Via Ferrata - South Africa

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Via Ferrata South Africa

South Africa’s new adventure sport

Mustering all our courage we clambered up a set of ladders and metal pegs knocked in to the limestone rock. With nothing beneath my tottering feet save a few steel rods and a 300 metre drop I was terrified. I dared not look down.

My husband, Matthew and I had been in the Dolomites for a few days. With its dramatic rocky peaks and pinnacles this range of mountains in northern Italy is Mecca for mountain climbers. But, as we…

Via Ferrata - South Africa
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Via Ferrata South Africa

South Africa’s new adventure sport

Mustering all our courage we clambered up a set of ladders and metal pegs knocked in to the limestone rock. With nothing beneath my tottering feet save a few steel rods and a 300 metre drop I was terrified. I dared not look down.

My husband, Matthew and I had been in the Dolomites for a few days. With its dramatic rocky peaks and pinnacles this range of mountains in northern Italy is Mecca for mountain climbers. But, as we discovered to our delight, you don’t have to be an experienced and equipped mountaineer to scale these lofty summits. The Dolomites are home to the most extensive system of via ferratas in the world. An intricate network of ladders, metal rungs and cables anchored in to the rocks means that anyone with a sense of adventure, and basic equipment, can safely scramble up mountains that they never dreamed possible.

After renting helmets and harnesses with special safety leashes, we’d tried a fun, low-grade via ferrata down in the valley. But this was a step up. After inching our way nervously up the steep rock face we were now over two kilometres above sea level. The summit of the elegant spire was only a hundred metres away, but our legs had turned to jelly. Although a safety cable was some reassurance, the exposure was insane. We felt way out of our depth. Matthew suggested turning back but as we started the descent an Italian couple, each sporting a tiny tot in a backpack carrier, blocked the way forcing us to continue to the top.

Our elation and sense of achievement at standing on the tiny, precipitous summit was somewhat undermined by the fearless duo pulling out a picnic hamper. But we were hooked.

I’d always yearned to climb, enviously following the exploits of mountaineers and rock jocks as they scaled the world’s highest and most iconic peaks. But growing up in the city I’d never acquired the skills to safely indulge in those technically demanding sports. Discovering via ferratas made my climbing dreams accessible: being able to rent the basic equipment and then head out, unguided, into the high mountains on dedicated via ferrata routes was an adrenalin rush, a real sense of freedom.

Literally translated as ‘iron ways’, via ferratas date back to the mid 19th Century, when, around the time of the ‘Golden Age of Mountaineering’ in the European Alps, a few fixed iron pins and ropes were permanently attached to the rocks to make ascents of popular peaks easier and safer. But it was the need to move troops and equipment along the Austrian/Italian front during the first world war that led to numerous ladders and fixed ropes being installed in the high peaks and mountain ridges of the warn-torn border region.

Thirty years since my first foray into the high alpine world of the Dolomites I’m clipped into a steel cable about to summit a 3,000m high peak in the Drakensberg. It’s breath taking in every sense of the word: the air is thin up here and even with the safety line, the exposure and exertion of scaling the rocky peak has my heart pumping. Once on top I gaze down at the dramatic ridges and snaking river valleys far below me. It’s my first via ferrata outing in South Africa, and that edgy exhilaration followed by the buzz of success floods back.

Although, for years, there have been short sections of ladders and chains on some of the country’s famous hiking trails - such as on Cape Town’s Lion’s Head and the Drakensberg’s Cathedral Peak - this is a different animal. For much of the day-long journey I’ve been on a prepared route up a peak that I would normally have considered unsurmountable, clipped into a steel cable by a shock-absorbing lanyard to catch me should I fall. The cable, and helpfully placed metal rungs, are solid and permanently fixed to the rock. I’ve no shame in pulling up and stepping on them to negotiate bulges, cliffs and other obstructions along the way. Without these aids creating a relatively safe and easy route over terrain that would otherwise be steep and slippery, the climb would have been way beyond my ability.

While it’s still scary and demands concentration and a head for heights, a great selling point of this adventure was that no previous mountaineering or technical experience was required. The adrenalin pumping via ferrata climb is accessible to anyone with a reasonable level of fitness and agility,

In the last couple of decades many of the famous, old alpine ‘iron ways’ have been restored, and new via ferrata routes of differing levels of difficulty have been installed across the globe - from China to New Zealand and from Mexico to the UAE - purely for enthusiasts wanting to take part in this booming adventure sport. Now anyone who enjoys getting out into the mountains can feel the thrill of scaling peaks and rock faces that were previously the domain of experienced mountaineers.

Watch this space. I have a feeling that more via ferratas will be launching in South Africa soon.

By Fiona McIntosh

Via Ferrata Operators