Monday, March 23, 2015

Testing our fear of heights on a Via Ferrata

If hiking and rock climbing had a baby, then it would be a Via Ferrata.
We first learned about this unique alpine sport from the same friend that recommended Las Fallas - it's great having adventurous friends.

What is a Via Ferrata?

Via Ferrata is Italian for the "iron road/way." It began during the First World War as an Italian strategy of moving troops across the alpine Dolomite Range through a fixed series of ladders, cables, and rods. The Via Ferrata has morphed into a sport activity that is open to the public at varying levels of difficulty. Routes have expanded outside Italy and are found primarily throughout the Alps. "Via Ferrata" remains the commonly used name except in some German speaking regions where it goes by Klettersteig. Routes are often available for self guiding and are often free to access although some advise getting a guide for the first time. Once you know how the system works, you just need a few safety items that are available to rent at local sporting stores.
Italian soldiers during WWI.


We waited multiple weekends for the ideal conditions - clear skies and dry trails. Finally when a pleasant weather was forecasted for the weekend, we looked for a route. On we discovered that the number of nearby routes were overwhelming. Being our first time, we decided to try a mid difficulty level: the Klettersteig Mürren - Gimmelwald route located over the Lauterbrunnen Valley. This is one of Q's favorite regions and we would take any excuse to go back there.
Trail head began in village of Mürren, just above Lauterbrunnen Valley.
An absolutely an amazing day to be outside.

All the equipment one needs is available for rent for 50 CHF per person at INTERSPORT sports shop near the start of the route - harness with lines, carabiners, and helmet. Best of all: there is a drop off point near the end of the route in the village of Gimmelwald at The Mountain Hostel. For comfort we brought along a few items from home - leather biking gloves, a small backpack, water, sunglasses, a sweater, sturdy hiking shoes and comfortable hiking clothing. 
Equipment needed to safely complete a Via Ferrata.

No special skills are required. As long as you learn how to put on a harness and how to work a carabiner, you're set. If you have any questions, the shop attendant will happily help out by showing how to work the equipment. The route is clearly labeled and the trail goes in one direction with a steel cable the entire way so there's no chance of getting lost. The only requirement is that you don't have a paralyzing fear of heights.

Clipped in and ready for action

We found the entrance to the route by the Sportchalet in Mürren, which is a short walk from the rental shop. The trail started off tame allowing one to become familiar with the equipment. Slowly things became more interesting as we started to hug the cliff edge.
Signs leads you through a tunnel where you find the cable to clip in.
A chance to get comfortable with the equipment.
Within minutes things get interesting.

Shortly into our trek, we were passed by a couple of guys carrying large backpacks and then three others with no equipment. Since the entrance door is not manned, anyone can enter without any special gear (that is classic Switzerland). The group of three friends eventually turned around once things became too challenging. It turned out that they just wanted to get a peek at what the two guys with the large backpacks were about to do. We caught up with them at a wooden platform as the two guys unpacked their backpacks and put on their squirrel suits. Ha - this was a base jumping platform! We knew Lauterbrunnen is famous for extreme sports like base jumping but we didn't expect to be next to people actually jumping.
No way I'm signing up for this sport.
Makes the Via Ferrata look like kid's stuff.

Our first rush of vertigo

We have a healthy fear of heights, no free climbing El Cap for us, but we have rarely truly freaked out. I do hate knife ridges while ski touring, but I had worried while rock climbing or while roped in - until that day. Looking down at my feet and seeing the valley floor hundreds of feet straight below me brought a moment of pause. Even Q had a moment where he needed to stop and collect his wits before moving forward. We knew we were completely safe but that view below was frightening.
Taking a deep breath before moving to the next rod.
Q's past the worst part and I've calmed myself long enough to snap a photo.

Obstacles along the route

Once we conquered that portion, everything else seemed manageable. The route led us through a variety of obstacles, which kept the afternoon interesting. We descended metal ladders, walked across a tight rope over a water fall, moved along sideways by iron rods sticking out of the rock, and lastly walked across a suspension bridge hovering over the valley. There are plenty of opportunities along the path where it's mellow enough to take a break.
U-shaped rods made scrambling over rocks a breeze.
Fixed metal ladders
I was surprised that I actually enjoyed the tight rope.
Funky staircase of rods coming out of the rock wall.
Nepal Suspension Bridge
Sometimes the route looks like a regular hiking trail.

Final thoughts

Q isn't much of a hiker but would be up for doing another Via Ferrata. Either this one again or something slightly more challenging. Since this is a summer and autumn sport, we'll have to wait until next year.

We defiantly recommend those without vertigo to give this sport a try. For those that have never climbed before or have doubts, it's worth considering hiring a guide.

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