Bob from the Nature Travels team gets to grips with his first Via Ferrata on a tour to Fjord Norway in July 2014:
My wife, Sofia, and other Director here at Nature Travels, has a t-shirt from a recent 24-hour running event with the slogan “Life Begins at the Edge of Your Comfort Zone.” I have a t-shirt with the slogan “You Can Never Have Too Many Guitars”. I like my Comfort Zone – it’s warm, safe and, well, comfortable – and I find life goes on inside it very nicely most of the time, thank you.
But I also have to grudgingly admit that whenever I find myself outside its cosy borders, whether by fair means or foul, these end up being some of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my life, and (apart from a 32 mile walk along the Dorset Coast Path last Sunday from which I still have the blisters) I have my time with Nature Travels to thank for many of them – canoeing in the pathless wilderness of Rogen in north-west Sweden, dog sledding along the King’s Trail in the far north of Lapland, and, on this occasion, hanging off the side of a cliff slowly losing feeling in one arm while desperately fumbling with some tangled carabiners with the other.
I’d come to Fjord Norway on a trip investigating new experiences for the Nature Travels portfolio – we have been slowly adding new options in Norway for the last couple of seasons and I was keen to research some additional possibilities for summer (our summer options currently include Sailing the Norwegian Coast and Nordic Yurt Camp in Hardanger). We found ourselves in the stunning Sunnmøre Alps area, where within striking distance of the lovely regional capital Ålesund there are several of Norway’s most spectacular natural areas, including the beautiful Geirangerfjord, on which we’d spent a glorious early morning the day before kayaking around the base of the Seven Sisters waterfall in the stillness before the cruise ships arrive.
I’d been to the Sunnmøre area before, in winter for off-piste skiing and ski touring, but hadn’t had an opportunity to try summer activities in the area. It was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I saw that a newly-opened Via Ferrata, in the small village of Loen, was on the list of things we’d be doing. For the uninitiated, Via Ferrata (“iron ways”) were found originally in the alps, and basically allow non-climbers without technical skills the chance to access climbing areas that would normally require you to be a “proper” climber. As Wikipedia puts it, “via ferrata allow otherwise dangerous routes to be undertaken without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing or need for climbing equipment”.
Running the length of the route is a steel cable, fastened every 3m or so into the rock. Participants climb with two points of attachment to the cable, sliding the carabiners along as you climb. When you reach a fastening point, you unclip one, attach it to the other side, then unclip the other and reattach. In this way you are always anchored to the cable by at least one point and, if you do slip, the maximum distance you could fall would be the 3m down to the next clip point (this would undoubtedly hurt, but is better than the alternative). This is foolproof, though not it seems tour-operator-proof. At one point I looked down (and during one of the steepest sections too) to find myself, to my surprise, holding both my carabiners in my hand. Oops. Still, momentary lapses of reason and muppetry-attacks aside, it’s foolproof.
After a carb-loading breakfast, we walked across the road from our hotel to the climbing centre, where a group of around 40 were assembling, collecting harnesses, shoes, gloves, and generally looking active and healthy. As a newly-opened route, the clientele so far is almost exclusively Norwegian, and with the odd exception (i.e. me), most people looked worryingly like they knew what they were doing – a sea of bronzed Scandinavian muscles, taught and rippling in the morning sun, and that infuriating glow of health and vitality so common to these parts. There were also a couple of children – two girls aged just 10 or so, but as all Norwegians are able to climb, ski, sail and paraglide seemingly before they are on solid food, this didn’t make me feel any better.
In our little group of four were myself, Tove from the tourist board, and two tour operators in Holland, Sabine and Maiike. Tove certainly sported an impressive climbing pedigree – her father had first-ascented the nearby Trollveggen in the 1960s, an absurdly steep and precipitous cliff that we’d visited the day before, so I was keen not to let the side down.
The trip was scheduled to take all day and, as Norway was in the grips of a ridiculously hot summer, where it had been close to 30 degrees for several weeks, the guides were sensibly insistent that we wouldn’t be rushing and there was no timetable for getting back. After an introduction to the technique, safety talk and a check that we were all carrying enough water (at least 3 litres each for the day), we were off.
Physically, the hardest part of the day was the hour-long initial trudge up a steep forest path in the blazing sun to where the via ferrata begins. Once at the base, things settled into a stop-start routine, ensuring that the climber before you has cleared the section above before you begin.
The rhythm of the day was oddly meditative and gently hypnotic – bum out, arms straight, feet flat, climb, unclip, clip on, unclip, clip on, gather your safety lines, and off you go again. Despite nursing a bit of a cold which was sapping my energy, I found myself enjoying it all right from the start. Some of the steeper sections required some deep breaths and internal pep-talks, but the views were spectacular, the cameraderie warm and friendly, and the day had a real sense of achievement.
Towards the top comes one of the highlights of the route – the longest Via Ferrata bridge in Europe, 120m long with a 160m drop. Then you’re over to the other side for a bit more climbing, and finally you’re off the line and out onto the rolling moorland that is the summit of Mt. Hoven at 1010m. From here it’s an hour and a half or so walk down through meadows and forest back to the village, with the springy turf beneath your feet providing a lovely contrast to the hard rock of the rest of the day.
And so we made it home – 8 hours, 1010m up and down again (starting and ending at sea level), 3 litres of water and probably 5 litres of sweat later. It was universally agreed to have been a great day.
And who knew it? I may be an adventurer after all….but until the next time, back to the comfort zone…..