoyable read. I've always been in two minds about VF's, but I have to say they do look really spectacular and allow people to get up places that would otherwise be impossible. I was especially impressed by the Swartzhorn with its ladders - looks quite surreal in your fine photos.

I suppose the downside on the continent, where there is undoubtedly a place for them, is the possibility of over-proliferation and encroachment onto established climbs. It wouldn't be so good, for example, if the classic 1938 route up the Eiger North Face became a VF. In Britain I think they're ok up places like Honister Crag and in other big quarries, but I think our trad climbing ethos is really worth protecting (i.e. even from bolting, let alone VF's).

Incidentally, in the section on the Plan Pratz where the rock is gently overhanging for some distance, the natural tendency is indeed to pull your body in with your arms. But that is exactly what tires you! The thing to do, though it seems counter-intuitive, is to keep your arms straight and do the work of climbing with your legs (bigger muscles). Same principle applies whether on VF or actual rock.


Interesting. So you're saying I should lean back with straight arms? I'd really like to do the Plan Praz VF again. Like your mate on Gimmer Crag, you're never satisfied unless you've done a route 'clean'.
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby dav2930 » Mon Oct 25, 2021 9:36 pm

Pointless Parasite wrote:
dav2930 wrote:Incidentally, in the section on the Plan Pratz where the rock is gently overhanging for some distance, the natural tendency is indeed to pull your body in with your arms. But that is exactly what tires you! The thing to do, though it seems counter-intuitive, is to keep your arms straight and do the work of climbing with your legs (bigger muscles). Same principle applies whether on VF or actual rock.


Interesting. So you're saying I should lean back with straight arms? I'd really like to do the Plan Praz VF again. Like your mate on Gimmer Crag, you're never satisfied unless you've done a route 'clean'.

Yes, exactly. Keep your body well away from the rock rather than try to "hug" it, at least while actually climbing. You'll still need to find resting positions, but you can be creative with that. For example, you can pass your whole arm through/behind a stemple and hook it at the elbow, shake out the other arm, then swap arms. That'll allow the build-up of lactic acid in your forearms to dissipate enough to carry on a bit further. But as you say, a resting lanyard or quickdraw is the best bet, and will be assumed as standard practice on a steep and sustained VF like Plan Pratz. I don't think there's any tacit ethos requiring you to do it without resting on kit, as there is with trad climbing; but I can see why you might have preferred to avoid coming onto the lanyards involuntarily. Main thing is you completed it, which is terrific. 8)
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby Pointless Parasite » Tue Oct 26, 2021 6:55 am

Thanks, I'll give it a try :D
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Re: Via ferrata: my journey to the dark side!

Postby past my sell by date » Tue Oct 26, 2021 7:55 am

Also, If you carry an extra short sling threaded thru the waistbelt of your harness, with a lightweight krab on it, you can clip to ladders and rest easily.
Following your post I've dug out my photos of the Brenta to write it up :)
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