The winning combination of new “iron ways” being put up across the Alpine regions, and modern equipment means that more people are having a go at via ferrata each year. In the second part of this series, we look at the gear you’ll need to get started.
To try out via ferrata you need standard alpine walking gear, plus a helmet, gloves, a comfortable harness, and the single most important piece of equipment specific to via ferrata - a purpose built shock-absorbing lanyard.
In the past people have used ordinary slings or even bits of normal climbing rope clipped to the wire cables for protection, and you still see people doing this occasionally, but the potential fall factor involved in via ferrata (a measure of the forces exerted in a fall) makes this very dangerous.
In normal climbing situations the momentum of a fall is soaked up by the rope, meaning the greatest fall factor you are likely to experience is 2, and a fall factor of this magnitude could still result in serious injuries. In via ferrata, because you fall down to stanchions in the cable which immediately stop the fall, the fall factor can be much higher - 5 is theoretically possible. In other words, if you use a sling or improvise a lanyard from rope, it is highly likely the forces in the event of a serious fall will either snap your protection or your body.
This is why it is so important to have an appropriate, purpose-built lanyard. There are a number of modern lanyards on the market, produced by Mammut, Camp, Petzl and Simond amongst others. A via ferrata lanyard consists of an energy absorber, two arms which connect to the cable with karabiners, and a means of connecting to the harness. Without this energy absorber a fall might cause serious injury or death.
The great appeal of via ferrata is that they allow you to reach mountain areas that might otherwise be inaccessible. But don’t be fooled into thinking of via ferrata as simply a form of extreme hill walking – unforeseen situations can arise which require a base of climbing skills to draw upon. Higher grade via ferrata can be extremely committing mountain journeys with wild exposure. To keep a sense of perspective it is worth remembering you are clipped in to a high-altitude lightning conductor, probably in a mountain range known for its frequent and unpredictable thunderstorms!
If you or a member of your party becomes scared, tired or injured, or you encounter broken cabling, it may be necessary to belay through the difficulties. It is always worth taking a scrambling rope, sling and HMS karabiner as backup.
Also remember that via ferrata lanyards should be viewed as one-use items; a serious fall will trigger their shock-absorbing capabilities and render them unusable. After such a serious fall on a via ferrata it is likely you would have sustained injury and would need to call for rescue, but if that rescue is not available for whatever reason, you need to be able to rely on your own resources.
Climbing with kids
Watch out if you’re taking younger kids on via ferrata. Lanyards have a minimum and maximum weight limit – typically between 50 to 100 kilograms – so children may be too light to use them safely. And while they may love the climbing, their hands can be too small to operate the Klettersteig karabiners properly, or they may lack the grip strength required for repeated operation. Assess all this before setting off and keep a sharp eye out en-route. You can take children on via ferrata, but you should belay them as if they were climbing.
Ian Fenton was BMC Youth Officer and is now back instructing and coaching in the UK and Southern France. He is especially keen on all forms of Via Ferrata (see www.mountfenton.com for more details). Here, he answers your most pressing gear questions.
Q. What’s the best way of attaching my lanyard to my harness; should I use a karabiner?
A. No. Most modern lanyards have a sling, which you larks foot around your harness belay loop. This is secure and introduces no extra weak link to the safety chain. It also reduces movement of the textile parts during a fall which could cause melting.
Q. Do I need a back-up rope?
A. Remember, a lanyard will not prevent a fall, so depending on the via ferrata and the participants, a rope and a few slings may prove invaluable. A tired, injured or scared climber can be safely belayed through any difficult sections. This equipment will also help out in the event of coming across a damaged section of cabling, a real possibility if you’re the first party up that season.
Q. What sort of harness do I need?
A. Either a full body or a standard sit harness. Most climbers will just use their existing sit harness. But a full body harness will help prevent you being flipped over if falling with a pack on - and is also recommended for children. One option is to buy the harness as a complete system with a self-belay set. Complete sets of varying sophistication are available in many shops.
Q. What boots should I wear?
A. Approach shoes have the edge when it comes to comfort and actually climbing the routes, whilst you’ll be thankful for a beefier boot on long scree descents. It’s going to be a compromise either way. Your choice will also be dictated by the amount of snow cover.
OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES: