If someone asked me what causes accidents on via ferrate, I would only be able to make a few informed guesses. This is because there is surprisingly little readily accessible information on why accidents happen on vie ferrate. This concerns me because understanding why the cause of accidents is essential to preventing them. I’d like there to start a conversation about the causes and prevalence of these accidents as a way of improving understanding and helping people safely enjoy vie ferrate. As a starting point, I’ll set out what I know and suspect.
Frequency and prevalence
The only figures I’ve been able to find on the number of accidents on vie ferrate are published by the Aiut Alpin Dolomites. This is a voluntary association of seventeen mountain rescue teams that mainly operate in the Ladin Valleys of the Dolomites, an area with a high number of vie ferrate. The Aiut Alpin Dolomites figures are on the types of “interventions” they have done during the summer and winter seasons each year. These figures note that in 2013 there were 19 interventions in relation to “fixed protection climbing paths (via ferrata).” This doesn’t seem a lot to me as I imagine that every summer thousands of people must use the vie ferrate in the area the Aiut Alpin Dolomites cover. It also doesn’t seem a lot when compared to the other types of interventions these mountain rescue teams report that they were involved in that year (see chart).
However, there is a limit from what can be said from this sort of comparison. The activities involved are quite different and so it isn’t possible, for example, to use these figures to say that climbing a via ferrata is safer or more dangerous than cycling or rock climbing. It’s also not possible to know the prevalence of accidents for each of these activities without knowing the numbers of people undertaking them. There were 19 via ferrata interventions in 2013, but this is 19 out of an unspecified number of climbs of vie ferrate in that year. Was it 19 interventions out of 10,000 climbs, 50,000 climbs or 100,000 climbs? Without this other figure it’s very hard to get a sense of how prevalent accidents are on vie ferrate.
What can be done with these figures is compare the number of via ferrata interventions by Aiut Alpin Dolomites over time to get a sense of whether accidents are occurring more or less frequently in this major area for vie ferrate climbing.
This shows no obvious trend to more or fewer interventions by Aiut Alpin Dolomites in the last 13 years. Apart from an unexplained spike in 2004 and a slight dip in 2003, the number of interventions per year has kept within a range of between 10 and 19.
It’s not possible to draw many firm conclusions from these figures as:
- the number of interventions each year are so small;
- “intervention” is not defined;
- it’s not possible to get a sense of prevalence; and
- accidents that did not require a mountain rescue intervention, or in which mountain rescue was not contacted, are presumably not included.
What the figures do indicate is that accidents are regularly happening on vie ferrate and that these accidents are serious enough for the victims to need the assistance of mountain rescue. To understand how to reduce the number of such accidents, it is necessary to understand what causes them.
Using the wrong equipment
Falling off a via ferrata involves far higher impact forces than would be encountered falling off a rock climb and specialist via ferrata sets are designed to cope with such impact forces and so arrest a fall (the Mammut website has good explanation of the impact forces involved). Yet when I’ve been climbing vie ferrate in the Dolomites I’ve regularly seen people using protective equipment that they have put together themselves out of bits of climbing equipment such as quick draws, slings or lengths of rope and standard karabiners. The chances of such a homemade set-up arresting a via ferrata fall is very low to nil. This is demonstrated by an excellent video of what happens when an 80kg person (represented in the test by a big lump of wood) falls off a via ferrata using different protective set-ups. The specialist via ferrata sets hold the fall, but the sling on the homemade set-up snaps (there is also a full length, German language version of this video).
I’m guessing that the reason people try to make their own set-up rather than buying a proper set is to save money and because they are ignorant of the risks. It could be argued that such people are more likely to be first time or occasional via ferrata climbers with little rock climbing or mountaineering experience. I think this is true to an extent, as doing a via ferrata is far more accessible to inexperienced people than other aspects of climbing. However, people who don’t go rock climbing or mountaineering don’t have slings and karabiners lying around the house to use as via ferrata protection. Also, the cost of buying slings and karabiners is not dissimilar to buying a professionally made via ferrata set and so there is little financial incentive for someone to not buy a properly manufacturer via ferrata set. A more likely explanation is that most of the people who make their own via ferrata sets already have some degree of rock climbing or mountaineering experience (and so own climbing equipment) or are occasional climbers who have been lent climbing equipment. They use what is readily available because it saves a little bit of money and they don’t understand the risks. I can understand someone with no or little climbing experience making the mistake of using a homemade set-up, but it’s disquieting to think that someone with climbing experience can be ignorant of, or not care about, the potential consequences of what they are doing.
Using the right equipment badly
Ignorance or arrogance can also cause people to use the right sort of equipment in a way that means it will not work in the event of a fall.
When climbing the Via Ferrata Ivano Dibona a few years ago I saw two climbers descending a series of rock steps without their via ferrata sets being clipped to the cable. As one of these climbers climbed down, he stepped onto loose rocks that rolled and his feet slipped from under him. He then slid on his bum towards a cliff edge, coming to a stop with only his bum on the mountain and his legs sticking out into space. A little bit more momentum and he would have gone over the cliff and probably fallen to this death. This near miss could have been avoided if he had simply clipped-in.
This was not the first or last climber I’ve seen climbing unclipped from the cable and I wonder if some accidents happen when one of these solo-ists has a slip. Although it’s an imperfect way of making this assessment, the clothing and equipment of these people seems to indicate that they have some experience in the mountains and climb regularly. I suspect that it is this very experience that leads to them taking the risk of not using their via ferrata sets at times as they have decided that their experience, and lack of previous accidents, means that they are less likely to stumble and fall (the dangers associated with this attitude is something I’ve written about before).
Another possible cause of serious accidents is using equipment that is too old or damaged to arrest a fall. When I climbed the Rotstock Via Ferrata last year I geared up at the base of the route at the same time as another party. The guy who appeared to be leading the group had a brand new via ferrata set (I saw him removing the manufacturer’s label) attached to a climbing harness that, from its style and faded colours, was probably over 20 years old. He was in his mid-40s and I’m guessing that he had climbed a lot when younger and had dug out his old kit to take some inexperienced friends up the Rotstock. The new via ferrata set could have saved him if he had fallen if it were not for the high probability that his harness, degraded by age, would have snapped during a fall.
There is an interesting presentation from someone from a French mountain rescue team about a fatal accident on a via ferrata caused by a more unusual misuse of equipment (CAUTION: this slide show contains a photograph of a dead body that some people might find upsetting). The climber had tied a knot in the lanyard of an old via ferrata set in order to reduce its length and this knot reduced the lanyard’s strength. The lanyard snapped when he fell and the climber died.
Equipment failure in the event of a fall is a nightmare scenario for most climbers because it has the potential to be unpredictable, unpreventable and fatal. Thankfully, testing and standards are high in the manufacture of climbing gear and most climbers are very careful to look after their gear. I don’t have any indication that it is anything other than rare for via ferrata sets to fail to arrest a fall when they are in a good condition and used properly. However, there have been a couple of times, that I know about, when someone has fallen and the via ferrata set that they were trusting failed.
In May 2011, a young man died after falling to the ground from the Bastille Via Ferrata in Granoble, France. The accident appeared to have been the result of a manufacturing defect in the Petzl Scorpio lanyard that he was using and it led Petzl to recall all their Scorpio and Absorbica via ferrata sets.
The other incident occurred in August 2012 when a man died near Walchsee in Austria after he fell and the lanyards of his via ferrata set snapped. The manufacturer, Edelrid, the UIAA (Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme – International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation) and the German Alpine Club stated that the accident involved the lanyards breaking due to both the intensive use they had been subjected to and the materials used in their manufacture. The German Alpine Club has said that repeated stretching of the lanyards during use led to a reduction in the strength of their fibres as the elastic and strength-bearing threads within them rubbed against each other. As the via ferrata set involved in the accident were rented, it was speculated that they had received more use than if it had been owed and used by a member of the public. This incident led to recalls of via ferrata sets with elasticated lanyards made by:
- Wild Country
- Singing Rock
- Climbing Technology
This was followed a few months later by recalls of via ferrata sets using rope-breaking systems. In both sets of recalls the issues related to intensive use of the via ferrata sets and their basic construction.
I’ve written about this before (see Recalling a Crisis and Further Recalled) and have mixed feelings about the whole affair. The swift response in these cases deserves credit. It’s probably this, the revision of safety standards, the rarity of these sorts of accidents and that the issues were not really taken up by the media that has meant this crisis doesn’t appear to have damaged consumer confidence in either manufacturers or climbing vie ferrate. Yet it’s deeply worrying that so many manufacturers had to recall so many different models of via ferrata sets because of a seeming failure of design and/or manufacture. We have to trust mountaineering equipment manufacturers to sell us via ferrata sets that work because if we ever do need to rely on a set, it really must work or we suffer potentially catastrophic consequences.
Carelessness, bad judgment, bad luck, etc.
Accidents on vie ferrate can have the same causes as accidents that happen during rock climbing, mountaineering or hiking. Carelessness, bad judgment and just plain bad luck (e.g. a falling rock) could all cause accidents on a via ferrata. Forethought, proper equipment, mindfulness, skills, experience, a critical perspective on your own judgment and heeding the advice of those with more knowledge can go a long way to preventing such accidents. Even when the accident is the result of chance, having these things can mean someone is better able to cope with the situation.
Why I can’t find out more
The trouble I have in considering why accidents happen on vie ferrate is a lack of readily accessible information. I suspect that there are two reasons for this.
The first, and simplest, explanation is that little examination has been done of why accidents happen on vie ferrate and little written about it. As climbing vie ferrate is a niche activity and (from what I can tell) accidents are fairly rare, no one may have felt the need to commission research and few first hand accounts of accidents have been published. I could only find one account from someone who had fallen on a via ferrata and in that case the cause seemed to be carelessness. I also found a video of a climber who falls a short distance, twice, as he tries to climb up an overhang In that case, it looks like the climber is just too tired to make climb up the stemples.
The second reason is that I live in the UK and don’t speak the languages of the European countries in which most vie ferrate exist. If I were fluent in Italian, French, Spanish and German then I might be able to do a comprehensive search of the news reports of vie ferrate accidents and find research published in those countries.
Unfortunately, what I have to go on is limited factual information and some speculation based on my own experiences.
What I can tentatively conclude is that a common theme in the potential reasons for these accidents are ignorance and arrogance. Ignorance of the risks involved in doing certain things or arrogance of the susceptibility to those risks. Another theme relates to the things that can be outside a climber’s control – the quality of equipment and chance. What these themes have in common is that knowledge and good judgment could reduce the possibility of an accident or improve how the aftermath of an accident is dealt with. Maybe improving the knowledge of people climbing vie ferrate is the best defence against accidents.
I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the causes of accidents on vie ferrate and if they know of any evidence about these accidents. If we don’t know why these accidents happen, then in what can be done to stop them.
Thanks to Paolo for bringing to my attention the website of the Aiut Alpin Dolomites.
UPDATE: 30 January 2015 One of the forums on UK Climbing has an interesting thread in which people describe the via ferrata accidents they have seen or had as well as commenting on what they feel causes these accidents.