Tackling a via ferrata abroad or even at home? Here's what you need to stay safe.
This week's Monday Tip is about via ferrata kit and what you need to use to stay safe on protected climbing routes in the Dolomites and elsewhere - it's not enough to just use a harness and slings.
'Via ferrata', as you may know, literally translates from Italian as 'iron way' and refers to routes in the Dolomites and elsewhere which are protected by near continuous metal cables, iron rungs, bridges and other anchoring systems. They're briiliant things that, used properly, allow non-climbers to move safely through terrain which would otherwise need technical climbing skills.
The theory is that by using two carabiners attached to a harness, you can move along the route while always remaining clipped to some sort of secure protection and, consequently, remain safe all the time.
Most of the basics are straightforward: a helmet is advisable to protect against rock fall and possible impacts if you fall off yourself, stiff-soled lightweight boots preferably with a soft rubber sole and leather-palmed fingerless gloves are all good ideas, the most important item however, is a proper via ferrata safety set.
Why Not Just A Rope And Slings?
In very basic terms, climbing protection works because climbers use dynamic ropes that stretch slightly under load and consequently reduce impact loading in the even of a fall. But on a via ferrata, if you're using non-dynamic webbing, you can generate big forces in quite small falls - suppose you slide down a couple of metres of steel cable before hitting an anchoring point for example - enough to cause failure of the webbing, harness or carabiner. Not good.
Specials Via Ferrata Sets
The answer is to use a specially-designed via ferrata set. There are quite a few different mechanisms out there, but essentially they have one thing in common: rather than transmit the initial impact force directly into the harness set-up, they incorporate some sort of shock-absorbing mechanism.
These range from lengths of rope running through a friction plate device, through to sets that incorporate folded and sewn tape that's designed to absorb energy through ripping stitches in the event of a fall. The former can be reused, the latter is one use only, but a good idea for hire centres as it's obvious that it's been subjected to a fall.
All specific sets should come with easy-to-use, extra-wide gate locking carabiners - they should be marked with a 'K' for Klettersteig - for clipping onto cables and other protection - whichever brand and type you choose, make sure the carabiners feel comfortable with repeated clipping and unclipping as you'll be doing an awful lot of both.
Finally, before use, make sure you read the instructions carefully and follow them to ensure your safety. Some older sets only work properly if one arm is clipped into protection rather than both, though newer versions work with both carabiners clipped in.
Finally, research by the DAV means that a significant number of via ferrata sets have been recalled by the manufacturers. More details including a list of sets affected at www.theuiaa.org/news_428_Second-wave-of-via-ferrata-set-recalls-within-six-months.
Even if your set isn't listed, it's still important to check regularly for damage from falls, abrasion sunlight or other conditions and take note of the recommended lifespan of the set and retire it if necessary.
There's also some great information at www.blackdiamondequipment.com/en-us/journal/news/events/qc-lab-via-ferrata-1 including videos of the testing BD kit goes through.
Finally there's a comprehensive article on the BMC's web site at www.thebmc.co.uk/tech-skills-via-ferrata-equipment.