9.30.2016

Mountain - About accessibility: ferratas, commercial expeditions and lone climbing

It's a prickly problem. Is accessibility a right? anywhere? for anybody? we are supposed to answer yes, sure! everybody has got the right to fully enjoy his or her life and that's include accessibility. I also work as a teacher for students with special needs so I know what I'm about: disability is not an objective condition but always a context-related situation. For exemple, light condition is indifferent to blind people, while it's important for seeing people: complete darkness can represent an handicap for them. Disability shouldn't be an impediment, and removing every kinds of barrier - material and cultural - is a social duty. 
Of course. Still accessbility can require a basic or advanced skill level or at least it can be advisable. Must the access to demanding mountain routes be forbiden to unskilled people? They could be unable to afford the risk and get in serious troubles. But how can this skill be verified? and how can a pubic open place like a mountain be forbiden to access? The answer is: there is no way to forbid the access but it could be sanctioned. Is this useful and desiderable? and why?
Reason is basicly one: unskilled people get in troubles and the cost of their rescue rests on the community in terms of money and risks. For exemple: unskilled people go mountaineering skiing, get lost at night or isolated by an avalanche and have to be rescued. But also: commercial expedition allow relatively unskilled clients to climb demanding mountains like Everest, things go wrong and skilled people like guides or sherpas have to risk their lives to save them. That sounds unfair.
In my opinion mountains must be respected. Humans often behave as if they were the ultimate owner of the world, but it isn't the case. We have the duty to remove all impediments to the full accessibility in artificial contexts like cities and social relationships but natural context is different, we can't treat it the same way. Skill level and disability present two distinct kinds of problem but they are both related with the human presumption that nature is at their disposal. Indead I think that each one has got the right to attempt anything... but that no one has got the right to make it easier. 
I live in Italy and here ferratas are very popular. According to Wikipedia: "A via ferrata (Italian for "iron road", plural vie ferrate or in English via ferratas) is a protected climbing route found in the Alps and certain other locations. 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."
That's the point: unskilled people use ferratas to enjoy a kind of 'serious mountainering' they couldn't really afford, while 'serious mountaineers' use them to make it easier. In any case a natural context is permanently modified - sometimes definitely wasted - to suit humans' desire to climb higher. I find it unacceptable.
The most of 'via ferratas' is in the Alps as they were created during the First World War, when Italians and Austrians fought a long cruel battle in the mountains. According with Wikipedia "The origins of the via ferrata date back to the nineteenth century, but they are often associated with the First World War, when several were built in the Dolomite mountain region of Italy to aid the movement of troops." It was a massacre. Imagine unskilled soldiers who had never seen a mountain, burdened with an heavy military equipment and forced up wild slopes covered in snow, icy or made torrid by the summer sun. Of course they needed the aid of artificial supports. Those ancient via ferratas are a wound and a monument as well, an open air museum about the humans disdain of themselves. 
But "Many more" ferratas "have been developed in recent years, as their popularity has grown and the tourism benefits have been recognised." That's quite a different thing. That's about accessibility as a right or as a pretense.
"Simple protected paths, with ladders and basic protection aids, have probably existed in the Alps for centuries, helping to connect villages to their high pastures." Wikipedia's article explains "Construction of what could be seen as the precursors of modern via ferratas dates back to the growth of Alpine exploration and tourism in the nineteenth century. In 1843, a route on the Dachstein was constructed under the direction of Friedrich Simony; it included a range of climbing aids with iron pins, hand hooks, carved footholds and ropes. In 1869 a rope was fixed between the summits of Grossglockner, and in 1873 fixed protection was installed on the Zugspitze. In the Pyrenees, iron climbing aids were installed on the Pic du Midi d'Ossau in 1880, and in the Ordesa in 1881. The Northern Limestone Alps saw the first routes still in use today as via ferratas: the Heilbronner Way in the German Allgau Alps was constructed in 1899, shortly followed by the Eggersteig (1903) and Wildauersteig (1911) in the Wilder Kaiser in Austria. In the Dolomites, the climbing path up the West ridge of the Marmolada (German: Marmolata) was installed in 1903, and the Possnecker Path up Piz Selva in the Sella Group was completed before the First World War."
Arguing against 'simple protected paths' would be extreme: they were a part of a whole culture, the Alpine traditional way of life R. Messner often talks about. They are now the net of hiking tracks used for leisure traveling on foot, marked and numbered by signals more or less intrusive. Iron climbing aids for explorers and moreover tourists... are too much in my opinion: are you unable to get there on your own? try something else. Because somebody else could be, now or in the future, and you have no right to prevent him or her to placing permanent aids.
Mark Wellman
Via delle Bocchette illustrates a moderate concept of 'ferrata': "In the 1930s, the Società degli alpinisti tridentini (SAT) together with the CAI began working on shortening and improving access to the popular climbing routes in the Brenta Dolomites, by installing artificial aids and protection. Natural lines and routes in the rock were linked up and a system of routes began to be developed, work continuing after the second world war.  [...] In developing the Via delle Bocchette, a certain ethic was followed - climbing aids were kept to a minimum, and the routes deliberately do not access any summits, an approach which is sometimes but not always followed by modern via ferratas. The Via delle Bocchette helped establish the idea of doing via ferratas in their own right, rather than as access to summits or to climbs." I agree that this concept is better, still I'd prefer a more respectful approach to the mountain, and no ferrata at all.
Sianagh Gallagher
In the 70ies some mountaineers started questioning supported climbing in all its forms, from supplementar oxygen use to special nails and of course 'ferratas'. However "In the 1990s and 2000s, development became more commercial and involved more organisations: via ferratas began to be seen as a useful way to encourage tourism and increase the range of activities available to visitors, and so new routes were developed by local communities, outdoor activity centres, cable car companies, mountain refuges and others, as well as continuing involvement by the Alpine clubs." I remember a campain by Mountain Wilderness Italia against 'ferratas' and personally took part in protests against the realisation of new cabbleways in the Alps. The battle has been lost many years ago though and the Italian mountains are now a kind of Disneyland for unskilled skiers and wannabe mountaineers. 
Wild mountaineerig and free skiing are considered as dangerous, inconsiderate or fool activities and even banned in some areas, especially during the ski season and for an evident economic interests by cabble car companies. Sadly intensive skiing on ski slopes, often with the use of artificial snow, already left a deep mark on the Alps landscape. 
'Via ferratas' had a big impact on mountaineering itself: "While high mountain via ferratas have continued to be developed, the modern era has seen the rise of more "sporting" routes, sometimes closer to the valley and often more challenging in nature, with severely steep sections and requiring high strength. Routes have been built in new dramatic new locations, alongside waterfalls or in canyons. Other new routes include features such as wire bridges and even zip wires, designed to increase their appeal to visitors. Climbing via ferratas has come to be recognised as a valid mountain activity in own right, with its own guidebooks, equipment, grading system and enthusiasts." Indead. 
Mountain Wilderness protests against eliski on the Marmolada
Talking about accessibility: as a child I climbed several times and without aids Monte Procinto, in the Alpi Apuane. My dad used to bring me there almost every summer during our holyday in Versilia. When I came back there with my husband in the late 90ies we got scolded because we didn't wear helmet and harness. More that once we got scolded because we were crossing a ski slope on mountaineering skis, that's without using the cabbleway = for free. Indead on ski slopes walking is forbiden and ski slopes are private areas. And yet we are skilled people.
I mean: to modify a natural context - permanently and intrusively - is right in name of accessibility for unskilled people or people with special needs BUT private companies can bann skilled people who don't need any aid. By the way, mountaineering skiers don't represent a bigger risk than other skiers standing on the ski slopes...
On The Himalayan Times an article  informs that "Nepal is considering to ban lone mountaineers from climbing peaks, including Mt Everest, to minimise accident risks on the Himalayas. In addition to a ban on lone attempts, the government is also mulling over restricting people with complete blindness, double amputation, as well as those above 75 years of age, from attempting to scale mountains. [...] Only those mountaineers who have successfully summitted at least a peak above 7,000 metres in Nepal shall be allowed to apply for a permit to climb mountains above 8,000 metres, including Mt Everest, the draft reads.  [...] The draft states that climbers shall not be allowed to fly to higher camps for summit attempt and every climber must trek to summit point from the base camp of the expedition peaks. However, choppers can ferry rope-fixing equipment and conduct emergency evacuations." The article is worth a reading. And a reflection.
Every year commercial expeditions allow a large number of persons to climb the highest mountains in the world. Some of them are profesional mountaineers, experienced, trained and skilled. Others are just rich enough. I wrote about this topic already by a different point of view and I share Anatoli Bukreev's opinion that money can't buy anything, not the summit, not the survival. To scrutinise this consumeristic banalisation of mountaineering seems fair enough. 
I'm happy to see that the proposal comes from Department of Tourism: commercial expeditions means a lot of money for Nepal and this is a brave move. But about one point I don't agree: solo ascents are a part of mountainering's history you can't canceal. An experienced healty profesional mountaineer must have the right to go solo. Of course it's risky. But it's a calculated risk. Preparation and a correct approach to the climb is the only way to minimise accidents. The rest is fortune, fate, the mountains' gods or the weather. You have the right to push your limits and, yes, to face death. 
I have the right to climb as far as I can. Not further, not closer. And this is my opinion about accessibility in general. I'm sure a para-olympic athlete can do better than me in many situations. On the other hand I'm persuaded that accessibility doesn't justify the permanent modification of a natural context, never. 

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