Via Ferrata Failures and Life

I just got back from a trip to the Swiss Alps where we did some hiking. We strongly considered doing a Via Ferrata hike while we were there. It cost about $50 each to do on our own (for equipment rental), or $125 each with a guide, and since this one isn’t considered that difficult, we thought we’d do it on our own. The Via Ferrata from Murren (the town where we were staying) to Gimmelwald (a 30 minute walk from there), takes about 2.5 hours and includes drops of 600 metres. Here’s a quick video that you should watch before you proceed so you understand what a Via Ferrata hike is:

Via Ferrata is an Italian phrase meaning Iron Path because these hikes have structured ladders, bridges, tightropes, and hand-holds built in. Because they are all at exposed heights with high risk of falling, climbers are supposed to secure themselves at all times with two carabiners. These paths exist all over the world, and there are more than 1000 today. One of the top climbs is in Ogden, UT. Here’s a list of the top 10, ranked.

Because we were considering this hike, I wanted to read up more on deaths that have occurred on Via Ferrata hikes to help me decide if this was a good bet or if I was fooling myself that we could handle this. I found an article that reviewed the reasons for failure and another thread where British hikers were discussing Via Ferrata fails they had seen, and as I read all of this semi-alarming information I thought “This list of reasons for failure pretty much applies to everything in life that goes wrong.”

Here are the reasons given for failure on Via Ferrata hikes:

  • Ignorance
  • Arrogance
  • Unforeseen Circumstances

Let’s take a closer look at each of these reasons people don’t…let’s just say…successfully complete their Via Ferrata hike.

Ignorance was characterized by inexperienced hikers who just didn’t know what they were getting into. They hadn’t researched enough. They thought they would save money by cobbling together a non-standard climbing kit (that ended up being insufficient or shoddy). They didn’t get a guide when they really should have. They didn’t do enough research. They overestimated their experience or underestimate the danger or overestimated their own or their partner’s climbing ability or physical fitness. It’s interesting because these reasons sound a lot like the ones the author attributes to arrogance. I started to wonder if this was our situation. We are very experienced hikers, but we haven’t done rock climbing at all. We’ve done quite a bit of ziplining, including some unsupervised, but this is a very perilous height to be playing with.

The author considered it arrogance when a very experienced hiker had done these types of hikes before but never had any incident, so they were overconfident in their ability and level of control. They felt safe even when they weren’t safe. Examples of this were hikers who didn’t clip on both carabiners over a precipice and then slipped and fell on loose rocks. Surviving previous hikes without incident made them feel invincible, that they were lucky or skilled. They didn’t expect trouble because they had never had any to that point. They tempted fate by standing too close to the edge or trying to take a stupid selfie while acting like a jackass. Basically, I was worried that my husband wasn’t worried enough about the danger.

Unforeseen circumstances are just that. Rocks fall from above and hit you in the head or knock you out, but the most common issue here is equipment failure. Manufacturers of Via Ferrata kits are frequently recalling equipment to improve it after someone falls to their death. Harnesses or lanyards that get old or sun-damaged eventually fail. And this equipment has to hold not only the full weight of your body, but your body after falling for however many meters of cord you have if you fall. Because we would be renting equipment, this one made me nervous. You never know if you’ll be the one who gets it when it’s past its expiration date. I mean, I’m sure they test things and don’t want people to die, but I’d also hate to be wrong about it.

This sounds like I’m being all negative on hiking at 600 metres above the valley floor, but in reality I was on the fence–albeit with both carabiners firmly clipped on. I still thought it was a cool hike and wanted to go, but then the day before we were going to go I fell and twisted my knee, so I didn’t think I’d be 100% at my peak for the hike, so we didn’t go. Maybe we will later.

When I read up on these Via Ferrata failures, it occurred to me that these are a catch-all list of reasons that people screw up in life, not just why they fall to their death on a Via Ferrata hike. We bite off more than we can chew without really understanding the risks, or our previous success leads us to believe we deserve continued success, so we let our guard down, and of course, crap just sometimes happens. You get hit in the head with a rock, metaphorically, or your harness (or support system) fails, you are blind-sided by market changes or the actions of others. There are some things you just can’t prepare for.

I recently had a cancer diagnosis, one reason I was eager to do this trip and feeling a little bit carpe diem. It was a melanoma in situ, easily removed (I’m not saying it didn’t hurt), and I’m now cancer free again (yay!). In my case, the causes of my melanoma were a mixed bag of all three of these things: ignorance, arrogance, and unforeseen circumstances. It seems random-ish because I live in Arizona where melanoma is the state flower, and genetics and luck all have something to do with it, but it was also partly arrogance because I love to read by the pool on weekends to relax (although I always wear SPF 30-50), and I did this knowing that my grandmother died from melanoma. But there was ignorance at play as well because they say most adult melanomas come from exposure you had before age 12, and as a redhead I had a lot of fairly serious sunburns growing up. We used baby oil instead of sunscreen, for crying out loud! What were we thinking? We weren’t truly aware of the dangers, or we didn’t take them very seriously at any rate. The highest SPF I saw well into my 20s was an SPF 12 which seemed like paint primer to me at the time, like we were going overboard. Now I think SPF is like dark chocolate cocoa percentages–the higher, the better!

Life changes happen. Our circumstances get better or worse. We gain a false sense of confidence like we earned our good fortune, and sometimes we do earn some of it. Things go wrong, and we wonder what we could do to control it to avoid future problems or what we could have done differently. We regret choices, but can’t change them anyway, and who knows what would have happened down that other path? Life is supposed to be full of risk and unpredictable. After all, none of us will get out of it alive. Control is often an illusion. Life’s going to do what it does.

  • Do you feel that you more often have setbacks due to ignorance, arrogance or unforeseen circumstances?
  • Are you a risk taker? Does it pay off?
  • How much control do you feel you have in your life? Do you sometimes feel your control is an illusion?



  1. jaxjensen says:

    Arrogance for sure!
    Not normally a risk taker though. I’m very risk averse at my stage of life.
    Control seems to be something that each day I realize I have less than I thought I did the day before.

  2. I think the scrapes I’ve gotten myself into over the years have certainly involved arrogance and ignorance to very large degrees. I’m not a risk-taker generally, and that has served me well. I have, for the moment, a comfortable life, and I am happy.

    While I do think I have been ignorant and arrogant, I think most of us underestimate the degree to which the really nasty things that happen to us is just really tough, um, cookies. It feels so good to be able to blame our failure or misfortune on something that could have been in our control: if I had known just a little more, if I had been a little more humble…. Of course, it feels really, REALLY good to say that of other people. Clearly, everyone else’s problems are a result of of their ignorance or arrogance, right?

    Maybe the kinder thing to ourselves and to others is to acknowledge that so much of the bad and the good that happens to us comes as a result of unforeseeable circumstances. Above, I attributed my happiness to a reluctance to take risks, but maybe that has nothing to do with it. Maybe I see my family member’s challenges as a direct result of his over-inflated opinion of himself, but even if I’m interpreting what I see as his arrogance correctly (doubtful), the kinder approach would be to say, “Kid, you’ve had things really rough, and I’m sorry. Can I help you?”

    Sometimes there is a place for learning from our avoidable mistakes, and there may even be a place for helping others learn from their avoidable mistakes, but in both cases–especially the latter–I don’t think we proceed with enough caution. We are often really bad at discerning between the avoidable and the inevitable. And I’m usually not as kind to myself or others as I ought to be.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    This made me think of a time when I was but a boy on a scout camping trip. Someone had set up a zip line; I don’t recall whether it was from one tree to another or from a small cliff to a tree. “Zip line” is a charitable characterization; it was basically a rope tied to both a higher and a lower point, with a pulley thing and a handle. This was a long time ago, so it was very old school, there was no being strapped to anything. You were just supposed to hang by your hands from the handle for the ride. In the face of some serious peer pressure, I refused to do it. A fall wouldn’t have killed me, but it was high enough that it would have broken both my legs. And I had no experience with such a thing, and I wasn’t confident I would be able to hang on through the entire ride. When I look back on it, it was utterly insane that any adult leader thought that thing was a good idea.

  4. Looks like a fun climb. Anyway, let me add another reason for failure: total disregard for the Golden Rule. Especially on popular routes, there’s always going to be several turds who can’t be bothered waiting their turn and will just climb over you. Like, literally climb over you. So if you’re a little out of shape, inexperienced or scared, just wait—somebody more athletic, skilled and obnoxious will be by to let you know about it!

  5. Kristin Brown says:

    Kevin’s experience is more like mine. At least we had a mattress at the end of the line to protect our body from hitting the tree. As much as I wanted to “fly” down the line I never had the nerve to try. Maybe a good thing, maybe not. Just like in life, sometimes we never find out whether our choices were right or not.

  6. MDearest says:

    I’m glad you evaluated the risk and let caution be your guide. Every year, at our house we receive the annual copy of “Accidents in North American Mountaineering,” published by the American Alpine Club, which I read for fun, sort of. Mother Nature can be most unforgiving of the ignorant, arrogant, and unprepared. Taking undue risks is not my forte, so I understand that caution, but I’m glad you carped the diem, for the rest of the adventure.

    Regarding the questions at the end. Haha. The whitewater in my life has me thinking that God might intend for us to flame out and die, eventually, and that’s the meaning and purpose of life. “Ignorance, arrogance, and unforeseen circumstances” is so lyrical, like a great name for a band; there’s no way I could sort out which one ranks higher than the others. Still, I’m cheered at seeing someone cheat disaster and death, and awfully sad when I see someone lose that gamble.

    I hope you get to complete a Via Ferrata.

  7. Anon for this one says:

    I was given a sugar cube with oral live polio virus as a small child. Polio was killing thousands of children every summer and they rushed the development of the vaccination. About 3 in a million people developed paralytic polio from the early vaccine. I was one of them and I had a mild case. Only some core muscle weakness in my lower back but no effect on my limbs. No wheel chair or iron lung for me. I developed scoliosis severe enough to be braced at age 5. (Today, they’d let the children die.)

    Thus began 10 years of physical pain, severe bullying which I made worse by fighting back, compounded by mental illness in parents. That part in the Bible about turning the other cheek- that was meant for other people, not me. The brace and hours of physical therapy every day worked. I did recover physically enough to be on the track team in high school and I won a few races my senior year.

    After higher education I was able to find people who would overlook my crooked back and managed to get into the military. I personally thought it was a bad idea but I felt strongly that God wanted me to serve there. In one year I was responsible for the deaths of at least 56 people. This ordeal summoned ghosts from my past. I never have been far from the playground hell, even as an adult.

    I am a fairly difficult person to live with. My patient wife did a great job with our children and they have accomplished more than I ever dreamed of being able to do if I didn’t have these misfortunes. I think all three- ignorance, arrogance and circumstances play together in a complex and unpredictable way.

  8. Just a comment: on this trail you are out for fun and pleasure. You are there for the memories. In real life you are at the top of the trail without equipment in a blizzard and you need to get your dying child to the valley floor before she breaths her last.

    Looking back over my life, I can see all of the real dangers that I somehow avoided in that climb down. All I can do is thank God that He looks out for honest fools and children sometimes. I do not think he cares much about arrogant SOBs for the most part, even though many succeed.

  9. Yes to all three but a YES in caps to ignorance. I pay stupid tax regularly but as I get older at least I pay it less often.

    14 years ago I took a new job, moving myself and my family across the country knowing it was out of my comfort level. It turned out better than I expected but the first 3 years were difficult and more than once I wonder when I would lose my job. Recently I competed in my first triathlon – and my first 1.2 miles of open water swim. I didn’t think it seemed particularly dangerous to me since there are boats and kayaks every 50 yards or so, but my family and friends were genuinely afraid for me. Either I had too much confidence or they had too little. It was scary though.

    As I get older one of my favorite quotes is from the Anna Karenina movie when she says “I’d rather end up wishing I hadn’t than end up wishing I had.” Of course she was speaking of adultery which I don’t want to do but I find myself thinking about that more and more. It seems that as long as I’m not stupid that there isn’t as much to lose. None of us leaves this world alive.

    I agree that control over our own lives is sometimes illusory. Even depending on people we want to trust completely sometimes doesn’t end well. Unfortunately even spouses and parents are extremely fallible people (including me since I’m both a spouse and a parent) and we have to anticipate their failures and the impacts they also have on us.

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