After extensive tests in partnership with DAV, the German alpine federation, several manufacturers and marketers of climbing products are recalling certain via ferrata sets with shock absorbers based on rope friction. Older, used items may not provide the necessary safety in case of a fall, when they could lead to severe injuries or even death. Some brands, including Salewa, Mammut and Edelrid, are asking consumers to turn in the affected products in exchange for new models that meet the required standards. Items older than seven years should not be returned, because they should not be used anyway. A complete list of tested material is published by the alpine club at http://bit.ly/14eMyfF.

Brands point out that the recall does not mean that the companies may have shared the same original manufacturer, which is usually the easiest explanation for why gear offered by more than one brand turns out to be hazardous. Fritz Schäfer, Mammut's product manager in charge of climbing equipment, told this publication that the manufacturers cannot be blamed for the mistakes. In the case of Mammut's via ferrata sets, the products were designed and developed at the Swiss brand's headquarters and produced in Eastern Europe. The production of Mammmut's set was halted two years ago, and the company estimates that the sell-through to the consumers should have ended last year.

The safety of the products does not arise when they are new, but when they have been used for a while. However, the problem is that the products may be less durable than expected, notably when the ropes through which the friction works are old, peeled or inflated by water. The shock aborbers used in most of the newer models are no longer based on rope friction anyway, but on bands that have proven to be safer and more durable. The worry is, therefore, less about the latest gear than about older products purchased by consumers who are not aware of the potential weaknesses of those products and a requirement that such sets must be changed after seven years.

Some manufacturers say that the whole discussion on product safety is misleading to some extent: They emphasize that via ferrata climbing has opened high mountains to a mass movement of less experienced outdoor people who feel safe thanks to the ladders and other devices with which the mountain is equipped. There is a historical reason why via ferrata climbing is dangerous in itself and why the technical term is Italian. Not everyone, certainly not outside Europe where via ferrata climbing was born, knows that the “iron trails” were built by Italian “Alpini” troops to fight their Austrian and German enemies in World War I. To ensure efficient supplies for its troops in the high mountains, the Italian army built stairs and ladders made of iron, which is potentially dangerous. Not even the latest safety equipment will help if an athlete were to fall just two steps downward with his teeth forward.

The suppliers, therefore, without attempting to direct the discussion away from product safety, call upon themselves, tourist boards, local tour operators and mountain guides for increased efforts to explain to consumers that via ferrata climbing is dangerous in itself. A special responsibility is with the mountain guides and tour operators who use a rental system for via ferrata sets. No one knows how strict they are when it comes to the compulsory frequent exchange of old equipment. One executive told us that he heard about a bakery in the Austrian Alps that rented via ferrata sets.

Coming back to the equipment itself, Fritz Schäfer of Mammut points out that the international norms in place need to be updated ? as soon as possible. Schäfer said that norms are usually far from “real” practice, for example when it comes to ropes, in the sense that the products are by far safer and more robust than they actually need to be in reality. He admits, however, that this is not the case for via ferrata sets: The compulsory EN norms of the European Union and the non-binding safety standards suggested by UIAA, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, are too close to “normal” and need to be revised soonest to ensure safety even in extreme, unlikely situations.