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I did my first via ferrata this weekend and noticed there were often long vertical distances separating the cable anchors. At times this length was around 10m. This meant that a fall before reaching the cable anchor, if both cables were clipped onto the cable, would mean you'd plummet 10m + the length of the lanyard into the rocks below. This would result in severe injury or death.

All the advice I have read seems to say that both carabiners must be attached to the cable at all times, but surely, if it's safer to do so, why not clip one of the carabiners onto the metal rungs of the route and have the other clipped onto the cable? This seems like common sense to me but I'm surprised it isn't mentioned anywhere. Is this practice frowned upon? Or is there something I'm not understanding?

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The reason is simple: You are not supposed to fall on these climbs, in any case. Falls will in most cases be very bad indeed, no matter where you clipped in. Your security line is basically made so that you don't fall 1000 meters, and so that the rescue team has an easier time finding you and cleaning away the mess. The "real" security comes from being able to grab the steel line (or the lanyard itself) for stabilizing yourself, and for having dedicated steps, ladders etc. so you don't have to rock climb, thus opening up those routes to non-climbers.

This is strictly different from sport climbing where falling is most times factored in and usually not a problem - those routes where a fall must be avoided at all cost do exist (i.e. only very few, brittle spots to push in a friend or something like that), but are the exception. While this kind climbing is built around making falls safe, via-ferrata-climbing is built around avoiding falls at all cost.

I treat the lanyard as insubstantial. If I have the feeling that I cannot go on without falling, I will turn back, even though I have the lanyard. It may give me a little psychological boost, so I go just a bit further than without, but it is absolutely a minor part. One reason for this is that you can fall only once with your lanyard, after that it is worse than useless. This means if you bring yourself beyond your capabilities, and survive your first fall, even without incurring substantial damage, you're in extreme danger afterwards, with no security at all anymore.

Finally, if those ferratas were made with enough bolts to clip into them, instead of the line, this would be a logistical nightmare - both when creating the line (a huge amount of effort to place more bolts, also for actually finding proper places to put them), and for clipping all the time. A long way between two bolts is a service to the user of the via ferrata, as it means not having to clip so often. If this frequency were significantly higher, people would just not clip in.

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    Replace “Alpine climbing” with “Sport and trad climbing” in your answer. In alpine climbing, “do not fall” is indeed the norm. – Guran Jul 18 '18 at 18:19
  • @Guran, I've yet to take a fall trad climbing... I know the gear will hold, but I still don't completely trust it. Watch one of Dan Osman's "zipper falls" and you have trouble trusting your trad pro... – ShemSeger Jul 19 '18 at 17:49
  • @ShemSeger If you've never fallen on it, how do you know you're doing it right when the time comes to actually need it? – Chris Mendez Jul 19 '18 at 19:09
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    Remember, this question is about via ferratas. Compared to those, falling in any of the other styles (i.e., rope climbing, no matter what particular style) is less critical. Note my formulation "most times factored in and usually not a problem", this does not imply that you will jump into the rope nilly-willy on all those climbs. – AnoE Jul 19 '18 at 19:28
  • @ChrisMendez Mostly because of my followers and their exclamations of frustration trying to clean my horribly stuck gear (I tend set things a little too well sometimes). But honestly, what assurances does anyone have that their pro is going to hold? Dan Osman was one of the best climbers of his time, and his gear still blew out, granted there's much nicer stuff nowadays than the friends he was using, but still, things can always go wrong. – ShemSeger Jul 19 '18 at 19:40
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If you understand what you're doing and why, do what is safe.

First of all (probably obvious): you should never fall on a via ferrata, so don't do anything risky.

Second: even a 10m + lanyard fall should not be fatal if you use a proper modern via ferrata set - those are designed to rip open in a controlled manner to absorb the fall energy. A well-designed via ferrata should not have ledges in the fall zone, but I'd also say that 10m vertical distance without an anchor is not acceptable given that via ferrata sets are tested only on a 5m fall.

However, clipping one of your carabiners into closed rungs seems a reasonable measure to reduce the fall length, and advisable in places where a via ferrata is not well designed.

Possible reasons not to do it:

  • conceptually, the rungs are not safety equipment, they exist to make the ascent easier.
  • it slows you down and leaves you more frequently holding on with one hand on a vertical section, which increases your risk of falling as you become more exhausted.
  • it complicates what you have to do and imposes more choices on you, which increases the chance that you'll make a dangerous mistake, e.g. you're in the process of moving one carabiner from a lower to a higher rung when you notice the other carabiner is holding you back because it's up against a cable anchor. Your attention now focused on the second carabiner, you reach down to unclip it while the first one is still unclipped in your other hand...
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    I agree, except for a well-designed via ferrata should not have[...] I have been on some of the most famous and beautiful Via Ferrata in Switzerland - and many still have passages where a fall would almost certainly lead to grave injuries. Falling on a Via Ferrata is just not an option, not as it is in rock climbing. – fgysin Jul 18 '18 at 9:28
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    @fgysin: famous and beautiful is not the same thing as well-designed from a security standpoint. And in most cases it wouldn't be a problem to add cable anchors to catch a fall sooner above a ledge. – Michael Borgwardt Jul 18 '18 at 10:37
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    You are right of course. I merely wanted to point out that it might not be easy to find such well-designed Via Ferrata. – fgysin Jul 18 '18 at 12:22
  • I'd like to see some kind of reference (norm, manufacturer advice, tests, ...) for the statement that a 10m fall into a via ferrata set should not result in serious injury. The norm tests for 5m fall and requires <6kN max force for 120kg - 6kN is crazy already, 12kN would be really bad (obviously a huge leap to assume double energy means double peak force, but I don't think its unreasonable). And that's all assuming you are falling in "empty space" - conceptually that means either diagonal and slightly overhanging or steeply overhanging. I doubt those conditions are the "norm" on via ferratas. – imsodin Jul 19 '18 at 9:36
  • @imsodin: hm, looks like I overestimated what those absorbers can do. I changed the wording. – Michael Borgwardt Jul 19 '18 at 11:02
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The rule with Via Ferrata is to always have at least one point of safety clipped in at all times. Many people have fallen to their deaths while unclipped from their safety lines in order to pass an anchor, or to pass another individual. You have two lanyards so you can pass an anchor while always having one clipped to the line.

While it would not necessarily be considered taboo to clip to the ladder rungs, which is actually how ladders are climbed when no safety line is present, it is not the best practice for a couple of reasons.

Clipping into the ladder rungs slows you down, as you're spending more time clipping each time you move up a step or two, this is not ideal when you're moving with a group, or simply when mountaineering in general. You also put yourself at greater risk of taking a fall, because you're spending more time fiddling with your gear than you are hanging onto the secure ladder rung. You’re much safer hanging onto the rungs with both hands than you are trying to move your one biner each time you take a couple steps. There’s also the matter of whether or not your biner on your lanyard is large enough to clip to the rung of the ladder. Some rungs are not much larger than the cable itself, but others might be too large to fit the biner over, or it might be a tight fit, which could cause you to struggle with each clip.

Again, you’re much safer to hang onto the ladder with both hands than you are to clip each rung on your way up. Clipping the rungs of the ladder may provide the illusion of greater safety because your fall potential is lower if you were to take a fall, but this is only true if you’re clipping both lanyards to the ladder, because if you’re only clipping one and leaving the other on the cable, then as soon as you unclip from the ladder, your last point of protection is down by the last anchor anyways.

Leaving both lanyards clipped to the safety line while you climb is the best and safest practice.

  • Good point about the fall potential being lower only when both lanyards are attached to the ladder! – Ricketyship Jul 19 '18 at 12:47
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I have always used the rungs for clipping in, and was taught so by the guide too.

Never heard of any reason to not do it; yes, it slows you down, but clipping into horizontal steel cables also slows you down.
As my life might depend on it, I'd always have a minimum of one clipped in, even if I take a minute for a ladder instead of 20 seconds.

  • It's nice to have a different opinion on here. After considering the opinions of the others, I don't think there should be a hard rule either way. Some sections might be suited to clipping both onto the cable, where a fast uncomplicated ascent is better; whereas, if the risk of a high fall potential can be reduced by clipping onto a rung for a short technical section, provided that it's easy to clip both back onto the cable once the section has passed, as in your example, then it makes sense to me. The risk of irreversibly damaging a lanyard must be factored in to the decision. – alkey Jul 25 '18 at 9:39
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As long as you can safely clip into the cable, prefer that as it's the safety equipment on a via ferrata and lets you move faster and in a more ecomfortable way. But of course safety first, do what is safer in given circumstances, especially that it can give you a confidence boost to do a harder part of ferrata. But as other said, do not take a fall into account. Rest before harder section, plan/visualize movements, execute efficiently.

I personally clip into rungs when cable is too far away to comfortably reach and clip into for a short person like me (example: some parts of Bälmetentor via ferrata in Switzerland are like that). I've never seen more than 3-4 m distance between rope anchors on a via ferrata in a vertical climb, I would definitely clip into rungs if it was 10 m or even 5-6 m.

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