In Praise of Via Ferratas

22nd July, 2011

iron work!

by Deidre O’Caunagh

Thanks to power of the Internet it is now possible to know that it is pouring with rain in the French Alps just when you plan to go on holiday there. So, it was a quick change of plans for the Doctor and I and we drove straight through France until it stopped raining, somewhere just south of Grenoble. Orpiere was the nearest place to climb so we holed up there for a couple of days with hordes of Dutch and Germans washed out from higher mountains. Well, it was far too busy with pasty northern Europeans littering the crags so instead we got out our via ferrata kit and aided by some very helpful leaflets from the tourist office explored some routes in the Buech area.
Fact! Via ferratas are FUN! If you’ve never been think extreme scrambling but so much safer because you’re clipped into a lovely big wire cable. Of course the French haul the whole of their family up them in large jolly parties although that’s not to say it is possible to kill yourself on them. So do read the instructions on your fancy shock-absorbing lanyards.
Our first attempt at a suitably easy route in the delightful Gorge d’Agnielles left us ashen-faced at the thought of small children romping across the vertiginous drops. In our defence though, it was wet. Probably why there was no-one else on it at the time.
Most of the routes we did were easily accessed (ie: road-side) so are ideal for all you sports climbers who don’t want to build your legs up, but there are also some stunning longer routes with plenty of atmosphere to satisfy any closet mountaineers. They’re graded as for alpine routes from F through to ED. We did a couple of TD’s and thought they were brilliant; at this grade hard enough to make you nervous before you started and with lots of technical challenge to keep your nerves jangling the higher you got up the route. Great stuff!
The French seem to have been very busy re-equipping existing classic routes as well as putting up entirely new ones. One or two of the most high tech routes charge but for your five euros you get features like a 300 metre zip wire – there’s something to make you scream. Just make sure you hire the correct sort of pulley…. don’t even think that, being British, you’ll be alright with some bit of ancient hardware you dug out the bottom of your sac that you once used for glacier rescue. But who needs to pay when, for free, you can terrify yourself on overhanging pillars, traverse across unthinkingly huge chasms, recreate those Himalayan moments on pont nepalaise (think Steal Falls wire bridge) and teeter across rickety planks with nowt to hold onto.
So, if you’re bored of bolts and the mountains are too wet have some fab fun getting fit on via ferratas. There is an English guidebook to all the French via ferrata available in the UK but it is now dated and you can get a new version in France (in French, surprisingly!). Go on, you know it makes sense.

Pont Nepalaise

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Outside Edge, Cwm Silyn, North Wales

2nd July, 2011

By Di Neema
Well, it took us three passes in the car to get the correct left turn through Nantlle (one of the attempts clearly the entrance to someone’s house) but soon Craig yr Ogof presented its mighty frontage to us on what is really a relatively gentle walk-in of around 45 mins (just the nasty bit up the scree at the end).

Falling between the two stools of wanting to be early enough to miss the queue but late enough to be in the sunshine, we heaped the ropes at the bottom whilst waiting for the route to clear of its incumbents. Our early lunch upset the coolly-dressed-in-black Scouse climber twiddling his thumbs on the stance of the first pitch – he’d unwisely not broken into his sandwich stash before setting off.

There remained only the final dither about clothing and we were off up Outside Edge, the classic V Diff on the Great Slab that provides not only good mountain and sea panoramas but a view of Caernarfon Castle. After a straightforward first pitch, the climbing proper starts with an airy rising traverse across a steep wall endowed with good holds if not a lot of gear. Another straightforward pitch and then pitch 4 – a delicate traverse across some ribs (never entirely sure if I was going across on the right level) before reaching what is probably the crux pitch up a wide corner crack. I decided to sally up the wall to the right before returning to the crack when it closed to a more amenable width i.e. no danger of inserting any body part into its confines. The route finally departs the crack for the arête by some neat moves and there I was – in one of the most exceptionally fine mountain positions in North Wales. The teardrop twin lakes far below looked darkly beautiful against the brightness and a finishing scramble in warm sun was made to join our friends who had been climbing ahead of us.  I was now ridiculously overdressed and I shed layers of clothing before coiling the ropes and changing into trainers. The descent (The Great Stone Shoot) is not for repeating too many times in one day and it was certainly worth the trainers bouncing around my backside on the way up.

OK, we had waited at the bottom for quite a while to avoid a frustrating staccato ascent but where did the day go?

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The Road Less Traveled (sic)

1st July, 2011

By Lou Weth
The clean, slabby nose of Dinas Mot offers beautiful climbing and welcome shade in the rare heatwave. So why would you walk on past to the dark, overgrown, overhung reaches of the Eastern Wing on a dull day? Because some perverse member of the Committee decided it would be a good challenge for the Club’s 90th year to try and climb as many routes as possible from the climbing quizzes which featured at the three most recent annual dinners. Most of the Welsh routes from the first quiz were animals, which is why we diverged from the fairer path and headed resolutely for The Mole, “a justifiably popular 2* HVS on superb rock”. Before we were allowed to climb we had to change our clothes several times to satisfy both our need for warmth and the photographer’s insistence on brighter colours. She took herself off to some eyrie and snapped away in professional looking poses, while we, somewhat dubiously, picked our way through the grass and verdure of the initial rake, uncertain whether any step had trodden it this century. She’s actually quite gifted with her camera, because the shot of the slab on the first pitch makes it look as if it is quite a normal rock-climb. The second pitch does actually offer some fine moves in exciting situations, but heed the guidebook advice to take your nut-key for broddling out the cracks to reveal essential holds and gear placements. A hard broom to brush off the proliferation of black moss on the exposed slab edge would also be useful.

The photographer retreated to the warmth of the hut to ‘Photoshop’ the rock into the pictures, at which point we noticed the Cromlech baking in the sunshine opposite us. Ripping off carpets of thick green moss and wiping dry the crucial foothold with a beer mat (a rare commodity these days), we teetered our way up the final, tricky pitch to welcome sunshine and bilberries at the top of the crag. A fine expedition, but we doubted we should ever come back.

The rest of the weekend couldn’t have been in greater contrast: a bright and breezy ascent of Outside Edge at Cwm Silyn on the Saturday and Left Wall in a heatwave on the Sunday. From our perch at the top of the Cromlech we looked across and saw… surprise, surprise… a team on The Mole. Perhaps, for them, we had made all the difference.

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