When I first heard of via ferrata (and I will explain what it is in a minute) back when I must have been 14 or so, it sounded like the most adventurous and exciting thing imaginable! Seven years later, when I discovered before leaving for the Alps, there were a few dotted around the area of L’Argienterre la Bessee, that same childhood sense of exhilaration returned and I knew I simply had to have a go!
Via Ferrata, translated from Italian as the Iron Road, is similar to rock climbing, but with a few important differences;
- None of that faff with the whole rope malarkey here! Instead, iron or steel cables and supports are attached securely to the wall, which you can clip onto using specially-adapted, fall-absorbing carabiners and lanyards which are secured to your harness. The cable is attached to the rock every couple of metres meaning every time you reach such an attachment, you must clip on to the next cable, first with one carabiner, and then with the second. You are always attached to the wall! It sounds time consuming but once you get into the swing of it, it becomes fairly simple and effortless.
- In more technical sections, there may have been adaptations such as ladder rungs cast into the rock, or a cable to hold on to. This is great as it means via ferrata is often suitable even for youngsters provided they have a head for heights! Despite this simplicty, some skill is still required, and I found you could still make it as challenging as you wanted and I regularly didn’t allow myself to use the supports for my hands or feet!
Well, since 14, I’ve been rock climbing a fair amount, so it didn’t seem like the pinnacle of human adventure it once had, but I must admit to loving every minute of it!
There were three sections, getting more advanced with each one, and you could choose to do any section on there own. We did all three which was an afternoon well spent!
One highlight was the start of the first section which wasn’t particularly high or technical, easing you into via ferrata with the route traversing the rock face instead of climbing particularly high. The traverse took us deep inside the gorge which seemed to go on forever with every corner we rounded, as just another corner greeted us 100 metres ahead, truly piquing my curiosity. It felt like we’d never reach the end. Combined with rock walls which towered above us on both sides of the canyon and vicious rapids which swirled and snarled beneath us, we could have been forgiven for thinking there was no escape! I felt very committed and got a sense of excitement like we were going on a big adventure!
Another highlight was the third section, the finale of everything the Gyronde Gorge has to offer, a towering vertical rock face, with an ascent starting right from the river, and some moves which were described as ‘airy’. This is the best word I can use to illustrate the feeling of exposure as you seem poised, hanging out over a drop of a few hundred metres, relying on a few slabs of rock. Nothing was too challenging technically, but, even as someone not particularly scared of heights, some of the positions certainly got some adrenaline pumping and sweaty hands going! It was fun to imagine we were climbing one of the famous routes up Yosemite, winding up the steep rock face, something I’d love to do in the future!
Finally, there was a super-tall, rickety wooden and metal bridge which connected both sides of the canyon at its widest points, which gently swayed in the wind. Put the four of us on that thing, running and bouncing around on it, and that thing shifts! From this vantage point, the thunderous and tumultuous river below us looked flat and was silent. Watching kayakers tentatively tackle the features looked far less impressive. The trees looked tiny far below, as if they were those placed in a miniature model. We could see the twists and turns of the gorge we had climbed through which snaked away from us into the distance, the steep rock on both sides hiding the river that ran through it. We all felt quite proud to look at where we had come from (and where we had to get back to for the car!)
Since via ferrata is so simple, you can do it without any real technical knowledge, although it is worth looking up exactly how you do it. Also, without ropes, the only gear you need is well-supported shoes (climbing shoes not necessary), a harness, a helmet, and the lanyard with carabiners. Luckily we had everything and so it was completely free but if not, the latter three can usually be hired from a via ferrata centre nearby for a reasonable price around €7.50. We could see nowhere where we were required to pay an entrance fee!
I’m stoked I was able to give it a go, and it managed to live up to the high standard 14 year old me set. I’d urge you to give it a go yourself, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!