QC LAB: Via Ferrata

Before any piece of Black Diamond gear makes it on to the shelves, it spends months, sometimes years getting put through the wringer by our Director of Quality, Kolin Powick, and his team of Quality Assurance engineers. Through extensive and meticulous testing, both in the lab and in the field, KP and his team help ensure that you can count on your BD gear to be as durable, reliable and as strong as possible every time you head into the mountains or out to the crags. Our QC Lab posts aim to answer some of climbing's most common gear-related questions.


 

In early August there was a fatal accident on a via ferrata in Austria where a climber fell and both lanyards on the energy absorbing system broke.

This accident did NOT involve Black Diamond Equipment products.

There was an investigation by the manufacturer as well as by the German Alpine Club, which discovered that the particular design, after excessive use, failed to meet the standard requirements. Subsequently, the manufacturer of the particular model of via ferrata set, as well as other manufacturers incorporating similar designs, issued recalls for many of their products.

NOTE: NO BLACK DIAMOND EQUIPMENT PRODUCTS ARE OF A SIMILAR DESIGN, NOR ARE THEY AFFECTED BY THESE RECALLS.

The German Alpine Club issued a warning to its members to inspect their equipment and ensure that it is not affected by the recalls. To read the warning, CLICK HERE.

There was an emergency meeting of the UIAA Safety Commission, which resulted in a press release to the same effect: http://www.theuiaa.org/news_389_Worldwide-warning-to-users-of-via-ferrata-sets

Black Diamond's via ferrata sets are not affected by these notices or recalls. Although BD products were not involved in the accident, we felt it necessary to reinforce that proper usage and knowledge of your gear is of the utmost importance to staying safe in the field.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and family of the victim. As always, no equipment will last forever. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for care, inspection, and general guidelines for life expectancy, and if in doubt, retire your gear.

For those who don't know what via ferrata is all about (i.e. most people in North America), this incident provides a good opportunity to review the basics.

So what is a via ferrata? (From Wikipedia): A via ferrata (Italian for "iron road") is a protected climbing route that is equipped with fixed cables, stemples, ladders and bridges. The use of these allows otherwise dangerous routes to be accessible to people with a wide range of climbing abilities. Walkers and climbers can follow via ferrata without needing to use their own ropes and belays, and without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing. The majority of the world's via ferratas are found in the Alps and throughout Europe, with a handful found here in North America.

QC LAB: Via Ferrata

To a true rock climber, a via ferrata may not sound like much, but let me just tell you from first-hand, former-naysayer experience—don't knock it until you try it. They are surprisingly fun. You take minimal gear, there are no belays so you're constantly moving, and you are able to cover and see all kinds of great terrain. It's a total blast.

In normal climbing, the rope absorbs energy in the event of a fall. However, while climbing a via ferrata, you typically aren't using a rope, therefore, in order to be able to relatively safely ascend the route, a climber uses  a via ferrata "set" to absorb energy in the unlikely event of a fall. Black Diamond Equipment currently manufactures and sells two different models: Iron Cruiser and Easy Rider.

Diagram of a via ferrata system

 

Components of a Via Ferrata Set

Before talking about how and what a Via Ferrata Set does, first we'll talk about the components:

1. Carabiners

  • autolocking
  • easy-to-open because you typically open these gates hundreds of times per day in order to bypass anchors in the VF system
  • K-type carabiner — must comply to different certification standards than a "normal" climbing carabiner

2. Lanyard arms

  • typically made of structural webbing
  • often elasticized so that the arms can extend and retract, which makes it more convenient

3. EAS (energy absorbing system)

  • the heart of the VF system, this is the component that absorbs energy in a fall, so that the loads are reduced on all of the other components of the system, the via ferrata structure, and, of course, the climber.

4. Attachment loop

  • the means of attaching the system to your harness.

QC LAB: Via Ferrata

How it Works

  • The attachment loop is girth hitched to your harness
  • The EAS is usually right next to the attachment loop, and just kind of hangs there as you walk, ascend or climb the via ferrata. The lanyards extend from the EAS system to the two carabiners. The carabiners are connected to the via ferrata cables, which run alongside the chosen path ascending the rock.
  • There are anchors connecting the cables to the rock every 3, 5 or 10 meters or so, depending on the terrain and who installed the via ferrata.
  • Sometimes you're climbing the rock, sometimes you're climbing iron rungs that have been pounded into the rock, sometimes you're literally grabbing the cable and hauling yourself up (gloves are pretty much mandatory while climbing a via ferrata)
  • When you come to anchor and need to pass it, you unclip one carabiner, pass the anchor, and then unclip the other carabiner and lanyard, and pass the anchor. This way you are always clipped in to at least one carabiner and lanyard.

There are no two ways about it—falling on a via ferrata would be bad. The way the system is designed to work if you were to fall is when the carabiners hit the last anchor point, the lanyards extend, and as the load increases to a certain point the EAS starts to tear (in the case of BD's) or slip intentionally (in other designs) absorbing the energy of the fall. The EAS continues to extend, absorbing energy as the climber slows and eventually stops.

Testing

Most official requirements for climbing gear (which includes via ferrata equipment) are ultimate strength related. The system is designed based on an 80 kg climber, and a fall of 5 m:

  • The force of initiation is 1.2 kN—meaning that the system shouldn't slip or start absorbing any energy until a load greater than 1.2 kN is reached.
  • The maximum allowable elongation of the system is 1.2 meters; this is to limit the amount of extension during a fall.
  • At no point can the load go any higher than 6 kN. This is to try to reduce the load the climber sees on him/herself.
  • Each lanyard must be able to withstand a static load of 9 kN, which basically gives the lanyards a bit of a buffer over the max allowable force during an actual fall.

More details about via ferrata standards and testing requirements can be found on the UIAA website here:

http://www.theuiaa.org/safety_standards.php

  • UIAA 128 for the EAS system
  • And UIAA 121 for carabiners (a carabiner for via ferrata must meet type K requirements)

This all may seem a bit complicated, but it's not. First rule: don't fall on a via ferrata. This is NOT like sport climbing where you're pushing the limits and taking whippers all day. Second: the system is designed to reduce the loads during a fall, however, as stated above, a fall would still not be fun. And finally: remember the current standard and most systems on the market are designed based on an 80 kg (176 lb) climber. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions if you are of a significantly different weight—it may be prudent to incorporate a secondary roped belay in some instances.

 

Additional BD Testing

As with all of testing we do with our climbing gear (and even our non-climbing gear), we go way above and beyond any official requirements. In order for a piece of our gear to make it to the market, it must withstand all that we can dream up. This usually involves many different configurations of use, abuse and mis-use, testing in extreme environmental conditions, simulated cyclic and durability testing, and of course extensive field testing. Only after a piece of gear can successfully be put through the wringer do we give it the green light to hit the store shelves.

Check out the video below for a peek at one of our via ferrata system tests at our on-site drop tower.

Black Diamond Via Ferrata Testing from Black Diamond Equipment on Vimeo.

Bottom Line

Via ferratas are very popular in Europe, and if you get the chance you should give one a try. The gear is pretty hi-tech, but like anything, it won't last forever.  Always follow the manufacturer's recommendations for life expectancy based on amount and intensity of use, etc. Of course the more you use it, as in professional use or with rental agencies, the life expectancy will likely be greatly diminished. Always inspect your gear, and when in doubt, it may be time to retire it.

Climb safe,

KP