Are you looking for adventure? Are you the outdoorsy type? Do you like to make your friends cry and threaten murder? ME TOO! Well then, have I got the perfect pants-shitting activity for you! Do a VIA FERRATA and do it now before your brain realizes what your body is doing.
SHAKY KNEES, NEPALESE is part two in a three-part series about my recent trip to Gimmelwald, Switzerland. If you’re just joining us, start here.
I first learned of this madness on the Gimmelwald.ch website while I was researching hiking trails for our upcoming trip, the kind where your feet remain firmly on the ground and your hands are free for selfies and cow tickling. On their site under VIA FERRATA there is literally no explanation, just a video. I should’ve known something was up… smart move on their part. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. People actually do this? This is just crazy! Is this safe? …I MUST DO THIS! And do it I did – it was kind of a big deal, whatever. I brought along a few very trusting friends who don’t really question me when I plan things. That was probably the last time.
Before I get into any sort of description, I think you should go into this with the same wonderment I experienced… so watch this video of some awesome people who aren’t me:
Via Ferrata (Italian for “iron road”) is part hiking, part rock climbing, and part being a little bit nuts. You are clipped onto a steel cable that runs along a mountain path that mostly consists of iron rungs somehow, I can only assume magically, attached to the mountainside. Throw in a couple of tightrope canyon crossings, cliffside ladders, a zip line, an overabundance of strategically placed F-bombs and one wicked long, skinny as hell suspension bridge bouncing 1,500 feet above the valley and you have one helluva fantastic way to scare the crap out of your parents back home.
I know why you’re reading this blog. Or I should say, I know why you stuck around after accidentally clicking on it while searching for tips on managing your Restless Leg Syndrome. You want to learn European history. Lucky for you, I am an expert*.
*…at reading Wikipedia.
The via ferrate first appeared during WWI as a way for the Italian military to more efficiently move soldiers and equipment through the Dolomites (mountain range in northern Italy). After the war, Italy maintained care of the via ferrate network and used them to draw tourists and hikers to the area. Eventually, people like myself began completing these and feeling like total badasses so the trend caught on and moved into the rest of the Alps, to infinity and beyond… except North America – we really have some catching up to do.
This 1.4 mile via ferrata (or klettersteig as it’s known in German) begins in Mürren, two gondola stops up from the village of Stechelberg in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and ends in Gimmelwald, making this one of the very few VF that descend rather than ascend. This makes it slightly easier physically, because you know, gravity, but more challenging mentally because you are constantly looking way, way down, sometimes backwards and upside down. This shit is bananas.
The VF itself is free but you’ll need to rent equipment, if you want to live. (Seriously, any ol’ Joe Schmo can walk right up and head on out. This was utterly bewildering to us – akin to when a car is driving forwards but the wheels appear to be spinning backwards – HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?) Also, it is advised to hire a guide if you are inexperienced. We had absolutely no experience, went alone anyway, and at no point felt a guide was necessary, except maybe to answer the barrage of questions I was throwing out like, “How the hell are these rungs stuck in this mountain?” and “Who’s the first idiot to try this thing after it was completed?” and “Has anyone ever died doing this? Nevermind, I don’t want to know. OK actually, really? Has it ever happened? No don’t tell me!” I’m really a pleasure to be around.
- Helmet – Because rocks might fall on your head and because, if you’re a dumbass like me, you might keep hitting your head on the mountain. I walked right into a rocky overhang at one point. Just right into it.
- Climbing harness with double carabiner system – Unless you’re wearing a wingsuit – in which case you should be on the ground having a psychological evaluation done.
- Shoes – My hiking shoes did not have a raised heel which the salesperson at the rental store says helps you grip the rungs and cables better**. I agreed and rented the boots; I know, I’m a sucker, but I would have rented a sombrero if she had told me it would help me not die.
- Gloves – Please, please, please wear the gloves. You are dragging your hands along a steel cable for hours, maintaining death grips at all times. I have super rough manly flying trapeze hands (they’re basically leather at this point) but was so very thankful for the gloves.
** They totally did! So glad I had them!
The trail is fairly painless at the beginning but gets progressively more challenging, kind of like taking the ring to Mordor. YES! Finally a Lord of the Rings reference – I know you’ve been waiting for it. High-fives to myself.
In the above picture you can see the steel cable and iron rungs that will keep you alive for the next three hours (or four, no judgement). The first stomach-churning facet of the VF is the exposed rock face. You exit the trees and find yourself standing on these rungs over ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Two thousand feet below you is the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Ahem, I said two thousand feet, not sure if you read that correctly. Looking down that far and seeing that the only thing under you is a one-inch metal stick is an unbelievable thing to experience. And it’s a good thing I thought it was awesome because my friend in front of me chose that moment to panic and decide she wasn’t going any farther; we were just going to live out the rest of our lives right there on the side of that mountain. Holidays at my place, anyone? We can call them “high-lidays”. Really, no takers? But it’s almost New Fears Eve…
After the exposed rock face, you possibly have a choice. If you are with a guide, you can cross the next canyon via zip line. We brave souls flying solo instead took the first of two tightrope crossings. These were THE FUNNEST and here I am below getting my money’s worth out of that boot heel. Holding on is the ONLY way I am able to walk a tightrope mind you; I have the balance and coordination of a drunk Steve Urkel. Now, if only there were a flying trapeze on this hike…
There are two tightrope crossings and between them is, in my opinion, the scariest part. And I know scary – I once let a full-grown polar bear eat out of my hand (Nature Valley Oats ‘N Honey granola bars if you’re curious). There is a series of ladders attached to the exposed mountainside that you must descend. This is scary because you are climbing down the ladder and therefore constantly looking down into oblivion, upside down and backwards, totally disoriented. Also, that cable that has become your BFF, your loyal companion through thick and thin? You’re still clipped in but you must LET GO of it in order to descend the ladder. I might have had second and third, possibly fourth thoughts about that.
After you have spent the last three hours crossing tightropes and clinging to mountainsides, you finally reach what is hailed as “the highlight” of the via ferrata, the Nepalese Bridge. However, I call this the “It’s a miracle I didn’t just crap myself. Are y’all freaking kidding me!” Bridge. It’s 262 feet across a wide open gorge and 1,500 feet above the valley floor. It’s about 16 inches wide and bounces and sways no matter how much zen you throw at it. But honestly, the worst part is lingering right before you cross. The look down and across is probably the scariest thing I have ever seen with my own eyes, and knowing that I have to cross because I can see the end of the VF just past the bridge. But that means beer awaits – full speed ahead! But like, really slowly and carefully.
I’ve started noticing a pattern in my world; I try something – I don’t die – I move on to something more daring. Although I kind of made a huge leap between this activity and the last, but whatever. This was the closest I have come to looking like a real mountaineer. You can usually tell these people from the rest because of the speed by which they run down the mountain that you are carefully strapped on to, obviously in their way, the amount of greasy facial hair, the presence of a man-bun, and the fact that they carry parachutes in their backpacks. I am so thrilled to have stumbled upon via ferrate since completing this was even more exciting than the time I got in the back of a taxi in Venezuela to find the driver playing Michael Jackson music videos at full volume on the portable DVD player he had taped to the dashboard.
For part 3 of the Swiss series click here!
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