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What are the risks of climbing a via ferrata alone?

Would going through very easy via ferratas still pose high risks? Are well visited and easy climbing via ferratas necessarily a great danger?

I intend to do it frequently on the same route, regularly, as an exercise.

  • With or without clipping your via ferrata carabiner set to the cables and the like? – Wills Jun 1 '16 at 19:57
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    Your question is not entirely clear as it stands. There is the question Will already posed. The I assume you only take about via ferratas (climbing route is commonly associated with rock-climbing routes)? – imsodin Jun 1 '16 at 21:21
  • Yes, I mean via ferrata, with a fixed cable already there. – Pierre B Jun 2 '16 at 0:22
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    "on the same route, regularly"... great. I suggest you do it non-solo, once, to make sure someone knows that route very well. Then if you fail to do something expected (checking in), that person knows where to find you. Later, you can easily let other friends know about that person's knowledge of your route, which could make finding you much easier. – TOOGAM Jun 2 '16 at 4:45
  • I would recommend carrying a PLB (personal location beacon). If get injured or fall ill and are unable to self-extract, this will enable you to call in the rescue service. If you are in the Western Alps, the service will likely be excellent, but if you're on your own a PLB will be your only reliable way of alerting them. – Tullochgorum Jun 2 '16 at 9:09
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The overall risk comparison between being alone or in a group can be split into parts:

  • falling: no increased risk
    This is obviously independent of being in a group or soloing as climbing on a via ferrata is a solo activity.

  • severity of fall: hardly any increased risk
    The safety device used on via ferratas is a single user device. So the only factor contributing to a more severe fall would be a handling fault. The risk of this could be decreased by partner check in a group. However the initial setup is so easy that there is hardly room for mistake. And while climbing the major misuse is being completely detached while changing from one section of steel rope to another. This error is very unlikely to not be spotted by yourself (after all one arm will hang down).

  • rescue: potential for much more risk when alone
    This is the main benefit of being a group. A via ferrata is a no fall zone, as a fall will most likely have big consequences. You are stopped rather harshly (even with modern dampers this is far from smooth) and there are lots of metal rods, wires, ... sticking out of the rock to injure you. So it is very likely that you will not be able to get off the via ferrata on your own. In this case it depends a lot on whether there is a rescue service i.e. how fast it can be on place and whether you have means to contact it. However there is also a chance that you hit your head and lose consciousness. In this case you are in high risk of suspension trauma which is potentially deadly (all depends on how fast you regain consciousness).

So in the end it is the usual case where our ability to asses risk is not very good: You have an event that is highly unlikely (you don't fall on via ferratas, slipping with both hands and feet is highly unlikely and you can always rest) on the other hand the outcome of this event is potentially disastrous. It is a personal choice and there are these mentioned factors that make it somewhat less risky:

  • access to rescue (both being able to call rescue and rescue reaction time)

  • having previously climbed the via ferrata

Regarding your last question: Well frequented is nice and it helps somewhat if there are other climbers on the via ferrata, but you cannot know in advance whether there are actually people there when you want to go. And even if there are people: If they are far away they might not notice you falling or they might take too long to reach you (suspension trauma), in which case they could at least get rescue (if contactable).

A colleague of mine does this for training as you intend, but he does not take a via ferrata set, so he is actually soloing. While I obviously cannot encourage anybody to do this, it is consequent. In my opinion (so this is by no means objective!) if you aren't able to accept that a fall is fatal and still go, your (perceived) risk of falling is too high to go on your own.

Falling on via ferratas (properly secured) is dangerous and it happens, even if seldom. So I cannot recommend going alone, certainly not if you have to ask online whether you should go or not.

Addendum:
One very important thing that I completely missed: Ascent to and descent from the route. These may just be perfectly safe paths or might as well be steep, exposed trails and thus even more dangerous than the via ferrata itself. So take that into account as well!

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    As with any other potentially dangerous activities I recommend telling someone where exactly you are going and when you expect to finish such that they can get help in case you do not contact them by the time you should have finished. This is also standard practise in the alpine club huts even when you are not alone, and has actually saved some lives. – flawr Jun 2 '16 at 9:59
  • Actually, the risk of falling is propably less when alone, since other climbers in the neighborhood are a risk. (Overtaking, kicked down rocks etc) – Guran Jun 3 '16 at 8:10
  • @Guran Technically yes, but usually you follow the rule of just one climber per section and rockfall on via ferratas (especially well frequented ones) should not be much of an issue. – imsodin Jun 3 '16 at 9:18
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Quantifying the total risk of an activity is hard and to an extent opinion based. The increased risk of being solo, is more quantifable and that is what my answer focuses on.

The major increase in risk of doing a via ferrata alone (as opposed to in a group or with a partner) is that if you get injured (e.g., from a fall, rock fall, or a bee sting), you will be alone. This is not that different from any other outdoor activity in remote, or semi-remote, areas. In general, there are more chances to become injured on a via ferrata than say walking on flat well maintained trails but less than more difficult "class 5" rock climbing.

Being alone on a via ferrata, similar to walking, does not dramatically increase your chance of being initially injured. This is unlike, for example, class 5 rock climbing where rope soloing is more dangerous than climbing in roped pairs due to the technical limitations of self belay. There are some safety advantages of having a partner to double check your system in a via ferrata and for unknown routes (or unknown weather) for providing a sanity check.

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Previous summer I spent a week in Switzerland and did four via ferrata's on my own. The risk varies greatly depending on the weather and the route.

One day there was mist and snow, and I went up a mountain anyway. The climb went well, but when I got to the top you couldn't see the very much and it was hard to find the way back. Luckily someone else did the same route before me and I could follow his footsteps in the snow.

Another day it was sunny and I went to climb in the neighbourhood of the Engelalp. There were many tourists and other climbers there, and if you would need some help somebody would surely pass by within a short time.

Usually there is some information point or mountain hut. I made sure to show my face there and ask about the via ferrata.

One disadvantage when you are alone is that you have nobody to discuss decisions with, and nobody to share the joy. That said, when you accomplish something you know it is entirely your own doing. Also, other people will start a conversation much easier when you are alone.

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    Great, I completely missed the descent. As with many activities, the ascent and descent to the actual route may be the most dangerous thing of all. – imsodin Jun 2 '16 at 11:47
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You could take steps to evaluate and mitigate your specific risk.

e.g.

  • Check whether the entire route is under cellphone network coverage
  • Analyse how popular is the route? Should you have a disabling fall how long will it be before another person comes across you?
  • Check on response times for rescue services to reach the route.
  • Investigate the possibility of buying some sort of panic alarm device to notify friends / family in case of danger
  • A flare or powerful spotlight might allow you to signal your position
  • How could invest in an EPIRB after checking legality for personal use in your locale
  • In industrial plant contexts when working alone we are now using man-down alarm devices. You could investigate one of those. That will take care of the eventuality in which a fall knocks you out unconscious. Most have an audible local alarm plus remote notification. All devices I've seen are essentially line of sight though for industrial complex use. You'd need something that runs off the GSM network probably.

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