The rush of adrenaline shoots through the body. The palms get sweaty and beads of perspiration turn into hurried streams running down. The heart pumps so hard that the beats seem to echo against the rocks. The climber shuts his eye and swallows hard before taking his next step. Welcome to the experience of via ferrata.
The term ‘via ferrata’ literally means ‘iron way’ in Italian. It therefore stands for moving with the help of iron rope, in the parlance of adventure activities; though the ropes are of stainless steel. The first time a rock climber climbs a rock, he drills holes in strategic locations and inserts steel hooks called bolts through which steel ropes are put in. This is a permanent installation. Climbers then use the rope to ascend or descend a mountain face with the help of harnesses, carabiners, dynamic ropes and slings. The harness comes with two hooks, so that whenever the climber removes one hook, the other one is always attached to the line and protects the climber from falling. The climber then removes the carabiners and locks, puts them across the line, using it to climb up or down.
“I felt absolutely wonderful – the feeling of having done it. I have wanted to do it ever since I’ve known about it. To look down and see the path that you’ve come up gives you a sense of achievement,” said Prasanth, who was part of a group that completed the via ferrata climb in Jebel Shams, recently.
Via ferrata ropes can be found at the end of trekking route W6, also known as the Balcony Walk, which ends is a natural water pool. “It is difficult to locate the ropes, and can be seen only by people who have attempted the via ferrata,” said Prasanth.
With a height of about 400m, this via ferrata route can be either ascended or descended in three stages. For those who are new to the activity, the expert climbers advise ascending, as the climber can see the footholds clearly where she or he can place the foot while climbing.
“The first stage of 150m was the most difficult as it was a steep wall and slippery at some points,” said Toms Varghese, another first time climber. “I got stuck at one intersection as I struggled to climb up. Luckily, a teammate gave me a boost with his shoulder.”
“The second leg was the easiest as there wasn’t much of a climb; it was mostly a horizontal walk as it was a ledge. The third leg was a little tough but it was very short – about 20m,” said Prasanth.
“Though I was the last person to finish, it didn’t make me feel any less than a champion for I was able to complete the challenge,” said Toms.
As an activity that requires a lot of strength in the forearms, is it easier for men than women for the natural advantage of physical strength they have? Habiba Al Balushi quashes any such notions. “Both women and men can do the via ferrata as long as they are fit and able. It all depends upon one’s experience. Novices will require longer time to finish,” says Habiba, who is an experienced via ferrata climber. She advises that climbers should be wary of the risk of cramps in the legs, which can be prevented by taking short breaks during the climb.
Ahmed Al Sibani, a seasoned climber, was one of the organisers and leaders at this climb at Jebel Shams. Having done via ferrata at several places around Oman, he rates the one at Jebel Shams as “the best and easiest for beginners to enjoy the via ferrata experience.” According g to him, “the difficult one is in Wadi Bani Awf because it is old and has no maintenance, so one needs to be careful in some places.”
His advice for learners is to always prioritise their safety. As an organiser-cum-leader he provides the safety harnesses and helmets. He gives newcomers instructions on what to do if they fall or feel dizzy. In a batch of climbers, he always makes sure to have a mix of experienced climbers alternating with the amateur ones so that in a case of difficulty, the knowledgeable one can guide the inexperienced hiker. “I don’t put three beginners together in a line; I separate them with a qualified climber,” he says. “I also make sure that there is a distance between each climber in case of a fall.”
Via ferrata is about teamwork, says Ahmed, because it is not a race to see who can climb faster as one cannot overtake another climber. “The minimum and maximum number of hikers in a group is open, depending on how capable they are. If it is a group of only learners, then there shouldn’t be more than ten members. And for a group of competent climbers, not more than 40 is preferred, as it takes time for the entire group to finish the climb,” he says.
Places for via ferrata in Oman other than Jebel Shams include Jebel Akhdar near Alila Resort, Wadi Bani Awf above the Snake Gorge, Barr al Jissah Mountains in Muscat, and in Balad Sayt near Rustaq.
Equipment for via ferrata
- Helmet: To help protect the head from hitting any rocks jutting out or from falling stones
- Safety harness: To secure the climber to the rope and prevent falls
- Gloves: To enable the climber to get a good grip over the rope in case of sweating palms, and prevents the chafing of the skin on the palms
- Shoes with good grip that cover the toes
Tips from experts
- A minimal level of fitness is required to lift oneself up during the climbs
- Strong will power to overcome fears of getting stuck or dizzying heights
- Make sure you are well hydrated before a climb
- Do not rush and be calm especially when you are removing and clipping the carbiners
- Pay close attention to the group leaders’ advice
- Do not tire yourself trying to compete with others, especially if you are an amateur