Via Ferrata Advice
Here at the Gearshack we are associated with The Trekking Company, and have been teaching Via Ferrata on our Alps trips for the last 25 years.
Everyone says that via ferrata were developed for moving troops, or guns, across the mountains in the First World War. This may be partly true, but there is also much evidence that mountaineers used cables to make things easier in Victorian times and there were many sections around well before any troop movements. That said, certainly after the war there were a lot of via ferrata sitting there just waiting to be used.
Via Ferrata climb and traverse the easier sections of large faces in the Alps and Dolomites, and are becoming popular in other areas. The cable is bolted to the face at regular intervals, and you clip into the cable using your via ferrata kit or 'lanyard'.
There is even a great via ferrata for trying out the activity in the Lake District at Honister Mine (click here for more information)
There are now hundreds of via ferrata, and it is important to stress that they can be really easy but they can also be steep, scary and difficult. Some require a lot of arm strength, and the exposure can be really intimidating - so don't take beginners on hard routes, check out your route in the guidebook, and start on easier via ferrata!
Why do I need a lanyard? Why not just use a sling? Well here's the thing: some British climbers used to assume, 20 years ago, that they could just use a sling or two for via ferrata. This is dangerous for more than one reason, as slings are designed for general climbing use whereas via ferrata can generate much more stressful falls than climbing.
This is because of Fall Factors. The maximum fall factor in simple theory during climbing is 2. (In fact this can be exceeded a bit, but that's outside the scope of this example). This is calculated by Length of Fall / Length of Rope absorbing that fall = Fall Factor.
So in theory, you can fall from say 3 metres above your belay, fall straight past your belayer and down another 3m = 6m, whereas the belayer will only have paid out 3m of rope. 6m fall/3m rope paid out = FF of 2.0.
Here's a video explaining Fall Factors:
However, on a via ferrata you could be climbing a vertical section of cable say 5m long. At the top you fall, and you have only 1 metre of rope in your lanyard. You fall the 5m of the cable, plus the 1m of your rope. Fall Factor? 6m/1m = 6.0! This is far greater than climbing falls, and would simply break a straightforward 1m piece of rope.
So - Via Ferrata lanyards include a shock absorber to take up this shock. The absorber should ensure that no more than 6kN of force reaches your body, because that's the point at which you'd snap in half (or do some serious internal damage).
Types of Lanyard
The first purpose built lanyards were v-shaped - i.e. there was a shock absorber in the middle, and you had a 1m rope coming our each side. If one was pulled, the other half was slowed down as it was pulled through the absorber. The problem with this was that if you clipped both ropes, it didn't work - as neither half could be pulled through the shock absorber. And the tendency was that people felt safer clipping two halves (even though it was actually more dangerous).
So - Y shaped lanyards. The shock absorber is above the harness, and above that there are two lengths of rope - so you can clip one, or both - it doesn't matter. See our viaferrata lanyard page for current models.
You must use 'Klettersteig' karabiners with your lanyard. These have a circle with a 'K' in like the K Mart symbol. These krabs have a larger gate opening and a gate that automatically shuts. Be careful with kids - these krabs are big, and they can struggle to handle them. Typically this could be the Petzl Vertigo, for example.
This karabiner has 'K' for Klettersteig and 'H' for HMS markings.
Via ferrata can be hard on the hands and you can get blisters; there are also tiny strands of cable sticking out in places which can cut hands badly. many people wear gloves such as the CAMP Start.
There are various websites with more information about Via Ferrata - try:
The British Mountaineering Council's Info pages - Via Ferrata
An article by Mammut: http://www.mammut.ch/en/viaferrata_faq_why.html