Via ferratas have become extremely popular in recent years. In fact, more and more “non-climbers” are trying their hands at via ferratas, as they grant access to rock faces that had previously been reserved for rock climbers only.
But still, a lot of aspects surrounding the via ferrata and how to go about climbing a via ferrata remain a mystery.
In the following, our fellow Alpine Trekker, Johannes, an avid via ferrata climber, is going to clear up some of those mysteries, delving into things like the name, via ferrata sets and other important information on general via ferrata safety.
The term “via ferrata” is Italian for “iron road”, which kind of already gives you idea of what a via ferrata is and what it consists of. Appropriately, via ferrata describes a climbing route that is protected by means of pegs, carved steps or ladders. Makes sense, right?
This construction allows experienced mountain hikers to undertake steep and sometimes vertical or overhanging routes that would otherwise be inaccessible. Along these routes runs a steel cable that climbers usually used as an aid, securing themselves to it for protection. So, all is well. Nothing bad could ever happen. Right?
The via ferrata set
Modern via ferrata sets use a “Y” configuration, which is the only type of set approved by UIAA today. Earlier versions used a “V” configuration, but since this kind of via ferrata set is obsolete, we’re not going to talk about it here.
The energy absorber
The heart of each and every via ferrata set is the energy absorber. As you’ve probably already gathered from the name, it serves to absorb the energy of a fall. The energy absorber basically consists of webbing sewn together. In the event of a fall, the webbing allows for progressive tearing, thereby reducing the amount of energy on the climber. The energy absorber is usually contained in a small pouch on the via ferrata set.
Traditional rope/brake plate designs were used in the past as an alternative to energy absorbers, but this design has a lot of disadvantages. It tended to fail as a result of user error and when used in wet conditions, which eventually led to its taking a back seat to energy absorbers in recent years.
There are two things the trusty little ‘biners have to do. For one, they should be able to withstand high fall factors. For another, carabiners need to be easy to use, since you have to clip it and unclip it constantly when moving along the steel cable. Plus, they shouldn’t open accidentally after clipping them to the cable! Fortunately, this is something all current via ferrata carabiners can do. They can be opened with an easy-to-use palm squeeze mechanism, but remain closed the rest of the time. The carabiners are usually sewn into the lanyards, which is considered to be safer than knots.
The lanyards connect the energy absorber with the carabiners. For purposes of redundancy, both lanyards should be clipped onto the steel cable. When moving, you should always only unclip one carabiner at a time. Only then can your protection be guaranteed.
The lanyards are either elastic or non-elastic lanyards. The non-elastic lanyards are usually made of tubular webbing. The elastic lanyards, which are much easier to use, are obviously made of elastic components, which are either on the inside of the tubular webbing or directly woven into the outer material.
The attachment loop
This serves as the connector between the via ferrata set and the harness. This used to be done with a carabiner. However, this method often led to cross loading, which is why you should refrain from using a carabiner. Modern via ferrata sets have an attachment loop, which can be attached to your harness with a cow hitch knot.
Recalls – is my via ferrata set safe?
In 2012 and 2013, recalls of via ferrata sets caused quite a stir. After a via ferrata set failed and led to a fatal accident, elasticated lanyards were subject to a lot of scrutiny. It was feared that they weren’t strong enough to hold a fall as a result of repeated stretching. So, the manufacturers had to act. Several tests were carried out, demonstrating that via ferrata sets with the traditional rope/brake plate designs could fail as a result of age.
Even more comprehensive tests eventually led to manufacturers having to significantly increase the breaking strength as well as the residual strength of the lanyards. In short, we can now presume that the via ferrata sets will work as they’re supposed to and we all expect them to.
Nevertheless, it is still extremely important to read the information on the set’s maximum lifespan provided by the manufacturer. Edelrid, for example, recommends replacing an unused set after ten years, whereas a set that has been used on a regular basis should be replaced after as few as five years. However, a set, such as a rental, should be replaced much earlier, since it is subject to even more wear and tear.
If your via ferrata set has already exceeded its lifespan or is showing clear signs of wear, replace it immediately. As a result of normal aging, the strength of the set and of the webbing in particular can be significantly reduced. It is also advisable to replace a set after a fall, even if the energy absorber wasn’t activated as a result. If it was activated, replace it immediately.
Via ferrata sets and kids (or smaller folks)
Most via ferrata sets have a minimum and maximum weight limit (note: body weight plus gear!), typically between 50 and 100 kilograms and sometimes up to 120 kg. This is very important. The energy absorber won’t activate if you or your child weighs less than 50 kilograms. So, if an individual weighing less than 50kg fell wearing one of these sets, the energy absorber could not dynamically absorb the fall, resulting in an impact force much higher than 6 kN, which could be fatal. The same thing could happen to a person who weighs too much. In this case, the energy absorber would not absorb enough of the force, resulting in a static fall.
30 to 80 kg sets
There are some sets that are appropriate for people who weigh less, which has a minimum and maximum weight limit between 30 and 80 kilograms. These sets are also recommended for adults who weigh right around 50kg. Why? Well, an adult set would theoretically activate at 50kg, but I guarantee it wouldn’t be pleasant. In other words, it’s best to use a set that situates your body weight right in the middle of the minimum and maximum weight limit.
Always be sure to consult the user’s guide to see which set is the appropriate one for your body weight. The Skylotec Buddy Ferrata, for example, is sold as a set for kids, but has a minimum weight of 30kg, making it more suited for taller or heavier children. So, again, read the instructions.
Many manufacturers have reacted to the problem and the lower weight limit for adult sets is often 40kg. This is the case for example with the J-Star from Edelrid or the Ultimate Ferrata set from LACD.
Another important thing to note is that lighter people should always be belayed from above on steeper or more difficult sections. Better to be safe than sorry!
There are via ferrata sets that are equipped with an additional brake, or the ferrata.bloc, as in the case of the AustriAlpin Hydra. Skylotec released a similar set as well. This can give you some protection for more difficult passages. If a climber were to fall, the ferrata.bloc would brake directly at the point of contact with the wire. However, it only works if it’s clipped onto the cable the right way round. I’m not implying that this set is less safe than others, but just because it has an additional arm doesn’t mean you should take more risks whilst climbing! Keep that in mind!
Of course, this set does have the downside that it forces you to use up more energy because you have to clip yet another arm – correctly, mind you – onto the cable.
There are also sets equipped with a swivel, such as the Edelrid Cable Comfort VI. This swivel serves to prevent the ends of the lanyard from twisting when clipping and unclipping. But, my own experience has shown that this doesn’t always work. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll have to untangle them anyway. A nice little gimmick, but definitely not something you must have.
What else is there to say?
A via ferrata set is for emergencies. Falls on a via ferrata, even with all the right gear, can have very serious consequences. A via ferrata set can only prevent the final fall and a higher impact force. This is something you need to consider when planning your trip, even if the adverts are full of promises of a safe and relaxed via ferrata adventure.
Know your limits. If you’re taking beginners or children along on the adventure, you should always belay them from above and be well aware of the difficulty level of the route. That way, you don’t have to focus as much on what you’re doing and can concentrate on helping your fellow climbers as well.
In addition to a via ferrata set, you should have a sling and carabiners on your harness. These are used as protection if you just want to relax or if somebody else needs to pass. You should never use your via ferrata set for this purpose, as it would only unnecessarily strain the lanyards and the energy absorber. Not to mention, it’d be pretty difficult to do so with elastic lanyards, seeing as they would stretch! So, use your sling and carabiner take a well deserved break on your way along the iron road!
Always wear a helmet
P.S. Hopefully, this goes without saying, but a sling with a carabiner is no substitute for a via ferrata set. A sling is static and not capable of absorbing a fall. If you were to take fall onto a sling, it would either lead to a life-threatening injury or death. So, always be sure to have the proper via ferrata set before venturing out on a via ferrata! Oh, and wear a helmet too!