Climb up a rocky wall without actually mountaineering, and progress upwards in a vertical landscape while taking advantage of climbing routes equipped with ladders and metal cables: this is the world of the 140 vertiginous via ferrata routes dotted around France's mountain ranges. A real success story!
Tens of thousands of climbers, ranging in age from 7 to 77 (and even older!), have enjoyed the thrill of a family adventure along these "iron ways" (a direct translation of the Italian term) which have been created and developed over the past 20 years, particularly in the Alps and the Pyrenees. The general public can use these routes at will and free of charge, though use of them does require a sense of responsibility - this activity should not be taken lightly.
Following the example of canyoning and hang gliding, this "new generation" outdoor sport has developed into a key part of any active holiday, but only on the condition that those taking part are sensible, well-informed, well-prepared and well-equipped. Participants also need to be accompanied by a qualified professional guide, an experienced friend or part of a recognised club, at least for their first ascent.
The technique consists of climbing a cliff or natural wall along ladders fixed solidly into the rock, while permanently secured via a safety rope. Climbers will need to wear a harness fitted with an absorption system (an essential piece of equipment in the event of a fall), two lanyards (special ropes) with karabiners, a helmet and suitable footwear. The aim is to use the equipment (often available for hire from a specialist sports shop) to maximum effect, to follow instructions to the letter and to ensure that you are attached to an experienced via ferrata climber to double your safety (although accidents can happen the risk is very small).
You also need to choose a route that is appropriate to your experience: the scales of difficulty (6 levels ranging from easy to extremely difficult) take into account the steepness (occasionally the routes are on overhangs, which really test your head for heights!) and length of the route (sometimes several hours and very tiring), as well as the size of the iron rungs to be climbed (some of which are not suitable for children) etc.
Other aspects of via ferrata which test the nerve of climbers are "monkey bridges" and "Himalayan footbridges", which stretch above the great void below and give a sense of what it must be like to be a tightrope walker!
For a successful climb (lasting either a half- or full-day), you also need to pick the right moment: avoid the potentially stifling heat of a south-facing wall (the sun can be incredibly strong even at altitude) and do not attempt a climb if the weather looks threatening as lightning is attracted to metal objects.
By following the above guidelines you'll never forget the experience of your first via ferrata ascent!
The Hautes-Alpes, a great via ferrata destination
This département is a mecca for the sport with no fewer than 25 climbing itineraries. The most famous routes are in the Pays des Ecrins, where the first French "via" was inaugurated in Freissinières, with the most popular in the neighbouring Vallouise valley, and the most spectacular in the nearby Gorges de la Durance. Another key area is the Briançonnais, (only in french) where the via ferrata at the Aiguillette du Lauzet, north of Serre-Chevalier, is renowned for its atmosphere and spectacular views.
Savoie-Mont Blanc, an impressive choice of routes
With close to forty routes now available, the Northern Alps offer fantastic potential for via ferrata, including routes at the Lac de la Rosière in Courchevel (Relatively Easy), the Rocher Saint-Pierre in Valloire (Very Difficult) and the Tour du Jalouvre in Le Grand Bornand (Very Difficult), along with itineraries specially adapted for children, such as the impressive route at the Forts d'Aussois, in the Haute-Maurienne!
- Scenic via ferrata routes can also be found in Corsica and in the Pyrenees, notably at Les Allias, in Cauterets.
- The concept of "leisure"-based via ferrata originates from Italy, where routes originally created on the peaks of the Dolomites for military purposes during the First World War have undergone a "tourist" reconversion! The via ferrata concept has also provided inspiration for a spectacular (though not terribly credible!) Hollywood film: Cliffhanger.
- Every mountain guides office (of which there are around 50 in France) and many qualified mountaineering instructors are able to offer "via ferrata" excursions.