Fear and Strength in Via Ferrata

Fear and Strength in Via Ferrata play an important role. Fear drains us of energy. In Rock climbing this is fine. If you run out of energy you abseil down and you call it a day. In Via Ferrata when you run out of energy you are stuck on a rock face and people usually do not have the required safety equipment to help you out of the situation. It is for this reason that we read so frequently about rescues on via ferratas. I read that at fort l’écluse there have been four rescues this year, at Saillon there have been a few and in Bellevaux there may have been as many as ten.

The point of via ferratas is that anyone can practice them. In theory once you get the harness, the y-combinator and helmet you are ready to climb. In practice you need to take several things in to account. Via Ferrata are graded according to three factors. These are Equipment, Height off the ground and physicality.

Some via ferrata are well equipped and some leave you to improvise hand holds and foot holds on the cliff face. You also need to trust your own equipment. This does take some time.

Height makes us afraid and our fear tenses the body. When the body is tense it uses a lot of energy. You stay closer to the rock and you use your arms to raise yourself whilst staying as close to the rock as possible.

Through practice I have seen my confidence grow and in the process my technique has evolved and adapted. I often keep my arms straight and pivot about my hand as I push upwards with my legs. In so doing I climb fast and without burning energy. I can save energy because my fear has faded over the years. Whilst a beginner will try to keep their centre of gravity as close as possible to the rock I do the opposite. I swing out and up with every step. It means that I save energy for the overhangs.

Two days ago someone who was afraid, who had far less experience was using his arms rather than his legs. Arms have tiny muscles compared to legs so they tire much sooner. In rock climbing if you make mistake you can usually be lowered back to the ground and within a minute or two the incident is over. In Via ferrata you do not have this luxury.

In Via Ferrata when you start to get tired you need to continue. If you can’t continue then there are three options. The first is to call in a helicopter to take you off the cliff, the second is for a mountain response team to come and assist you and the third option is self rescue. For the latter I mean a group rescue.

In the first two cases these are trained professionals who will resolve the incident relatively quickly. Always climb with people more experienced than you as they can help you.

In one rescue scenario a person ran out of strength and let go just metres from the end. In this case knots were put in a rope so that the person could climb the rope as if it was a ladder. In another case a rope was used as a counter-weight where the distressed climber had to climb and two of us were supporting the weight as we were given slack. This is not ideal as it requires a lot of strength if the person being helped is exhausted.

In the third case a rope and pulley system was used. In this case the force exerted was tripled and the rope was longer. It took just one person for this rescue. When we saw with what ease someone could be rescued we decided we needed the same equipment and to get proper training.

Via Ferrata is a fun and exciting sport that brings you to beautiful landscapes and it is easy to assume that you can make it from point A to point B. People should take the time to assess their level of strength and stamina before starting. They should also rest when they have the opportunity. The problem with fear is that it is a positive feedback loop. The more afraid you are and the more your muscles tense, the tenser you are the more tired you are and the more afraid you are. Knowing when to take a mental and physical break in via ferrata is essential. Take breaks to drink and eat something before you get tired. Clear your mind and relax before you continue. It is better to take twice the recommended time than to run out of energy half way through a Via Ferrata.

 

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