“Are you sure America is ready for this?” asked my wife as she stepped onto a single strand of wire strung across a deep gorge. I’m a notorious bad judge of what American’s really want, but I’m definitely fired-up about Via Ferrata’s and recently had a chance to experience six of them in France under the guise of doing research for possibly building some in Utah.
Via Ferratas were first developed in the Italian Dolomite’s during WW2 as a way of moving heavily loaded foot soldiers safety through the rugged, exposed mountain terrain. The term translates to the “iron way” and generally involves having a fixed cable to clip into and iron rungs installed in blank sections. Unlike skiing or rock climbing where it is common to push yourself until you fall, taking falls is generally not a part of Via Ferratas and the object is to reach beautiful or exposed areas, but with maximum security. On my first Via Ferrata outing in 2001, my partner at the time told me that a harness and tethers were “only for stupid tourists” which led to a memorably terrifying experience. The proper equipment is mandatory for Via Ferratas, but that only consists of a harness, tethers and a helmet. Because of this, it is very easy to get into Ferrataing and it’s something almost anyone can do. Once at the top, a hiking trail takes you back, which makes for a very fun loop.
I’m not a historical expert on Ferratas, but imagine that people kept using the original military ones long after the battles were over and discovered that they were a lot of fun, which in turn led to sport Ferratas. Nowadays, there are hundreds of them all over Europe and they are incredibly popular. They range from little tiny ones for families with kids to very long, exposed outings which can go on for over 3,000′. A friend of mine mentioned he and his wife did a Via Ferrata link up which took three days.
This Via Ferrata was directly across from the classic Freux Couloir in La Grave, France and is one of the longest in the nation at about 750 meters. What made this even more interesting was that it followed a lead mining seam which had been worked as far back at the 1400’s. That big gap behind Polly and the wedges log are all from the mining days.
As a sporting outing, Ferratas come in a wide range of flavors. Some of them pack as much exposure and excitement into as tight a place as possible with bridges, ladders and rungs up overhanging aretes, and some are more like remote alpine climbs where there is a cable for protection, but most of the climbing is done with natural rock holds. They are all fun, but very different. Personally, I kind of prefer the more alpine variety which utilizes ledges and moderate climbing and only resorts for rung ladders to connect blank sections.
We had a chance to do a Ferrata with a friend who builds them and he estimated that it takes roughly 2-3 people working for 2-3 weeks to install one. In France, they have become so popular that most of them are underwritten by the local communes (townships) as part of attracting tourists. La Grave has three of them within 10 minutes of town and within an hour or so there are another 15-20. The towns print up booklets to promote them and there are also many guidebooks available. From a sports center viewpoint, this seems like a great idea to me as the Ferratas can be a dedicated day by themselves, or part of a weekend of boating, climbing, biking and sightseeing.