Fear. It’s all in the mind. That’s what I tell myself as I inch my foot sideways, staring straight ahead. Daylight fills the 20 foot space between my eyeballs and the glistening wall of rock.
Twenty feet of horizontal air. Below me, there’s more air. Much. More. Air.
Metres and metres spiral away from the soles of my boots, a tumbling column of vertical nothingness that tumbles between the strand of wire I’m standing on and the wet earth below. Empty, except for the rain that drifts down silently.
It’s all in the mind. In the mind, in the mind, in the mind, I tell myself.
Until you fall and hurt yourself, of course, at which point your mind gets a short, sharp message from the rest of your body, worded in no uncertain terms.
My mind’s had enough. It seizes control.
“You’re wearing a harness,” it tells me, “that clips onto a wire. If you do fall, the wire will stop you. The wire is on your side.”
I take another step.
In Austria, where I am now, this adventure sport goes by the name of klettersteig, but high on the Italian Dolomites, where I took my first faltering steps, they call it via ferrata.
Via ferrata means “iron path” and it’s an adventure sport that began as a survival mechanism during the dubiously named Great War.
The bloody, icy dispute that straddled the Dolomites during the First World War left the Italians in trouble. Just a brief hike from the fashionable ski resort of Cortina, young men battled for their lives on the mountainous border between Austria and Italy.
While the Austrians excelled at mountaineering, Italy found itself with soldiers more used to the sun and sand of the south than the spiky peaks of the north. Their army included men who had never seen the snow, let alone knew how to climb mountains with a crippling load of ammunition on their backs.
Italy had a problem – and the solution was via ferrata.
The solution was via ferrata
Climbers drove metal pegs into the rocks, snaking a wire up the mountain to form a macabre Hansel and Gretel path up to the peak. Soldiers clipped on and climbed, their falls limited to the last fixed post.
I try to shift the memories of crucifixes, ice and fraying wire that linger from that haunting yet beautiful first climb in Italy. The one that retraced the original via ferrata route, past the rubble of abandoned hospitals, the soot from fires long since extinguished, and the soaked yet poignant images of young men huddling together in the lavender glow of the Dolomites.
I step sideways and check my nerves.
The Original Via Ferrata
The men who blazed these trails (literally) had no choice. I am doing this for fun, in a purpose-built adventure playground.
In Italy, I felt like a rock climber with inflatable armbands; here in Austria I’m on a grown-up climbing frame. Both versions include the same harness with two clips. When I reach an anchor, I remove one and reattach it on the other side before repeating with the second clip. That way, I am always linked to something.
In Italy, I was retracing a climbing route; here in Vorarlberg I’m learning to scramble and abseil.
In both places, I went with a qualified guide. While the technique is straightforward, you can still die if you get it wrong. Some of the rocky reaches are tough and I’m grateful for the added protection of the rope that binds me to my instructor (and, if I’m honest, the cheeky helping hand when I reach the tough parts.)
By the end of each session, I’m able to go solo. Yet like a toddler exploring the world, I am gleeful about my freedom, yet still cast my eyes back every now and then to check that safety hasn’t gone too far away.
Before long, I’m abseiling down the rockface, bouncing as I go, with a smile on my face and a leap in my heart. We’ve covered the ground quickly so we opt to head up one more time. This time, I’m in charge. There’s only me. Clip, unclip, clip, unclip. I settle into the rhythm in spite of the rain, the scent of wet granite lifting my senses.
Clip, unclip. Clip, unclip.
I hear people shouting from below and as I turn the world blurs into radial slow motion. How did the earth manage to get so far away?
My guide chuckles from a few metres below.
“They’re surprised to see you’re a girl,” he translates. “And they’re asking what on earth you’re doing up here in the rain.”
For a moment, I pause, only to realise that I’m back on that wire, stranded in mid-air.
It occurs to me, legs trembling, that they may be right.
I sidestep and an aperitif of adrenaline speeds around my mind.
“Nah…” my mind replies. “You’re having fun. Remember?”
I look ahead and take another step.
Yes, yes, yes.
As it turns out, I am. I really am.
Top Tips for Via Ferrata & Klettersteig
Wear fingerless gloves to protect your palms from chafing (cycling gloves are great, woolly ones not so much.)
Wear hiking boots with ankle support.
Travel with a qualified guide.
Wear layered clothes – it can get hot when you’re moving around
Via Ferrata & Klettersteig Thank Yous
The Austrian Tourist Board arranged my klettersteig trip in Vorarlberg and Dolomite Mountains took me up the slopes of the Dolomites in Italy.
The Planet D wrote this post, which was the final trigger for me to take the plunge.
However, the real inspiration for overcoming my fears and experiencing the thrill and joy of via ferrata came from my very good friend Leigh Jepson. His courage and enthusiasm for life lives on through those who remember him.