CLICK, CLACK. Click, clack.
The clatter of aluminium carabiners clipping and unclipping fills the air on this late summer afternoon.
Pendulous clouds drape the upper slopes of Spruce Knob, the highest peak in West Virginia, and threaten rain. At the moment, though, only a fi ne mist penetrates a canopy of oak and locust at the base of Nelson Rocks, where guide Josh Armstrong and I watch nine climbers, led by guide Jason Cain, scale a 30-metre quartzite cliff on ladderlike rungs anchored in the rock. Each climber wears a harness with a pair of carabiners on lanyards clipped to a steel safety cable that runs alongside the rungs. At 2-metre intervals, when a climber reaches one of the eyebolts that anchor the cable to the cliff, he or she detaches one carabiner from the cable, clips it back on the cable above the bolt and then does likewise with the trailing carabiner. Click. Clack.
“You’re up,” Armstrong says. He isnÃt a rock-climbing guide in the traditional sense. No rope runs reassuringly through his expert hands to my climbing harness. He can’t catch me if I fall – and falls are heavily discouraged. Slipping off the metal rungs might cause more injury than a fall while roped and on belay in conventional rock climbing. “We don’t have a dynamic rope to catch us, or someone on the ground to absorb the shock of our fall,” Cain said before the climb. “We are falling on stainless steel cable. Doesn’t stretch much. These lanyards? Not going to stretch much. We can generate a lot of force with a fall. It’s going to hurt. So no falls.”
No falls. Okay. A familiar nervous anticipation overtakes me. I have a fair amount of experience on rock, though it’s been a while since I’ve ascended anything higher than a 10-metre climbing wall. But with all this metal support, I’m confident enough to clip both carabiners to the steel safety cable, grab a rung and start to climb. I won’t unclip for 5 hours.
A fixed anchoring system like the one at Nelson Rocks is known as a via ferrata – Italian for “iron road”. It stays put while the climbers move on: no ropes to lug, no specialised gear to buy, no esoteric techniques to learn. These networks of ladders, cables and bridges were developed in the Dolomites during World War I, when they were used to move supplies and infantry through otherwise impassable terrain. After the war, mountaineers took over the routes and today, hundreds of via ferratas enable even raw beginners to access dramatic ridges and peaks in the Alps and Pyrenees.
At the Nelson Rocks Outdoor Centre, the 530 metres of 20-mm aircraft-grade stainless-steel cable (tensile strength: 5 360 kilograms), the 115 stainless-steel rungs and the 145 iron bolt hangers that went into building the via ferrata open one of the most unusual geologic formations in the region to exploration. Parallel fins of exposed Tuscarora quartzite rise high above the North Fork Valley like the bony plates on the back of a stegosaurus.
Just 70 metres separates those fins, and in an inspired feat of amateur engineering, the via ferrata’s builders link them with the route’s most spectacular feature – a suspension bridge spanning the distance.
The route begins near the southern end of the west fin. Soon trees that towered above me at the base appear below as nubs in a green shag carpet. Near the top of the fin, which has narrowed to less than 2 metres, I enter a cleft in the rock, take a few steps and emerge in a portal with a spectacular view on the other side of the cliff – the east fin, rearing up out of the hardwood forest, and below, the spindly suspension bridge that spans the gap.
The bridge is composed of wire handrails, an overhead safety cable and 50 x 100 mm beams 40 cm apart. From the portal I step off a rung, scramble along a ledge and then climb on to the bridge. It’s like walking on a ladder laid flat – if that ladder were swaying in the wind 50 metres above the ground, bucking with each step.
Not everyone who attempts the via ferrata has the nerve to walk these planks, so an escape route just before the bridge leads to a hiking trail back to the base. Although the bridge is scary fun, the truth is that in building it, as with every aspect of the route, overkill ruled.
Stu Hammett, a lanky 53-year-old who speaks in a clipped cadence typical of southern Maryland, bought Nelson Rocks in 1997, just three years after a 13-metre climbing fall left him partially paralysed. But he was determined to climb again and to own land in the North Fork Valley, which he had come to love on climbing trips. With the help of special braces, he got back into the sport. A story in the local paper alerted him to the sale of the Nelson Rocks property, making the other dream possible.
An initial stab at opening the crag to climbers on a fee basis failed to cover costs. Then in 2001, Hammett read an article about a via ferrata that had just opened at Torrent Falls in Kentucky. “I knew right away that’s what I’d build,” Hammett says. “I got a quote from a French via ferrata builder and I said, ‘There’s no way I’m paying that price.’ This is West Virginia, where we know how to do things ourselves.”
Hammett hired seven selfdescribed “dirtbag” climbers from up the road at Seneca Rocks to do the build, which began in February 2002.
“I wanted something that would still be there when the rock wore away to dust, but it was all built by seat-of-the-pants engineering,” Hammett says. They planned the via ferrata around established climbing routes and to take advantage of the formation’s features. Working from the ground up, the builders drilled and glued in 115 rungs that can each support an estimated 4 000 kg.
To build the bridge, a team on top of the west fin dropped a static line and a 6-mm cord, which a second team hauled across the gap and to the top of the east fin. Once the static line was taut, the east fin crew pulled the cord across as the west fin crew attached carabiners to link the line and the cord at 5-metre intervals, creating a trolley system. When the carabiners were attached, the west fin crew hauled the trolley back and clipped in a 20-mm galvanised steel cable, which the crew on the east fi n pulled across the gap. Ã¬The cables were so heavy, they would’ve sagged,Ã® says Doug Downs, who helped build the route. “We didn’t have the tools or the manpower to pull a big sag out of the cable.”
Once that cable was secure, the process was repeated until all the cables were in place. The carabiners were unclipped and the crew rode across on pulleys to complete the bridge.
The bridge load is carried by eyebolts anchored with acrylic adhesive in holes 450 mm deep. It took two climbers on rappel to bore the Doubling holes Ã± one to wield a hammer drill and the other to press against the driller’s back, gaining leverage by stuffing climbing cams into cracks and pulling hard on the attached ropes. There are 10 anchor holes; each required 90 minutes to drill. “It was a three-dimensional puzzle to put the anchors in the right place so that when the cables were tensioned, they were in the proper relationship,” Hammett says. “We’d be up late drinking beer and trying to solve the next day’s problems. There were arguments, some sore feelings, but it was one of the most exciting times of my life.”
Mainstream climbers and managers of public land agencies are uneasy about marring rock with anything man-made (see “Locals love it… and hate it”). The rise of sport climbing (which uses permanent anchor bolts) in the late 1980s sparked controversy among traditional climbers. The conflict eventually faded. Still, says Brady Robinson of the American climber advocacy group Access Fund, glueing rungs and bolting cable into rock with the intent of making money is “shocking to plenty of climbers. But via ferratas are not inherently bad. You just don’t want one in pristine wilderness or untracked forest”.
By locating the outdoor centre on private land, Hammett escaped opposition. But the via ferrata still raises questions, even with Downs.
“I’ve always battled with whether the via fit in my ethical boundary,” he says. “Are we allowing people who shouldnÃt be up there to be up there, or are we furthering conservation by bringing people somewhere they wouldn’t be able to go, so they can see it and support its protection?”
Whether I could have scaled the crest of the east fin without the metal rungs is questionable. The headwall guarding it is intimidating: 20 metres high and overhanging. Climbers are forced to lean back slightly, which tires the arms. As I climb, I pause to watch as the cloud deck that shadowed us all day breaks apart and sunlight turns dull-coloured rock to gold.
I had intended to stand, arms outstretched, when I reached the apex. But the perspective here is dizzying. The block appears to be suspended in midair, and though I’m still safely clipped to the via ferrata, I have an overpowering sensation of being airborne Ã± and a case of vertigo. The best I can manage is a surfer’s crouch. So I move my carabiners past the bolts one at a time and head for solid ground. Click, clack. Click, clack.
Locals love it – and hate it
South Africans haven’t had much exposure to the via ferrata. But even that limited exposure has been sufficient to ignite enthusiasm – and a row.
The Mountain Club of South Africa has joined the chorus of outrage over the potential environmental impact of an apparently unauthorised via ferrata route on the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site’s Beacon Buttress.
Mountain Club president Dave Jones says that his organisation actively promotes low-impact activities and protection and conservation of mountain wilderness areas. Internal investigations into possible Club members’ involvement will follow.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which controls the park, has threatened legal action against those responsible. Besides, even though this is not a proclaimed wilderness, a via ferrata is simply not in line with plans for the area, Ezemvelo says. But on the other side of the country it’s a different picture: the via ferrata on Shelter Rock to the summit of the Magaliesberg has drawn enthusiastic reviews since its completion in 2009. The route is one of a range of activities offered by the operators, in fact, from abseiling to hikes.
According to Shelter Rock, via ferrata has become the fastest-growing outdoor activity in Europe. There are more than 300 of the routes worldwide as far afield as the USA, New Zealand, England and Malaysia.
It took four years (including an environmental impact assessment process) to obtain the required permissions for Shelter Rock, as the route is constructed in the Magaliesberg Natural Protected Area. The route itself is named after engineer and mountaineer Sarel van Rensburg, who – along with his sons – laid out the stairway’s final route. Similar to European designs, it complies with EU and SABS standards.
Climbers on the Shelter Rock via ferrata use an abseiling harness and cowtails fitted with an industrial shock absorber. The cowtails are attached to an 8 mm galvanised steel cable fixed to the cliff face every 2 metres. The steps themselves are designed to support an individual weight in excess of 500 kg.
Anyone in good health and fit enough to handle trail hiking would be right at home, the operators say. However, children shorter than 1,3 metres and aged under 13 are discouraged. Apart from the supplied equipment, climbers need nothing more elaborate than loose-fitting clothing and good shoes such as tennis shoes or light hiking boots. Allow at least 6 to 7 hours for the via ferrata and double pitch abseil, or about 2 to 3 hours less if hiking back down the marked trail.