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On the Edge of a Via Ferrata

Traverse precipitous cliffs and waterfalls on these mountain climbs and treks popular in the Swiss Alps and Dolomites of Italy.

 

“Come here,” my wife, September, beckoned. “I want to show you something.” I followed her into the sportszentrum where a 32-inch flat-screen monitor was waiting. “What do you think of this?” she asked, pointing at the monitor.

I looked at the image and considered the juxtaposition of a man smiling while clinging to the edge of a cliff.

“We could do that tomorrow!” September exclaimed. “It’s called a via ferrata and looks totally doable. You wear a climbing harness and are always clipped into a safety cable.”

Back home, our family of four had been sporadic users of the local climbing gym, but to say we are climbers is like saying I’m a photographer, simply because I can snap a photo. “There clearly aren’t enough lawyers in this country,” I muttered.

Since our arrival in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, we had been partaking of the high-adrenaline offerings throughout the region. The following day, however, would be our last before returning to our cubicles in Silicon Valley. We had been planning a nice train ride on the Jungfraujoch, to the “Top of Europe.” In case you weren’t aware, the Swiss are positively mental, having built train lines to the top of many of their most infamous peaks. On a clear day, a ride to the peak is simply spectacular. On a stormy day, riding the train to the top is a lot like emptying your wallet to experience fog so thick you can’t see your own feet.

“I thought we were going to do the Jungfrau thingy tomorrow,” I replied.

“We were just on top of a mountain last week in Zermatt. This could be the highlight of our trip.”

It was.

 

Next: What is a Via Ferrata?

Preparing For the Via Ferrata

Via ferrata translates from its native Italian as “iron road.” A via ferrata (singular) is simply a mountain route with cables, steps, ladders and other aids traversing terrain that would be otherwise inaccessible to people with average abilities. Its austere beginnings are traced to World War I as a method of moving troops through the Dolomites. One hundred years later, vie ferrate (plural) are wildly popular in the Alps and making inroads into North America. Our introduction to them was in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, traversing the route from Mürren to Gimmlewald.

Lauterbrunnen, literally “loud springs,” is nestled in a valley high in the Swiss Alps.  Most people arrive by train. Stepping out of the station, the first things that strike you are the towering granite cliffs that define the narrow valley. Then you hear them: the 72 waterfalls that tumble down the cliffs into the valley below, but they are hardly loud. The effect is actually quite peaceful. On the top of those cliffs are the mountain villages of Mürren and Gimmlewald and the via that connects those villages traverses the face of the cliffs, crossing three waterfalls.

We rented the requisite equipment for our adventure from the sportszentrum in Mürren and the staff instructed us on what we needed to know. Since we were occasional users of a rock climbing gym, the equipment was familiar, yet unique. The body harness was standard, but a special energy-absorbing lanyard was secured to the harness. The lanyard was Y-shaped with two ends, each containing a purpose-designed, yet familiar, carabineer.

“Fasten both carabineers to the safety cable,” the staff instructed. “The safety cable is bolted to the rock face every so often. Simply progress along the cable from one anchor bolt to the next, moving one carabineer at time over each anchor bolt you come to. That way you are always securely fastened to the safety cable with at least one carabineer.” It sounded simple enough.

“Just make your way down to the hotel, then behind the tennis court,” the helpful staff pointed down the street. And without the benefit of liability waivers, we were out the door.

 

Next:  Inching Along the Lauterbrunnen Iron Road

Inching Along the Lauterbrunnen Iron Road

The first section of the route was easy—we were simply traversing a field behind a tennis court. But this was no ordinary field, as the route descended from the field to the very edge of the cliff. I gave the via ferrata my full concentration.

As we inched along the edge of the cliff, we used the U-shaped iron steps that give the via ferrata its name. Before long we were greeted by the sound of gushing water.  “What’s that?” my 14-year-old daughter, Katrina, asked.

“It’s called a waterfall,” Jordan, 11, responded dryly. “It’s kinda what happens when river meets cliff.”

“Not that. That!” Katrina replied emphatically, pointing at a cable. “They forgot the bridge.”

“I think the cable is the bridge,” September responded, her voice betraying her anxiety.

September may have been having second thoughts, but the kids looked as though Christmas had come early. A cable stretched taught across the gulf cut by the rushing torrent pointed the way across. Two additional safety cables were set at shoulder height. “Who wants to be first?” I asked. Jordan and Katrina played a quick round of rock, paper, scissors, and moments later Jordan attached the two carabineers of his lanyard to the safety cables. I then sent my only son to maneuver across the top of a 1,000-foot waterfall on a tight rope. The two safety cables at shoulder height did help maintain balance, but I confess to being much more nervous watching my wife and children cross than doing it myself.

As though the via was testing our resolve, the route eventually moved off the edge of the cliff and onto the very face. I gazed down at my boots. While I stood on a half-inch diameter iron rod bolted into the rock, air warmed by the sun from the valley below rushed up the cliff face and up my pant leg. There was nothing under my feet except 1,000 feet of air. My knees trembled, my heart raced, adrenaline gushed through my veins like never before, yet, oddly, I was smiling. I considered the juxtaposition of myself smiling while clinging to the edge of a cliff. “Adrenaline,” I thought, “is a very addictive drug.”

And I was hooked.

 

Next: Top Vie Ferrate Climbs

Top Vie Ferrate Climbs

If all this sounds just like your cup of tea, here are some notable routes for anyone who is drawn to try the sport, but doesn’t know where to start.

Stateside

Let’s face it. Americans are too litigious for vie ferrate to ever really catch on in the states like they have in Europe. That’s not to say you can’t climb a via in the United States—just expect a stack of waivers to sign and a fee to pay. Two notable U.S. vie ferrate are located in Waterfall Canyon Climbing Park in Ogden, Utah and Nelson Rocks Preserve in West Virginia.

Europe

There are hundreds of vie ferrate throughout the Alps that span the continuum from short and easy to multi-day and technically challenging. The most comprehensive compilation of them in English can be found on ViaFerrata.org. I’ve picked two areas in particular:

Lauterbrunnen. The via from Mürren to Gimmlewald is a great place for your first via ferrata experience. The route traverses the cliff with a minimum of elevation loss or gain, but that’s not to say there is no ascending or descending. Many of the ascents/descents are accommodated by a ladder bolted into the granite. It is easy enough that anyone in good physical condition can do it, short enough that you can tackle it in the morning and be done by lunch time, yet challenging enough to feel as though you really earned that T-shirt.

The Mürren tourist office is the place to go for specifics. As an added bonus, the Lauterbrunnen Valley is the most beautiful place on earth (in my humble opinion) with something for everyone. Contact the Lauterbrunnen tourist information for more information.

Dolomites. The Dolomites are the mountains in Northern Italy, with arguably the highest concentration of vie of any region in the world. You can hike a different via every day for a month and still not tackle them all. Or, you may choose to traverse the Dolomites using vie over the course of about seven days.

There are several good outfitters that specialize in traversing the Dolomites, including Star Mountain Guide Alpine and Web sites that are dedicated solely to via ferrate of the Dolomites, such as alavigne.net. An excellent set of guidebooks of vie in the region are also available, including Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites: Southern Dolomites, Brenta and Lake Garda Area by Graham Fletcher and John Smith.

What You Need To Know

Anyone in good physical condition can enjoy hiking along a via ferrata, but if you have vertigo, this is not your sport; most vie ferrate ascend a cliff or otherwise steep incline.

While climbing a via ferrata one may always be clipped to a safety cable, but the adventure isn’t without risk. In standard climbing, the fall factor is the length of the rope between the belayer and climber. For a via ferrata there is no belayer, but there is still a fall factor. The fall factor is set by the vertical distance between anchor points of the safety cable. When traversing a route horizontally, the fall factor is near zero, but when climbing vertically, such as up a ladder or steps, the fall factor can be quite high. The potential for high fall factors is why via ferrata climbing equipment is specifically designed to absorb shock. Simply put, never use standard climbing equipment for a via ferrata.

Vie Ranking Systems

Unsurprisingly, not all vie are created equal and there is a ranking system to gauge the difficulty. Actually, there are several ranking systems. In the Dolomites the routes are ranked in one of five categories, one being easy and five requiring technical expertise. Routes in France are graded for difficulty using a six level system. The German-speaking world uses yet another ranking system.

Review the rank and the total ascent of the route you are considering, and before you strap on your climbing gear, honestly assess your physical capabilities. There is no turning back on most routes as there is only one safety cable and traffic flows one way only. Even if you wanted to get intimate with other climbers, there simply isn’t maneuvering room to go around them.


Destinations: Utah, West Virginia, Italy, France, Switzerland

Themes: Family Travel, Mountain Vacations, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Hiking


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