Via Ferrata

The idea of a via ferrata has been common in the Alps for over a century, but England's first opens this month. Literally, an 'iron road', it is a precipitous mountain route - think a cross between footpath and vertical rock climb - with a thick metal cable like a handrail. At some points ladders and iron bridges may also be fixed to the rock. They originated during the First World War to help mountain infantry travel safely through the Dolomites.

Today millions of walkers use vie ferrate. To climb one, you need a helmet to protect against falling rock, and a harness, which you clip on to the metal cable. If you fall, you slide only as far as the next metal peg.

England's via ferrata, pictured, opens on 16 May and zig-zags up the 2,126ft Fleetwith Pike in the Lake District on a route originally used by Victorian miners at Honister Slate Mine. England's last operational slate mine, it also offers tours and a 'fill ya boot' deal - for £10 you can have as much slate as you can fit in your car boot.

The essence of a modern via ferrata is a steel cable which runs along the route and is periodically (every 1 to 10 metres (3.3 to 32.8 ft)) fixed to the rock. Using a via ferrata kit, climbers can secure themselves to the cable, limiting any fall. The cable can also be used as aid to climbing, and additional climbing aids, such as iron rungs (stemples), pegs, carved steps and even ladders and bridges are often provided. Thus via ferratas allow otherwise dangerous routes to be undertaken without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing or the need for climbing equipment such as ropes. They offer the relatively inexperienced a means of enjoying dramatic positions and accessing difficult peaks, normally the preserve of the serious mountaineer; although, as there is a need for some equipment, a good head for heights and basic technique, the via ferrata can be seen as a distinct step up from ordinary mountain walking. Conversely, the modest equipment requirements, ability to do them solo, and potential to cover a lot of ground, mean that via ferratas can also appeal to more experienced climbers.

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