For anyone looking to bridge the gap between trekking and climbing, Via Ferrata is the perfect balance between the two. The routes allow you turn up your adrenaline levels by leaving the ground safe in the knowledge that you can stay strapped to a safety line at all times. As a complete beginner, I took my first steps in the mountains of Verbier, in the Mauvoisin gorge.
In a clearing with spectacular views of surrounding mountains, we stepped into our harnesses and strapped on our helmets. We set off along a dirt path which quickly veered off down a rocky trail, snaking through a gap in the rocks and leading across a bubbling river fuelled with meltwater. In front of us was the Dranse gorge and part one of our route, the ‘Saxifrage’. If you have been to Go Ape, the clipping technique for Via Ferrata is similar. The responsibility of clipping in and out is yours and you have three carabiners, one of which should be attached at all times. Via Ferrata safety clips have a shock absorbing system that dissipates any load in the event of a fall. However if you do fall, it won’t be the same as being belayed, so try to avoid it.
Every few metres, you need to clip into the next safety cable, always ensuring one carabiner is attached. Initially, it seemed like a slightly arduous task to unclip so frequently on stable ground, but we soon appreciated why the safety precaution was taken. The flat path fell away to reveal a sheer rock face which we would be travelling along horizontally. At hand and foot level there were metal rungs protruding from the rock face. Above these sat a metal safety cable. Over a distance of 250 metres, our task was to navigate our way along 320 rungs attached to the gorge wall.
Photos by Sophie Mead
Unlike climbing where you might have a small ledge to hold on to, Via Ferrata routes provide a continuous trail of hand and foot rungs to get a good grip. As a novice climber, this was reassuring. The rungs are U-shaped with a gap in the middle, so care must be taken not to put your foot through the hole. You can travel facing the rock face or walking parallel, but beginners might prefer the security of facing the rock to start off. Once you are comfortable travelling along with the handles, the next challenge is smoothly transferring the carabiners from one metal cable to the next. Although you will be aware of others climbing near you, you will only be able to travel smoothly if your concentration is completely focused on your own balance and coordination. For beginners who might need a break, it’s good to get used to clipping in your middle safety line and leaning back, taking your weight off the wall. This allows you to hang hands-free above the gorge, which is pretty scary at first!
In Verbier, the chasm below the Via Ferrata route of the Mauvoisin gorge gradually gets deeper as the route progresses, so you are treated to spectacular views of the turquoise river below and rock bridges arching above you. The metal handles meander up and down until you reach a crossing point which looks like a metal tightrope. In these parts, you attach the safety carabiners just as before, and use metal hand cables to balance as you walk the bridge across to the next point. The second part of the route, ‘Tichodrome’, is a vertical climb and slightly more physically challenging. There are several cable bridges which afford you incredible views down the gorge, but they are not for the faint-hearted! The first suspension bridge is 35 meters long and 40 meters high, and the second is 65 meters long and is 55 meters high. They are thrilling to cross, and lead to a vertical part of the course which has one tricky section of overhanging rock. This area will be a challenge for beginners, but it is one section out of 400 rungs, so it shouldn’t put off any novices.
The route lasts approximately two hours at a steady pace, and although the Saxifrage is rated intermediate and Tichodrome rated difficult, anybody with a good level of fitness and balance will be able to complete the course. The Verbier Infinite Playground pass gives 50% off Via Ferrata plus free or reduced entry to 24 other summer activities. The Pass is delivered to every guest staying a minimum of one night in the region. Find out more about summer activities in Verbier here. Sophie was a guest of Switzerland Tourism at Hotel Farinet and flew with Swiss, which offers direct return flights from London Heathrow to Geneva from £89.
Mountain Tracks runs a number of Via Ferrata trips suitable for beginners in stunning settings, more here.
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Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
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