Thursday, 26 January 2012

Life on a high wire - adventure holidays in France

Making the passage of man over mountains a little easier is certainly not a new phenomenon!! Even back in the late 1400s the intrepid Captain Antoine de Ville used ladders to help him summit Mount Aiguille in the Savoie, and in the 1500s more sophisticated cabling was used by mountain guides in the Mont Blanc area to overcome difficult stretches of terrain.
Via ferrata, as we know it today, originated during WWI in Italy as a means of transporting troups across Alpine terrain. Post war, these routes were soon abandoned for military use. It was only in the 1980s when the concept of creating interesting and challenging routes as a pass time in itself, rather than a means to an end, was hatched.
The Alpes-Maritimes department is blessed with eight different networks of VF, out of a total of about 100 in the whole of France. These are of varying degrees of difficulty so aficionadi can wile after a week or so, on the trail of adventure in France!!
For non aficionadi
What is it all about??
Via ferrata offers access to rock climbing type terrain but made easy. Enjoy all of the thrills and spills of fresh air beneath you, without the fear element.
VF’s vary of course, but the routes are usually on a cliff or in a gulley which has been equipped with rungs and holds to enable climbing. Most sports routes have rungs which are conveniently located to suit both the short and the tall!! A metal cable runs along the routes, to which you are attached at all times. In addition to face climbing, many via ferrata also offer more challenging sections such as wire monkey bridges to cross.
What do you need to do it??
For via ferrata, you need to be comfortably dressed, with sturdy trainers. Climbing shoes are not required. Do consider that you will be on the mountain for some hours – so make sure you cater for any eventualities – sun cream, hat, or gloves and a waterproof, and take a drink. You need to wear a climbing harness with a double lanyard belaying system plus a climbing helmet. These can usually be hired from local equipment stores quite cheaply.
How fit do I need to be??
There is no need to be super fit to do VF. You obviously need to be vertigo free, and have reasonable strength in your upper and lower body for movements. Routes have a variety of standards of difficulty, and you should start on one suited to your fitness, strength, and confidence. If bad weather threatens, do as you would if out walking; move off the mountain quickly but safely.
What experience do I need?
No rock climbing experience is needed; you will have no problem if you have done some scrambling before. Beginners can either grab a rock climbing mate for a day, join a group led by a mountain leader, or head out on their own – ensuring that they are familiar with their equipment, the routes on the VFs, and the basic essentials of ensuring that one is clipped on to the metal cables at all times. At breaks in the cables, the carabiners are moved one at a time, ensuring that security is always in place. There are also escape routes called échappatoires, which offer an easier route off the hill at more difficult sections.
Where to go for a maiden adventure?
A good idea to start on the Baus de la Frema near to La Colmiane – there are several places where you can hire your kit, and then drive to the start point where there are useful maps of the routes on the mountain. In the summer there is someone who will take a fee of c €5 but out of season access is usually free. The routes were established by experienced local mountain guides, so the rungs/holds are conveniently placed, with plenty of escape routes available too.
How to find out more?
A goodie in English - ‘Via ferrata, a complete guide to France’ available from Amazon
Also there is a VF guide published by the Conseil Général des Alpes-Maritimes – Rando Via Ferrata – guides RandOxygène -
And a face full of all that is available in France -
For more real life experiences of Via Ferrata in the Mercantour, read this article by freelance journalist Timandra Harkness, who wondered if she had bitten off more than she could chew on a visit to La Colmiane, with experienced mountain guide and wag, Pierrot Fiorucci.
VF is offered by British walking and adventure holiday company Spacebetween , as part of their activity packages,, or alternatively you could use their base, offering two gites, for accommodation only.
Tel: 00 33 (0)4 93 03 48 57
Contact: Liz Lord & Mel Jones

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