Via Ferrata literally means Iron Rod in Italian. They first sprung up in the Dolomites (then part of Austro-Hungary) in World War 1 to aid troops across the mountains. Nowadays there are thousands of Via Ferrata’s dotted across the world not to aid troops but to make viable and protect able routes up mountains which would otherwise would otherwise be impassable to all except the expert.
Via Ferrata’s are graded differently depending on which country it’s in. In Italy (where the largest concentration are) they are graded on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is easy, 3 is difficult and not for novices and 5 is Highest technical standard and only for the experienced mountaineer.
In France they are graded following the Classic Alpine Grading System where it starts with F Facile (Easy), PD Peu Difficile (A little Difficult), AD Adez Difficile (Quite Difficult), D Difficile(Difficult), TD Tres Difficile (Very Difficult) and ED Extremenet Difficile 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (extremely difficult 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). These can also have a plus added so a TD+ is harder than a standard TD.
While staying in Morzine, in the Alps we visited the local crag many times which went by many names including Tete L’elephant (the Elephants Head) and Rocher de la Chaux. The crag also features 2 fantastic Via Feratta’s that summitted where none of the sport climbs did. There where 2 routes Tete L’elephant which were graded D+, and L’oeil L’elephant which was ED. The crag also has a via ferrata learning area which goes no higher no than 20 meters and has several routes which you can climb in circuit to get used to the equipment etc.
We rocked up on our first morning, hungry for some exposure high up on the Elephants Head. We assumed we would start on the easy one and possibly in the afternoon head back and complete the harder one. When we arrived it turned out that there was a French couple moving incredibly slowly about 20m up the easier route, so rather than being stuck behind them for the next hour and a half we decided to jump straight on the harder route, and then head down for some bolt clipping in the afternoon.
The route L’oeil L’elephant is approximately 300m in length, 213m straight up and takes 1 hour 30 minutes to complete. We geared up and set off, needless to say by half way we where pretty pumped from all the overhanging sections. Having to hold on with one hand to un-clip with the other on a steep overhang when you have 150m of air between your feet and the forest below is a pretty crazy feeling. I would say I’ve done a lot of exposed routes, exposure is one of the real feelings that draws me to climbing and to particular routes. This route had it, in bucket loads. After an hour of clipping and un-clipping and clipping again we reached the top, where we were rewarded with a fantastic view over to Mont Blanc and the peaks in between. The walk back down through the forest to road is a 30 minute lactic acid inducing steep mud/sand path back down through the forest.
One evening, once my brother and friends had finished work we headed up again to give them the Via Ferrata experience. We headed once again up the dreaded hill and kitted up at the bottom, this time we had the route to ourselves, although there where a few Welsh people setting off on the harder route. The easier route, called Tete L’elephant has similar statistics, apart from the D+ grade it’s 300m in length, 213m straight up and 1 hour 30 minute guideline. We again did it in an hour. The D+ route was considerably easier on the both the arms and exposure, although about 1/2 way up you encountered a plank of wood that’s just wider than your foot, and about 8-10m long, perched on the edge of a gully with a wire to clip and some great exposure. Fun was had by all and the whole experience has defiantly given me a taste to explore some longer and harder routes in years to come…Dolomites here we come.