About Sarah

LGBT rights activist, Liberal Democrat, Local councillor, Fond of extreme sports, Lesbian, Polyamorous, Trans woman

My responses to the government GRA consultation

The government finally started its consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act in England and Wales today.

These are my responses. Feel free to nick bits for your own if you want.

Please do respond to this if you’re trans, or a cis ally. Transphobes will be attempting to drown us out in the volume of their responses.

About the Consultation

Additional information (as published in the consultation document)

Questions 1 and 2 – Experiences of Trans Respondents

Question 1: If you are a trans person, have you previously applied, or are you currently applying, for a Gender Recognition Certificate?

Yes

If yes, please tell us about your experience of the process. If no, please tell us why you have not applied?:

I applied in 2009. I was hesitant because it meant my 8 years of marriage would no-longer be recognised but I felt it important as, at the time, the GRA affected my equality in law as a woman. The Equality Act and Same Sex Marriage Act rendered these points largely moot (in particular, the Equality Act made it clear that a GRC no-longer guaranteed my treatment as female in situations where I might face discrimination). I feel like I have had part of my marriage stolen from me for a bargain which the government has not upheld its end of.

The process was bureaucratic and long-winded. The decision of the panel felt arbitrary. I felt like I was operating in an information vacuum. The Act talked of the ability to be able to have civil partnership ceremony and annulment on the same day, but in reality this was a logistical impossibility.

The court paperwork was byzantine and assumed we were having a hostile divorce. Even though my wife and I were standing next to each other when we handed the paperwork in, the other party had to be “served” by post. The court didn’t seem to know what they were doing.

Question 2: If you are a trans person, please tell us what having Gender Recognition Certificate means, or would mean, to you.

Initially: that my identity was recognised by the government and that I had some protections in law against discrimination because of it.

After 2010: very little, mostly that 8 years of marriage were taken from my wife and me under duress and we got essentially nothing in return.

Questions 3 and 4 – Medical Reports

Question 3: Do you think there should be a requirement in the future for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria?

No

Please explain the reasons for your answer.:

Medical care for transition is incredibly difficult to obtain in the UK, with waiting lists lasting many years. Some GPs will not refer trans people in any circumstances. A diagnosis of gender dysphoria has less to do with someone being trans than it does to do with their ability to wait many years under a system of institutionalised neglect and to “win” a postcode lottery.

Many trans people medically transition using “grey-market” hormones and ad-hoc medical care. Cases where someone has literally turned up to their first GIC appointment after having already had sex reassignment surgery are not unheard of. The current situation makes getting a diagnosis and hence a gender recognition certificate harder than actually getting genital surgery. This is absurd.

Question 4: Do you also think there should be a requirement for a report detailing treatment received?

No

Please explain the reasons for your answer.:

I have encountered many trans people who are unable to obtain any such report, often because their doctor has retired, or because of administrative incompetence within the NHS. Some people have treatment abroad and are either unable to obtain such evidence, or have such evidence rejected when they do obtain it.

Question 5 – Evidence

Question 5: (A) Do you agree that an applicant should have to provide evidence that they have lived in their acquired gender for a period of time before applying?

No

Please explain the reasons for your answer. :

I literally used a gas bill as part of the evidence to obtain my GRC. It’s now 2018, and I receive almost no paper bills or bank statements. I own my own house, which many do not. If someone was renting in a house of multiple occupation, as so many now do, even if they did receive paper utility bills, which are almost extinct amongst anyone under the age of 70, they likely wouldn’t be addressed to them anyway.

(D) If you answered no to (A), should there be a period of reflection between making the application and being awarded a Gender Recognition Certificate?:

Any such reflection would simply encourage people to apply early, before they felt ready, so that it was “in process”. Deterrent from making a frivolous application should be based on making the gravity of what someone is doing, and the consequences of making a false application abundantly clear.

Question 6 – Statutory Declaration

Question 6: (A) Do you think this requirement should be retained, regardless of what other changes are made to the gender recognition system?

Yes

Please explain the reasons for your answer.:

Transphobes have recently tried to create press suggesting a reformed GRA would allow anyone to receive recognition in frivolous or nefarious circumstances.

Making a false statutory declaration is perjury. The consequences of this should be clear to anyone applying. This should protect trans people, showing that they are committed to their identity, and deter transphobic pranksters eager to play silly games in the media.

Question 7 – Spousal Consent

Question 7: The Government is keen to understand more about the spousal consent provisions for married persons in the Gender Recognition Act. Do you agree with the current provisions?

No

Please explain the reasons for your answer. If you think the provisions should change, how do you think they should be altered?:

At present, a spouse is presumed to veto a GRC unless they explicitly waive that veto. This puts them in a position of power over a transitioning partner. If a GRC grants any legal rights at all (and the extent to which it does that is questionable post EA2010), then giving one person veto over the equality before the law of another is offensive and unjust.

The spousal veto provisions were clearly intended to empower a presumed cis partner to prioritise their feelings over the identity and equality of the transitioning partner. This assumption is not always valid, however:

– a marriage between two trans people, which are not uncommon, would result in each one being able to veto the other’s GRC.

– the partner holding the veto, be they cis or trans, may not be in a position to revoke it. In a situation where someone was in coma, or suffering from dementia, they would be unable to give consent and the trans partner would either have to divorce the person they love and are caring for, or wait for them to die. This is a horrible situation to put someone in.

The idea that a veto is even necessary contains the implicit assumption that a marriage that is officially same-sex is somehow a less desirable state that one which is mixed-sex (even though the veto applies the other way round, it’s clear the scenario envisaged in the Same Sex Marriage Act was a previously “straight” marriage “becoming gay”). This is not only homophobic; it enshrines homophobia in English law.

Refusal to waive the veto is one partner throwing down the gauntlet to the other, daring them to initiate divorce proceedings. If the partner weaponising their veto in this way has such a problem with being seen to be “officially gay”, then they should be the one to initiate a divorce, rather than mobilising the full weight of the law to passively aggressively make their partner do it. In any other situation, we expect the spouse who is unhappy with the state of the marriage to start the divorce process. It is inappropriate for the government and courts to assist someone to emotionally blackmail their partner into starting divorce proceedings.

In the event you decide to keep this morally objectionable veto, then at least modify an interim GRC so that it automatically converts to a full GRC after 6 months, thus making the veto temporary and allowing the vetoing spouse time to pursue a divorce.

But ideally, just get rid of it. It’s an affront to the idea that LGBT people are equal before the law.

Question 8 – The Cost of Legal Gender Recognition

Question 8: (A) Do you think the fee should be removed from the process of applying for legal gender recognition?

Yes

(C) What other financial costs do trans individuals face when applying for a gender recognition certificate and what is the impact of these costs?:

If the veto is invoked, they face the cost of a messy divorce and potentially the loss of their home and children.

Obtaining the medical reports is often very expensive – it can be more than the £140 fee for the application.

Question 9 – Privacy and Disclosure of Information (Section 22)

Question 9: Do you think the privacy and disclosure of information provisions in section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act are adequate?

No

If no, how do you think it should be changed? :

Section 22 as it exists is essential unenforceable. There have been very few cases even considered to my knowledge, and I am unaware of any successful prosecutions. Enforcement of S22 relies on the CPS being willing to take the case. The reality is that anyone can violate someones S22 protections and be reasonably confident that they will not be subject to any penalty at all. A law which is not enforced or enforceable is a bad law.

Questions 10 and 11 Impact of Legal Gender Recognition Process (Protected Characteristics)

Question 10: If you are, and you have one or more of the protected characteristics, which protected characteristics apply to you? You may tick more than one box.

Age, Gender reassignment, Marriage and civil partnership, Race, Sex, Sexual orientation

Please give us more information about how your protected characteristic has affected your views on the GRC application process.:

This question is a little odd. Everyone has an age, sex and race, and arguably a sexual orientation.

Question 11: Is there anything you want to tell us about how the current process of applying for a GRC affects those who have a protected characteristic?

Enter your answer below.:

The Equality Act is interpreted by the EHRC and others on the understanding that a trans person’s sex, for the purposes of the Equality Act, is their acquired gender and that any treatment contrary to this must be done on a case by case basis and be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

The Equality Act’s explanatory notes suggest that a GRC makes no difference to this.

However, many of a transphobic intent are keen to interpret the Equality Act as if a trans person’s sex, for the purposes of equality law, is immutably the one assigned at birth.

When updating the GRA, the opportunity should be taken to amend the Equality Act to make it clear what the existing practice actually is, rather than leaving it open to finding EHRC guidance and interpreting it through a lawyer, that is: trans women are women, trans men are men and non binary people are valid.

This is of more than academic interest. Trans women in particular are a highly vulnerable group, at significantly elevated risk of poverty, domestic violence and sexual assault. The law needs to be far clearer than it is that these women are entitled to the same assistance that any other woman is.

Women’s organisations have been negotiating this issue for decades. There is no risk that a man with nefarious intent will pretend to be a woman to enter a DV shelter, for two reasons: firstly, there are far easier ways to do that (e.g. pretend to be a maintenance worker), and secondly, DV shelters already have the ability to throw out anyone they regard as operating dishonestly, and because they can apply this policy equally (they would still refuse access to the abusive female partner of a woman in a same sex relationship), the issue of sexual discrimination need not arise.

Furthermore, pretty much all a GRC does now is reissue a birth certificate. A birth certificate is clear that it is not evidence of identity, and so an abusive male partner of a woman in a DV shelter proves nothing by turning up with a birth certificate that says “female”. It’s not an identity document.

Introduction to Wider Considerations of Impact (Equality Act)

More information (as published in the consultation document)

Question 12 – Impact on Sport (Equality Act)

Question 12: Do you think that the participation of trans people in sport, as governed by the Equality Act 2010, will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?

No

Please give reasons for your answer.:

Why would it? This consultation is quite clear in that it isn’t changing the provisions set forth in the Equality Act.

Sport governing bodies already navigate this issue based on hormone levels, length of transition and suchlike. Equalities law has not proven a barrier to them doing this until now and there is no reason why it should in the future.

Question 13 – Impact on Single-sex and Separate-sex Service (Equality Act)

Question 13: (A) Do you think that the operation of the single-sex and separate-sex service exceptions in relation to gender reassignment in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?

No

Please give reasons for your answer.:

Gender recognition reissues the birth certificate. Nobody ever showed their birth certificate to access, e.g., a leisure centre changing room. I refer to my answer to Q11 for further information here. The existing gatekeeping around the GRC application process is not acting as any kind fo safety mechanism or barrier to entry for accessing DV services, so relaxing said gatekeeping should make no appreciable difference.

(Sexual assault question) Please give reasons for your answer.:

I have been subject to sexual assault. I did not report it because as a trans woman I do not have confidence in the authorities or other organisations to treat me appropriately, and fear that reporting it would make my experience worse.

Question 14 – Impact on Occupational Requirements (Equality Act)

Question 14: Do you think that the operation of the occupational requirement exception in relation to gender reassignment in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?

No

Please give reasons for your answer.:

The EA2010’s explanatory notes clearly state that this exception is not affected by the issue of a GRC.

I would like to take this opportunity to note, however, that the way the EA is drafted makes it unlawful to require an applicant for a position *is* transgender.

This seems like a curious omission. Practically it effectively makes it impossible to set up services for trans people operated by trans people.

Question 15 – Impact on Communal Accomodation (Equality Act)

Question 15: Do you think that the operation of the communal accommodation exception in relation to gender reassignment in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?

No

Please give reasons for your answer.:

See my answer to Q11. I would note, however, that in practice such exemptions have more often than not been used to deny service to “butch” cis women because someone thinks they look a bit trans.

The language in the Equality Act needs tightening up here. The EHRC did what they could when drafting their guidelines, but the source material constrained them. The presumption should be one of inclusion, not exclusion. The current law is not at all clear on this.

Question 16 – Impact on the Armed Forces (Equality Act)

Question 16: Do you think that the operation of the armed forces exception as it relates to trans people in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?

No

Please give reasons for your answer.:

As you state in the preamble to this question, a GRC has no bearing on someones combat effectiveness.

The armed forces have been navigating this issue for years.

Question 17 – Impact on Authorising or Solemnising Marriages (Equality Act)

Question 17: Do you think that the operation of the marriage exception as it relates to trans people in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?

Yes

Please give reasons for your answer.:

It may. The current exception is effectively that a priest may refuse to solemnise a marriage, essentially if they genuinely believe that one of the people involved “looks trans”.

Increased publicity around this issue, regardless of what the government ends up doing, may result in this issue coming to the fore.

Previous experience suggests that if and when it does, the person who “looks trans” will most likely actually be cis.

I’m not religious and am already married (to the same person 3 times, thanks largely to this act!), so there is an extent to which this is not a problem that directly concerns me, butI believe it represents an other area in which the EA2010 is not properly thought though in this area.

Question 18 – Impact on Insurance Operation (Equality Act)

Question 18: Do you think that the operation of the insurance exception as it relates to trans people in the Equality Act 2010 will be affected by changing the Gender Recognition Act?

No

Please give reasons for your answer.:

I know very little about this area, and will take your word for it.

Question 19 – Impact on Other Public Services (beyond the Equality Act)

Question 19: Do you think that changes to the Gender Recognition Act will impact on areas of law and public services other than the Equality Act 2010?

No

Please give reasons for your answer. :

The practical consequence of obtaining a GRC is that you get 2 bits of paper: a gender recognition certificate and (if you were born in the UK), a birth certificate.

Nobody knows what the first one looks like (well, I do because I have one. They’re quite underwhelming in the flesh), and I have never encountered a public toilet, leisure centre, etc. where anyone ever asks to see a birth certificate.

The prison service operate their own guidelines, and place difficult cases in certain accommodation regardless of sex anyway. The Equality Act is full of

exemptions for religions to engage in sexual and other forms of discrimination.

The only issue I can think of where it might make a difference is with respect to the succession of hereditary titles. The current situation around that is sexist and in need of more reform than can be accomplished by just changing the GRA.

Question 20 – Non-binary Gender Identities

Question 20: Do you think that there need to be changes to the Gender Recognition Act to accommodate individuals who identify as non-binary?

Yes

If you would like to, please expand more upon your answer.:

Non binary people are currently in a situation where they have to lie about who they are pretty much every time they engage with the government.

We can wait to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world by what other nations do, and then find ourselves back here doing this again in another 14 years, or we can lead the world in making a statement that non binary identities are valid, and we recognise and support non binary people.

A good start would be issuing X passports on demand. The current intransigence to do this, given it is allowed by international treaty, seems petty and mean spirited.

The world won’t end if we stop pretending non binary people don’t exist.

Question 21: Experiences of Intersex Respondents

Question 21: (A) Do you have a variation in your sex characteristics?

No

Question 22 – Any further comments?

Question 22: Do you have any further comments about the Gender Recognition Act 2004?

Yes

If you answered yes, please add your comments.:

The delay in this consultation has been unfortunate. It has allowed a climate to exist in which trans people have faced weekly demonisation in the press and allowed transphobe groups to thrive and spread misinformation, sending “resource packs” to schools that are reminiscent of the dark days of Section 28, and creating a narrative where several major newspapers started talking about the possibility of banning trans women from public toilets; a conversation hitherto unimaginable in the UK.

This has been very hard on trans people and has largely exhausted our resilience. Statements of support made by the government have been very welcome. A comprehensive review of the GRA done in such a way as to show that transphobes shouting loudly does not influence government policy would also be welcome, even if they have been comprehensively misinterpreted by the press. The tidal wave of hate that has been unleashed against trans people is not going to be easy to put back in its bottle (excuse the mixed metaphor), but we need resolution on this.

I appreciate the government is busy with Brexit, and the political situation in the UK is not wholly stable, but please do not allow this to be delayed further. Trans people are desperate.

Finally, there are not many of us, but those of us who’ve had our marriages taken under duress , and arguably under false pretences, have not been well treated. This is an open sore and you should address it.

My Chapter in “Trans Britain”

This is my chapter in Christine Burns’ excellent book, “Trans Britain, our journey from the shadows“, which is a collection of stories about out history in the UK, first published by Unbound.

I’m posting this for a variety of reasons, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was a Facebook post by an American friend of mine, of a similar age. She was instrumental in developing a lot of nuanced ideas about sex/gender around 10 years ago and recently had a young person start telling her that Generation X knew nothing of such nuance, or modern trans activism.

This is not a “get off my lawn” piece, but this speaks to why the book exists in the first place: each generation of trans people seems to grow up largely in ignorance of what those who came before did. Our history gets forgotten.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my chapter, free to read. I retain copyright.

My name is Sarah and I am a trans woman. I grew up in an east midlands mining community in the seventies and eighties, where I felt very isolated. I didn’t know there were other people like me, apart from portrayals on TV which were so dismally inaccurate that they threw me off the scent of who I truly was for years.

Things started to change when I went away to study at Cambridge. I was introduced to the Internet, albeit in a form that would be unrecognisable to the generation that was to follow. Still, I discovered embryonic resources for transgender people on ‘Usenet’, a series of discussion groups which were prominent before the rise of the web. I was terrified of being outed and didn’t participate, but I did watch, and learn.

By the time I started formal transition in 2005, at the age of 32, the world had changed. Nobody had quite started to talk about ‘social media’, but blogging had burst onto the scene and for the first time trans people could control how our own transitions were represented.

I found and read a number of transition blogs. One resonated in particular: the blog of American cardiologist, Dr Becky Allison. I had never written a blog or a diary myself, but I found Dr Allison’s writings extremely helpful and wanted to pay it forward. In November 2005 I started documenting my own transition on the ‘Livejournal’ blogging website. I even live-blogged by sex reassignment surgery, posting an update mere minutes after I had returned from the operating theatre.

Through blogging I found myself increasingly part of a community of trans people like myself. We all blogged and we all shared our triumphs, our pain, and our joy. Many of us became very good friends, not just online but in ‘real life’ as well.

Although estimates of prevalence vary considerably, everyone agrees that trans people are rare. We are a minority within a minority, and before the advent of the Internet we faced an uphill task to overcome our isolation. Trans people would often only encounter each other at the gender clinic, with scant time to compare notes. The Internet changed this. Like minded trans people would cluster into online communities. Online communities would start to develop parallel communities in the ‘real world’, particularly around large cities. Around 2007 something very significant started happening in London.

A few London based trans people started to hold monthly meetings on the evening of the third Tuesday of each month at ‘Gays the Word’ bookshop, near Russel Square. The meetings had regular speakers on topics of interest to trans people (clinicians, academics and so-on). The existence of a critical mass of trans people in and near London and the ability to easily spread the word via the Internet meant that meetings were well attended from the start. Trans people, at least in the capital, were staring to meet on our own terms and we had much to discuss, and indeed become angry about.

It was in the spring of 2007 that the General Medical Council commenced fitness to practice hearings against Dr Russell Reid, a private gender practitioner who was much loved by many of his patients. Throughout the two decades prior, many desperate trans people had found his clinic in Earls Court to be the only place left for them after being unable to obtain treatment on the NHS. Many trans people felt the complaints against him were politically motivated and the hearing was well attended with trans people, including myself, taking turns to spend the days sitting in the public gallery and then reporting back on each day’s proceedings to ‘the community’ through blogs.

Many defence witnesses spoke of how they’d found Dr Reid was the only person who would help them when, for whatever reason, they had been refused treatment by NHS clinics. Many spoke of treatment practices in the relatively recent past that they had felt were abusive. The press, not present to hear any of these stores, ignored them and only descended en-masse for the final day, to hear the verdict. Their stories presented Dr Reid as a dangerous maverick, acting recklessly with patients portrayed as not competent to know their own minds.

Lots of trans people were angry at both the circumstances under which the hearing had come about and what they saw as biased and one-sided reporting in the press. Dr Ried was criticised for poor communication with GPs, but not struck off. The result was largely moot as he had already retired from practice by that time.

The spring of 2007 turned into summer and another reason for trans people to feel aggrieved rolled round. In June of that year, the BBC recorded the first in a series of what it called ‘Hecklers Debates’, in which a person would present their position and panelists would be invited to interrupt at various points and ‘heckle’. The first such debate featured Guardian journalist, Julie Bindel. The position she was advocating in the debate was ‘Sex Change Surgery is Unnecessary Mutilation’ and she was opposed by veteran activist LGBT activist, Peter Tatchell, Professor Stephen Whittle of Press for Change, psychotherapist Michelle Bridgman and gender clinician, Dr Kevan Wylie.

The audience for the recording, at the Royal Society of Medicine, was packed with trans people. I was there and recognised many from the fledgling TransLondon, as well as lots of people I hadn’t met before. This was the event at which I met author and veteran trans activist, Roz Kaveney, with whom I would go on to cause significant mischief over the next months and years.

It is a perennial irritation to trans people that media coverage of us has seldom moved on from the dismal cliches and misrepresentations that I remembered from my youth. Many present felt Bindel’s argument was no exception. She concentrated on the (vanishingly small) phenomenon of ‘trans regret’; she said that she thought hormone treatment and surgery should not be available; she said she thought trans people should be offered what she thought were ‘talking cures’ instead.

Bindel had already drawn the ire of lots present through her previous writings, including a 2004 piece where she spoke of ‘Kwik Fit sex changes’ and claimed ‘a world inhabited just by transsexuals … would look like the set of “Grease”’. She later apologised for the tone of these remarks, but not their substance.

After the recording, drinks were served and the audience encouraged to mingle with the panel. I found myself in a group speaking to Bindel, along with other TransLondon regulars. Despite being charming and self-effacing, Bindel was unapologetic about the way she habitually portrayed trans people and trans issues in her articles. We told her that she was misrepresenting us. We were unhappy that she portrayed medical transition as an easy option rather than the reality of indifference, abuse and the need to turn to grey market drugs which many of us faced. We put it to her that her inaccurate portrayals were contributing to the stigma and discrimination trans people continued to face.

Bindel denied her writings had much influence, but pledged to do better in future. The reader may draw their own conclusion about whether this pledge has ever materialised in evidence. My view is that it has not.

Summer wore on and in September I found myself with a whole gaggle of trans people in Kensington Gardens at the ‘Picnic for Change’, held in order to raise funds for veteran trans activism group, Press for Change. I had attended the same event in 2006 and it was a small affair. 2007 was very different though: the event was much larger and while the 2006 picnic looked like a nondescript bunch of people having, well, a picnic, this was a bold affair advertised with bunting and a big rainbow flag.

Once again Roz Kaveny was there. We got talking about the rise of a new breed of trans women: largely lesbian trans women who were out and proud not just as lesbians, but also as trans. US trans activist, Julia Serano, had just published her book, ‘Whipping Girl’, which many of us as our call to arms. We were here, we were queer, and by gosh, we had grievances we wanted to air. The mood wasn’t ugly; we were going to build a better world.

A few weeks later, we succeeded in changing a BBC headline which referred to trans women as ‘male patients’. This was small beans, but before anyone had heard of a Twitter storm it showed us that a small number of people could, if we made a noise in the right way, effect change. 2008 would prove to demonstrate that in spades.

For years there had been a music festival in the US state of Michigan, the ‘Michigan Womyn’s (SIC) Music Festival’ (MWMF). It was a long standing open sore in the feminist movement that the organisers of the festival had an entry policy that excluded trans women. In reality, the situation was akin to ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and lots of trans women attended anyway, but each year the festival was a flashpoint.

In May 2008, Manchester’s ‘Queer up North’ festival invited MWMF performer, ‘Bitch’, to play a gig. Bitch vocally supported MWMF’s transphobic exclusion policy. Her stated position on activism to end the discriminatory policy was that it was ‘making men comfortable and satisfying men’. Trans people in Manchester were angry that an ostensibly LGBT festival was seen to be endorsing transphobia and exclusion of trans people.

Attempts at dialogue with the organisers were met largely with indifference. Anger and frustration was expressed in our online communities, and a few of us resolved to hold a protest outside the event. I travelled to Manchester, with some friends and a hundred fliers run off on an ink jet printer. We met up with local activists and assembled outside the venue. By the time the festival goers started to arrive for the gig, there were a dozen of us with flyers and banners. We handed the flyers to the attendees, explaining that they contained ‘information about the artist’, and our message was generally well received, with some attendees even walking out in support of us.

Lots of people asked us if we wanted them to boycott the performance, but we encouraged them to go in and enjoy the music, having paid for tickets, but with awareness of the context of trans exclusion.

It became apparent that we had hit a raw nerve when the director of Queer up North came out to meet with us. It seemed that our presence there was causing him some embarrassment.

It seemed that we had hit upon a winning formula for protesting against transphobic discrimination. Event organisers would cosy up to transphobes, tacitly giving approval for their behaviour, as long as they weren’t publicly embarrassed by it.

We resolved to cause that embarrassment. In 2017, as I write this, those on the receiving end of these protests counter them by mischaracterising them as ‘attacks on free speech’, usually with the help of a large print or broadcast media organisation. However in 2008, when Twitter and Facebook were barely known, this method of protest proved difficult to counter.

The UK’s trans population was about to be given a lesson in just how powerless we actually were though. At the end of the LGBT Pride parade in London, in July, stewards had taken to policing the entrances of the public toilets in Trafalgar Square. Foreshadowing the ‘bathroom bans’ that have become prevalent in US politics, the stewards refused to allow anyone they suspected of being a trans woman, including one cis butch lesbian, into the female toilet. The result of this was an impromptu protest outside the loos and the intervention of an off-duty LGBT liaison officer with the Metropolitan Police. Anger escalated when the police officer sided with the stewards, falsely asserting that a gender recognition certificate was needed to use the correct toilet. By the end of the day, one trans woman, desperate to use the lavatory, went into the male facilities where a man sexually assaulted her. The perpetrator was never found.

As with Queer up North before, we felt badly let down by our cisgender ‘friends’ in the LGBT community. This time a woman had been hurt.

A few weeks later, our anger was further stoked by the Royal Society of Medicine, which was hosting a conference on the use of puberty blocking drugs in adolescent trans people, inviting American-Canadian psychologist ‘Kenneth Zucker’ to give the opening address. Zucker had gained some notoriety amongst trans people for the use of what we considered to be ‘conversion therapy’ in his Toronto clinic. Years later his clinic would be shut down, but at the time we were appalled by the possibility that clinics in the UK could embrace these practices.

As with Queer up North, I joined a number of other trans people and held a protest outside the event. We had pooled our resources, producing a flyer that we each ran off multiple copies of. Embracing the power of the Internet, the flyer contained an explanation of our grievances and URLs to more information online.

People took our flyers in such large numbers that with some time before the opening address was due, we had run out. Embracing guerrilla activism, I was dispatched to a nearby copy shop, clutching one of our last remaining leaflets to procure another hundred. We also arranged to have some members of our team infiltrate the conference and leave copies of the leaflet around inside for attendees to read. Years later the tide would turn against the sort of therapy practiced by Zucker, but this didn’t feel like a quick win in the way the Queer up North protest had.

It had been a year since my friends and I had picnicked under the shade of a tree in Kensington Gardens, excited by the prospect that we could change the world. Despite her promises to be more considered in future, Julie Bindel seemed increasingly to be making a career out of baiting trans people in the press; it felt like our own community had turned against us through embracing transphobia in the arts and enforcing the kind of toilet access for which the US Republican Party would later become infamous; medics seemed to be embracing some of the worst and most abusive practices in treating our youth. As time passed, optimism turned to disappointment and disappointment, in turn, to righteous anger.

And then, a week after the Zucker protest, LGB charity Stonewall announced that it was shortlisting the very same Julie Bindel for its ‘journalist of the year’ award.

Our righteous anger turned to pure rage.

Stonewall at the time regarded itself as an LGB organisation. It had been formed, originally, to combat the Section 28 legislation which forbade ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. That battle had been won and Stonewall had morphed into a more general gay rights organisation. Alongside it was Press for Change, which had been formed to campaign for what became the Gender Recognition Act.

It was widely believed that there had been some sort of ‘back room’ agreement between Stonewall and Press for Change to divide the LGBT ‘turf’ between them. Leaders of both were cagey about what form the agreement took, or even if it existed, but that was the perception.

A lot, perhaps as many as half, of trans people are also lesbian, gay or bisexual. This division of responsibilities did not fit with the newly emergent queer-focused trans activism. Paradoxically, many who fell into both the LGB and T camps felt that neither organisation represented their interests. When myself and other activists tried to engage Stonewall, and Press for Change we were given what felt like a brush-off. Stonewall sent out form letters to dozens of trans protestors saying that Ms Bindel was nominated for ‘bringing a lesbian perspective to journalism’, seemingly oblivious to many of the recipients of the letters being lesbian trans women.

By late 2008, Facebook had started coming into its own. A number of trans activists had grouped together there to discuss taking things further. A desire to discuss these things in public led to various supporters of Ms Bindel joining in, followed ultimately by Ms Bindel herself. She complained that the protestors were ‘bullying’ her and suggested she was considering legal action.

In hindsight, the short period of Internet based activism prior to this point had been an age of innocence. Many trans women have an IT background and as such, we were early adopters. Things were starting to change with those we were protesting against increasingly working online too. More and more the two groups would clash, both online and off. This served only to pour petrol on the flames.

Into all this came some of the ‘trans elders’ who had been involved in Press for Change, with pleas for moderation and compromise. Perhaps this was ill-judged, as we certainly felt we had a genuine grievance and did not take kindly to what we saw as the old guard trying to assert their authority and maintain the status quo.

Stonewall stuck to its guns. Bindel and her followers stuck to their guns. We stuck to our guns, and on the evening of 7 November the largest trans rights demonstration the UK had yet seen, about 150 people, assembled outside the Victoria and Albert museum to protest Stonewall’s awards ceremony.

The protest was loud, colourful and good natured. It featured the, by now, customary leaflets which were handed out to the great and the good attending the event. For the first time we encountered a counter demonstration by way of the self-proclaimed ‘Julie Bindel Fan Club’. This was a handful of women facing us on the other side of the red carpet. After Ms Bindel herself arrived they upped and left as we sang after them, inviting them to come and join us at the pub after the demonstration.

The significance of this counter demonstration was missed, probably by everyone, and certainly by me at the time. This small band heralded what would grow to become the ‘TERF wars’ (TERF is an acronym for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), where the feminist movement would increasingly be coopted by transphobes hoping to drive a wedge between trans women and the feminist movement.

2008 was a pivotal year in the struggle for trans acceptance and equality in the UK. It saw the rise of Internet based activism led by people who had the confidence to publicly identify as openly trans and queer. It saw the coming of age of a generation of trans people who refused to conform to the world bequeathed by those who had come before us, and led us into direct conflict with them. The consequences of what we did would not become apparent for some time, but eventually:

  • The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival would close its doors for good rather than openly accept trans women through its gates.
  • Dr Kenneth Zucker saw his clinic closed after an independent investigation raised questions over his clinical practice
  • Stonewall reinvented itself as a comprehensive LGBT charity, placing equality for trans people at the heart of its work

In 2014 I delivered one of the opening speeches at the London Dykemarch. Ironically I was subject to a protest by ‘TERFs’, who picketed the event, waved placards and tried to embarrass the organisers by handing out leaflets. They had organised their protest on Facebook. Several of the people who protested outside its awards in 2008, myself included, now work inside Stonewall to develop its trans workstream. Our work has been protested by fans of Julie Bindel, perhaps including some of the same people standing opposite us on that cold November evening years ago. There is still much work to do, but progress has been made on building that better world we envisaged while eating picnic food on a lazy summer day in Kensington Gardens ten years ago.

Sarah’s Brexit Policy

I came up with this while thinking about what an awful job the government is doing at negotiating Brexit, and the tragedy of how a marginal victory by one side in a dubious referendum is taken as a sign that instead of trying to bring the country together, you should just ignore one half completely.

 

So this is my fantasy Brexit policy. It’s not the policy of any political party at the moment. I do wish it would be. If you’re a politician reading this, feel free to steal it.

 

Sarah’s Brexit Policy

The referendum revealed a profound split in our country. Since the result, politics has pandered exclusively to one side while completely ignoring the other. This is not a way to heal the fracture in our society, and will only lead to escalation and further division. A 52/48 split should have been a time to reflect on ways to bring both halves together. Nobody has tried to do that.

If elected we would revoke Article 50 and then start the process the government SHOULD have embarked upon after the referendum vote. We will hold a national conversation respecting both sides of the debate and seek to find a consensus position. If two halves of society want contradictory things, the only fair thing to do is find a position that both can, at least, live with. Only then will we go forward with a change to our international position.

On Workplace “Banter” and Sexual Harassment

I want to tell a story about workplace sexual harassment and “banter”. Back when I was 17, in the summer holidays I went and did some work experience for the small company my father worked at.

My parents had been divorced 8 years and I lived with my mum. I didn’t like my father: he was emotionally abusive and boorish. The man was racist, homophobic and a bully. I guess he still is but I haven’t spoken to him since 2006. Anyway, I wanted a computer monitor and he wanted a parts catalogue entering into a database on this new Amstrad word processor they’d just bought, so he paid me £20 a day to do it, which was a fortune to a kid in 1991.

The company maintained and serviced welding machines across the east midlands. They were based on a trading estate and had two employees: my father and his colleague, J. They were a subsidiary of a company that operated out of a larger unit on the same trading estate which did more generalised welding stuff. The parent company did all the HR and suchlike. It was a very male dominated environment, but the parent company had a female secretary, K, who wasn’t much older than me. The blokes, my father included, would sexually harass her whenever they saw her. At the end of the day they’d go home to their wives, my father included.

I don’t know if it ever got physical, but there were constant insinuations from these middle aged men to this 20 year old girl that they’d like to take her and fuck her. I guess to survive in that environment she learned to roll with it to an extent and appease these lecherous  advances until the men went away and stopped bothering her.

My father seemed to think my development into adult male-hood was stalling (I was a closeted trans girl, go figure), and he and J took it upon themselves to “educate” me. During the few weeks I worked there they sometimes took me on site visits to customers: usually factories full of industrial equipment full of girly posters on the wall and men communicating at each other in ways that used “fuck” as punctuation.

Two things stand out from this time. The first was coming back from a customer site, we drove past a woman walking on the street. J rolled down his windows and started literally barking at her, with his tongue hanging out. My father gave him a quizzical look. J said, “hey, I have needs don’t I?”. They both laughed, thought it was hilarious. I sat in the back in stony silence. It was clear I was expected to join in. The disappointment in my father’s eyes was palpable. I was appalled.

But the biggest thing I remember was around how they talked about K when she wasn’t there. She was a piece of meat to them. My father and J would talk (in front of my father’s 17 year old child, who they assumed to be a boy; more fool them) about the rape fantasies they had about K. Once again it was obvious they were trying to “complete my education”, as it were, and it just wasn’t taking. They seemed to think they were doing me a favour. I just wanted them to stop and was in no position to say so because this was my father, and my first bully, and I was terrified of him.

They got increasingly desperate in their attempts to get me to join in. One lunchtime they pretended to come in drunk and ask me what I’d like to do to K. They told me that I should go and say something to her because, in their exact words, “she’s a nymphomaniac”. I was lost for words and just said, “oh dear”.

J turned to my father and said, “I didn’t expect him (SIC) to say that. Did you?”

My father went white and agreed he had not. Later, when driving me home to my mother that evening he gave me a lecture on how I was “antisocial”, and how I wouldn’t make friends or get anywhere in life because I was “boring” to people and needed to “loosen up” and “join in”.

I not only had no idea how to behave the way they were behaving; I had no desire to learn. They all seemed to think it was normal to behave this way. For some reason they seemed to have a high turnover of secretarial and admin staff. I don’t think K had been there long, and I don’t think she was there long afterwards. I expect the stress of having to go along with their “banter”, and then be branded a nymphomaniac, a slit, filthy, for doing so probably caused her quite a bit of stress. If the men realised the impossibility and logical absurdity of the position they’d placed her in, they showed no signs of it, or of caring.

My father wanted me to learn about how the world worked, I guess, and in a way I did. I assume his disappointment at the conclusions I came to had a part to play in his eventual disowning of me. I wish I’d realised at the time that despite his constant assertions, I already had far better social instincts than he had.

On Recent “TERF Protests”

Recently we saw a protest at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park where a group of transphobic self described “radical feminists” and a group of trans protesters came to blows. It seems that the trabsphobes were meeting up and then planning to walk to a venue to, well, share tips on transphobia and whatever else it is they do when they get together. A group of trans activists decided to protest them. The transphobes started shoving cameras in peoples’ faces. A camera was grabbed, a trans protester was put in a headlock, their friend hit the person holding them in the headlock and … well, it ended up all over the papers.

Sadly the papers printed a version of events which clearly identified trans people as the agitators, while ignoring the transphobe dragging someone around in a headlock while repeatedly kicking them. It seems likely that the transphobes were hoping something like this would happen, as their first response seems to have been to call not the police, but Fox News.

Zoe has more detail here

All in all, it’s a bit of a mess. This morning a similar protest occurred in Brighton. A group of transphobes had spent the last couple of days hanging around outside the Labour Party conference and were planning to meet up in a public park to swap transphobic anecdotes and stuff.

Once again they were met by trans protestors. This time nobody got punched.

I’m no stranger to protesting these people. In 2007 and 2008 I attended and even organised a number of protests against transphobic individuals and practices: outside a music event where a transphobic performer was playing; outside the Royal Society of Medicine when they were hosting Dr Kenneth Zucker, who many of us feel practiced reparative “therapy” on kids; outside Stonewall’s awards ceremony when journalist Julie Bindel, never one to shy away from provocative articles about trans people in the press, was shortlisted for an award (she didn’t win).

But I think what we’re currently seeing is different, and probably unhelpful. The events that used to get protested featured transphobic elements, but crucially, transphobia was not their primary focus. The canonical example of this is probably the now defunct Michigan Women’s Music Festival. Most of the attendees were not transphobes and so the presence of a protest outside embarrassed the organisers, who would have rather focused on the music and had the trans thing go away, and raised awareness amongst attendees, who would then bring pressure to bear on the organisers.

Similarly when I, and a few others, protested Dr Zucker. We wanted the other attendees to know about what he was doing to trans kids. Most of them didn’t.

These new protests aren’t like that. These events aren’t ones where the transphobic element is something that the organisers don’t want to be embarrassed by, and which the attendees would likely find distasteful. These events are gatherings of out and proud transphobes where the primary focus is their transphobic agitating. There are no organisers to embarrass, because they’re true believers in what they’re doing, and there is no chance of winning over attendees because people going to these things, by and large, are already committed to their transphobic worldview.

There’s always the chance that you could interest a few random passers by, who might be won over, but you don’t need transphobes to be there to accomplish that. You can just hand out leaflets on a busy city street, or set up a stall for the same effect, and that has the advantage that there is no nearby gathering of people who wish you harm.

The effect, and as far as I can see, pretty much the only effect of protesting gatherings of transphobes doing transphobe stuff is to bring two groups who hate each other into close proximity, thus massively raising the chances that things will turn physical.

Such a protest doesn’t really do anything else. It’s literally just two opposing groups who hate each other facing off in public.

I think it’s fair to say that when we protested back in the day, we never lost sight of why we were doing it and what we wanted to achieve. Protest wasn’t an end in itself, but a tool to try and advance our own equality and build support. I have spoken to numerous people involved in these recent protests. At times it has got rather heated, but none of them seem to be able to articulate what they are for, beyond “we must not let these people go unchallenged”.

Why not? If they’re confining themselves to their own echo chambers, this is a good thing. It means they aren’t normalising their message of hate in the wider population. Drawing attention to them serves only to give them the publicity they want to spread their hatred. If there had been no counter protest at Speakers’ Corner, and thus no physical altercation, the plethora of stories in the press about “violent” trans people “beating up” little old ladies would simply not have happened, and these saddos would have had their little circle jerk of hate in obscurity.

By all means, if there is tactical advantage to be gained, protest, but I implore anyone thinking of confronting these people to first ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will this help advance trans equality?
  • What’s the upside for us?
  • What’s the downside for us?
  • What’s the upside for the transphobes?
  • What’s the downside for the transphobes?

And if you can’t answer them satisfactorily, maybe consider staying in with a good book or Netflix instead.

My Speech on an Exit From Brexit to Lib Dem Autumn 2017 Conference


For context, the motion is to make our Brexit policy a simple revocation of Article 50. The amendment seeks to insert a referendum on the deal.

 

Good morning, conference

This year we had a general election. Our flagship policy going into it was essentially the one that the amendment tries to reassert: that if in government, we would carry on negotiating Brexit until at least March 2019, 2 years after the Article 50 invocation, while employers and jobs flee the country, while our friends and neighbours born in other EU countries suffer xenophobic hate and discrimination, while the pound crashes, and while talent flees our NHS, and then finally, when we’ve negotiated a deal we will hold a referendum and ask the electorate to reject that deal.

Bizarrely, the voters didn’t think this was very good, and as a result we got our lowest vote share in decades. What appeared to be an attempt to appease people who would never vote for us anyway made people who might have voted for us instead put their trust in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to defeat Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who could probably shoot EU migrants in Trafalgar Square and not loose a single one of his adoring voters, was seen as more credible on the EU than we were.

So let’s be clear, conference, the referendum policy has been tested in a general election, and found to be electorally toxic. It is a failed policy and we should abandon it.

What we should do now, and what we should have done in the first place, is stand on our principles. It was Charlie’s principled stand on Iraq that made me become a Liberal Democrat in the first place. I admired that. It’s time to stand on our principles again.

Instead we act as if the support for the European project, written into our constitution, is something we are vaguely embarrassed about, and we then wonder why nobody will vote for us.

Many of those representing us at Westminster still want to cling to this failed referendum policy. A policy that even Tom Brake suggested was foolish even while asking us to re-endorse it.

If I never see another referendum again, it will be too soon. They are where representative democracy goes to die. They are popularity contests for extremists and demagogues. They bring out the very worst in our politics. Things got so bad last time that an MP was assassinated. Our parliamentarians need to end their love affair with them and do their jobs.

The final deal referendum policy sounds like it was born in the Westminster bubble. It was only ever going to appeal to people who think inside the Westminster bubble.

Well today we’re a few hours train ride away from Westminster, and that’s where this referendum policy, our very own electoral suicide note, should be laid to rest, because if it isn’t, we will be.

We should be proud of who we are. We are Liberal Democrats. We believe in the European Union. Vote for us, and we will Exit from Brexit.

Reject Amendment One and pass the motion unamended. Let’s stand on our principles again.

So You Want To Do Via Ferrata – Part 1 – Prerequisities

A number of people responded favourably to my photos and blogs about our recent climbing holiday in Italy, with several saying that they’d been encouraged to find out more about the sport of Via Ferrata, or wished that they could do it. I’ve decided to write some blog posts to act as an introduction for getting into the sport, and I suspect some people may find it easier to start doing than they imagined.

Who is this aimed at?

OK, so the sort of person I’m expecting to be reading this is perhaps someone who has done some amount of hill walking in places like Snowdonia, the Scottish Highlands, the Peak District or the Lake District, or perhaps even in alpine mountains. They’re probably comfortable with a bit of rough ground or basic scrambling, and want to spice things up a bit.

I’m not assuming any climbing knowledge. Having some helps, and I’ll get on to that later, but you don’t need to be a climber to get into this sport.

Am I at the right physical and mental level?

There are some straightforward prerequisites in terms of fitness and psychology that we need to get out of the way at the beginning.

The most obvious one is fitness. You will need to be “hill fit” to do this sport. There’s quite a bit of walking, and most of it isn’t flat. Many routes have significant altitude gains before they start, and often long descents. You’re going to need to be able to handle this. Since Sylvia and I live in Cambridgeshire, which is the lowest and flattest county in the UK, it’s pretty much impossible for us to maintain hill fitness here. Before we went away this year, we did a couple of vertical kilometre walks in the Peak District. They helped tremendously.

So yes, you should be comfortable with hill walking. The other thing you need to be aware of is exposure, and how you react to it. Lots of Via Ferratas (most, in fact) will feature some level of exposure. Even the simplest ones will often have you walking on easy ground with a precipitous drop to the side. The first thing to note is that on the easiest routes, it’s physically impossible to fall unless you do something stupid, so the nature of the risk is in your own reaction to exposure, rather than any actual risk of falling off a mountain.

Note, this is not true of the harder ones. You can fall and you can die on those, but the key to preventing that is to be properly prepared and have the proper skillset.

So you need to know how you respond to exposure. The first time I was exposed to a really massive drop was on a trail called Angels’ Landing in Zion National Park, Utah, US. It looks like this:

Angels' Landing, ascent from our 2008 holiday there.

Angels’ Landing, ascent from our 2008 holiday there.

Note that Angels’ Landing is not officially a Via Ferrata, but it’s often said that along with the ascent of Half Dome at Yosemite, it was one of the closest things the US has to one for a long time. Sylvia and I agree that if it had a via ferrata grade, it would be 1B.

Anyway, I first encountered this in 1997. The drop is up to 400 metres on both sides. For the first time in my life, at the age of 23, I had a panic attack. I thought I was going to die. Apparently I went a sort of pale yellow and getting me off the mountain was quite difficult.

If this is your response to exposure, you need to fix it before you do this. Having a panic attack half way along a via ferrata is … inconvenient.

The good news, as evidenced by me, is that it can be fixed!

I’ve talked to Sylvia about this and we both agree that anyone in the UK contemplating getting into this sport should have ascended Snowdon via the Crib Goch route, in good weather, and have coped with it.

Here’s Crib Coch. It’s a lot like Angels’ Landing, but colder. Sylvia and I agree that if it had a via ferrata grade, it would be 2B.

Photo of Crib Goch from the first time Sylvia and I went there in 2005.

Photo of Crib Goch, with Snowdon in the background,  from the first time Sylvia and I went there in 2005.

So yeah, you need to be able to cope with that. I understand there are similar walks in the Lake District, such as Striding Edge, but I haven’t done them personally.

Assuming you are happy with the whole hill walking thing, and know you can handle Crib Goch/Striding Edge/Angels’ Landing without going to pieces, then you’re good. Time to talk about:

Equipment

You need equipment to do via ferrata. If you’ve ever climbed, some of it will be familiar to you, some may not. Don’t worry if you haven’t, as this stuff isn’t rocket science. Here are the basics that you need:

Helmet, climbing harness, via ferrata kit, gloves

Helmet, climbing harness, via ferrata kit, gloves

The first thing you need is a climbing harness. You need to know how to put one on safely, and where the strong points are and how to use one.

This is not complicated, but you need to get this right. If you’ve never worn a climbing harness before, I strongly suggest you find a local climbing wall that offers a beginner course in roped climbing and take it. It will teach you how to use a harness and the basics of climbing. You don’t need to be a climber to do via ferrata, but you do need to know how to use the equipment.

A climbing harness is essentially a belt connected via a strong loop (called the belay loop) to a pair of leg loops. They’re comfortable to wear, comfortable to walk in for extended periods, and not cumbersome. They are designed to be lightweight, unobtrusive and worn all day. They’re also designed so that if you end up dangling by the belay loop, you dangle the right way up.

You will need a helmet. Some routes feature low hanging rock that will do you a nasty injury if you bang your bare head on it. Some have people above you who kick small stones down, and you need a helmet to protect yourself. Some via ferratas go through tunnels and you’ll need to attach a head lamp to your helmet, so it’s good to have one of those too.

A via ferrata carabiner. It locks unless you squeeze both sides.

A via ferrata carabiner. It locks unless you squeeze both sides.

You’ll want gloves, because without them hauling a via ferrata cable will wreck your hands. The best gloves to use are belay gloves, sold at the same places that sell climbing harnesses. You definitely need them to be fingerless at the tips.

Perhaps most crucially, you need a via ferrata kit. In its modern incarnation, this is a pair of carabiners, specially designed so that they can’t come open by themselves (mine require you to squeeze both sides at once). Each one is attached to a piece of webbing sling, or a short length of rope. These meet at the screamer, which is your shock absorber:

My screamer, intact but unfurled from its housing.

My screamer, intact but unfurled from its housing.

My screamer, shown above, is two loops of webbing. Each one connects at one end to the carabiner slings, and at the other end to the loop that attaches to the harness. They are sewn together using stitching that is designed to start failing when there’s more than about 120N of force applied. In a fall, the rows of stitches will pop, one by one, slowing you down until you come to a halt. After this, the kit must be replaced. I hope to retire my screamer, unused, after many years of service!

The next thing you need is a good pair of shoes. At this point you might be thinking, “Ah, I’m sorted! As a hill walker I have a nice pair of sturdy high ankled boots that I can use!”

Let’s stop right there. High ankle hiking boots are absolutely not what you want for this sport. They may be useful when hiking across the bogs of Bleaklow and Kinder Scout, but on a via ferrata they are a liability (unless your via ferrata features a glacier and your boots can take a crampon, in which case they’re a necessary evil).

You need what climbers call approach shoes. These look like trainers, but aren’t. They’re a cross between technical climbing shoes, which are great for standing on tiny bits of rock, but will cripple you if you try to walk in them, and trainers, which you an walk all day in. Crucially they have low ankles, so that you are able to move all your joints and get a good angle on the rock, and soles with a mixture of a tread for walking, and smooth climbing rubber near the toes for climbing.

Courtesy of wikipedia, left to right: Two climbing shoes, approach shoes, mountain boots (with crampons)

Courtesy of wikipedia, left to right: Two climbing shoes, approach shoes, mountain boots (with crampons)

The approach shoe is the one in the middle in the above image. It looks like a trainer. Don’t use trainers: the tread will make your feet will fall off the rock and you’ll hurt yourself.

OK, so that’s the gear we need: climbing harness, via ferrata kit, helmet (with optional head lamp), gloves, approach shoes.

And you’ll need suitable clothing for alpine summer work. I use outdoor trousers and a T-shirt made of quick drying material. I’ll then carry waterproof covers for my trousers, a lightweight waterproof jacket, and if warranted, a fleece, in my backpack. Some of these routes have snow and ice on them, but you’ll be working so hard that your problem will be being too hot, not too cold.

Where can you get this stuff?

Some outdoors shops sell most of this. Not the ones that are essentially fashion shops with an outdoors theme (although you can get the clothes there – if you’re a hill walker you probably already have them though).

In Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, there are a couple of excellent shops that can outfit you, and provide advice as they really know their stuff. In the Peak District I can highly recommend Outside in Hathersage. In Cambridge, Open Air on Green Street are superb.

If you do happen to go to a climbing gym to take an introductory course, most will have a shop that sells this stuff. You can buy it there.

The only bit you may struggle to get in the UK is the via ferrata kit. They can be bought in the UK, but most places don’t stock them because it’s not really something we do here. If you can’t find one, they can be found in abundance in places that have via ferratas (you will also find a really good selection of approach shoes there too). In Corvara in the high dolomites, I thoroughly recommend Sport Kostner. The staff are knowledgeable, friendly and most speak excellent English, and they have a range of good stuff. You can literally buy everything you need there in one afternoon, and they will be happy to sell you the lot for about €500.

There’s one crucial thing I haven’t mentioned that you need:

Guide Books and Maps

Guide books are essential, as are maps. This section assumes you’ll be going to the Dolomites, which is the spiritual home of the sport (although the Austrians have built more than anyone else. Some of their can be a bit disturbing though, I’m told!)

Perhaps the best all-round English Language guide book to via ferratas in the high Dolomites is Cicerone’s Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites, Vol 1. There is also a volume 2 that deals with the surrounding area, including the spectacular Brenta Dolomites. All the routes we did this year are in Cicerone Volume 1, with the exception of Magnifici Quattro, which they haven’t updated the guide for yet.

The Cicerone books are great. They describe the routes in detail, act as a good introduction to the sport, and are very atmospheric. They are starting to get a bit dated though, but I still think they’re a must have simply because of the level of detail they go into, and because they were, for a long time, the only info available on this sport for English speakers (they invented the grading system we use too).

More recently, climbing guide book publisher, Rockfax, have published, The Dolomites – Rock Climbs and Via Ferrata. This is much more comprehensive than Cicerone, uses the same grading system, and is more up to date. It’s more of a reference guide though and doesn’t go into the same level of depth.

We also have a German language book, with partial English translations, that is extremely comprehensive and provides detailed “topo” (route information) for each via ferrata. They use the German/Austrian grading system, but the level of route detail is superb. This is Klettersteigführer Dolomiten – Südtirol – Gardasee. It covers the areas covered by both volumes of Cicerone and comes with a DVD ROM that has a copy of the book on it as well as some videos, and GPX files with coordinates for parking and start points of all the routes, so you can take route information with you on your smartphone.

The Tabacco maps and smartphone apps are excellent.

The Tabacco maps and smartphone apps are excellent.

The definitive hiking maps for the Dolomites are published by Tabacco, who do really good 1:25,000 scale leisure maps of much of the Italian Alps. They can be purchased at Stanfords in London, or at many shops out there. Tabacco also have apps for iPhone and Android that allow you to download digital copies of their maps. The app is where my route maps on my blog all come from.

In Summary

So, to summarise part 1 of my introduction: You’re a hill walker wanting to get into Via Ferrata. You should be able to do Crib Goch without freaking. You need to know how to use a climbing harness. Taking an introductory course at a climbing wall would be a really good idea. Get hold of some books and maps and start planning!

See you in part 2.

 

Via Ferratas From Other Via Ferratas

Just for fun, here are some VF routes we did as seen from other routes we did. The routes are drawn from memory and not expected to be 100% accurate. Where the one is lighter, it means the route goes behind the mountain as we see it.

Upper section of VF Punta Anna (from just before the wind gap as it climbs to the summit of Tofana di Mezzo) as seen from the top of VF Lipella on Tofana de Roses:

TFMfromL

VF Punta Anna, lower and mid section a seen from the approach to VF Lipella on the lower slopes of Tofana de Roses

PATDMfromL

VF Sci Club 18 as seen from VF Punta Anna, with Cortina D’Ampezzo in the middle

SC18fromPA

VF Punta Anna/Tofana di Mezzo (all of it), in red and VF Lipella (note it’s all behind the mountain here) in blue, as seen from the start of VF Sci Club 18. Each one gains over a kilometre in elevation!

PA+LfromSC18

Dolomites 2017, Day 9 – VF Giovanni Lipella

All the other via ferratas we’ve done while here have been ones we’ve done before. This one has been on my “to-do” list for some time.

Ascent in yellow, descent in blue. No cable cars or ski lifts to help this time.

Ascent in yellow, descent in blue. No cable cars or ski lifts to help this time.

The Tofana group has three main peaks: Tofana di Mezzo, the highest at 3244 metres; Tofana di Dentro, connected to Mezzo by a high ridge and 6 metres shorter at 3238 metres, and Tofana de Roses, 19 metres shorter than Mezzo at 3225 metres and very much the odd one out.

Unlike Mezzo and Dentro, which can be accessed from each other with only a couple of hundred metres descent, Roses is separated from the other two by the pass of Vallon di Tofana, which runs north/south between Mezzo and Roses and forms a 900 metre deep cleft between them. That almost makes Roses feel like an entirely separate mountain.

The vast bulk of Tofana de Roses, busy making weather, seen from near Rifugio Dibona

The vast bulk of Tofana de Roses, busy making weather, seen from near Rifugio Dibona

It’s also very different in character. Mezzo and Dentro, together with Mezzo’s southern ridge, Punta Anna, rise out of the lower slopes of the massif as a thin ridge. Side-on from Cortina, they present a massive wall, soaring 2 kilometres above the town. From the south, they almost disappear as they merge into a narrow ridge.

Roses is different; it is a vast hulking presence of a mountain which, together with its massive scree-covered lower slopes utterly dominates the Cortina side of the Falzarego pass. Even though it’s shorter than the other two (just), it demands your attention. It makes its own weather, distinct from the other two, and seems to just sit there as if to say, “I AM A HUGE MOUNTAIN, LOOK HOW IMPOSSIBLY BIG I AM!” If you’ve seen Snowdon, this thing is the size of three Snowdons stacked on top of each other (from sea level). Even from its base near Cortina, it’s still 2 of them on top of each other. This is a big mountain.

And unlike the other two, there’s no cable car or ski lift to help access it. There are ways to the top of lower slopes by either walking down from the Mount Lagazuoi cable car, or taking the ski lift up the lower slopes of Tofana di Mezzo and contouring under Punta Anna using Sentiero Astaldi, as we did last week, but if you want to get up there, and down again, you have to do it all yourself.

With this in mind, we drove down from Passo Falzarego, underneath Mount Lagazuoi, where the Austrian troops used to rain down artillery on the Italian forward position at 5 Torri below in the 1st World War (and where the Italians spent years tunnelling up from below to blow the top off the mountain – the Austrians heard them coming and moved. You can now climb or descend Mount Lagazuoi in the tunnels they built), and turned left onto a single track road that led up to Rifugio Dibona, the highest you can get by car. After a while this turned to a gravel track and in places I had to slow right down to avoid grounding. I’m really glad they gave me a hybrid: in the absence of 4 wheel drive, electric traction is really good at this.

Sylvia on the increasingly narrow approach path 400 metres above the car park.

Sylvia on the increasingly narrow approach path 400 metres above the car park.

From Dibona we set out uphill, needing to gain 450 metres to reach the start of the route. We’re both getting very fit now (Sylvia and I have both dropped a dress size in the last week: our trousers keep falling down), and we steamed up here passing walkers and other climbers as we went. This generated loads of heat and we were sweating profusely by the time we passed the caves we’d explored on our day off last week.

The pine-scented path of the lower slopes gave way to scree as we reached the base of the mountain proper, and the path became narrower and more precarious.

Ruins of WWI barracks at the entrance to the tunnels

Ruins of WWI barracks at the entrance to the tunnels and the start of the ferrata

Eventually we passed an obvious world war 1 observation point, carved into the side of the mountain, and round the corner came upon the ruins of wooden ladders used to reach tunnels that the Italian army had dug into Roses western flank, presumably to try and see what the Austrians were doing on Lagazuoi.

The ferrata starts by climbing through these old World War 1 tunnels. The tunnels are accessed via stemples placed in the rock by what’s left of the original wooden ladders, now over a century old, and enters via the ruins of a small hut, nestled into a rock crevice where the Austrian troops wouldn’t be able to see it (if they managed to spot what the Italians were doing, one well aimed artillery shell and it would all be over).

We entered the tunnels and started to climb, inside the mountain. I remember reading The Two Towers as a kid and finding the Moria passages deeply evocative. These guys did it for real, several times. The tunnels here aren’t as extensive as the Lagazuoi tunnels (there’s miles of those), but there are still the remains of entire barracks and command rooms they dug out of the solid, unyielding limestone in what must have been appalling conditions. Even in later July it was cold. The tunnels were cramped and steep, and while the lower sections have a modern steel staircase installed, the upper sections do not.

Inside the tunnels, lit only by our helmet torches. Turn them off and it's inky black.

Inside the tunnels, lit only by our helmet torches. Turn them off and it’s inky black.

We spent some time looking at the ruins, and expressing our mutual horror at what those young men must have gone through a century ago. It truly defies imagination. World War 1 is still a big deal around here: there are extensive ruins and, with the trenches hewn out of solid limestone and still here it seems to have left a lasting trauma to match the lasting impression it left on the landscape (they blew the top off a mountain!)

The tunnels are steep and we gained over 200 metres inside them alone. In places we had to duck, and apart from the occasional glimpses of daylight where small observation slots were dug (these were dangerous: the Austrians were looking for them), the tunnels were utterly devoid of light, save that provided by our helmet torches. At one point the tunnel crosses an obvious fault line and the roof has been propped up by thick wooden supports to prevent a cave-ins. This ferrata will get you if you’re scared of heights or enclosed spaces, and is not a climb for the nervous!

After about 20 minutes we emerged, blinking, into daylight, and I was able to turn my Fuji X100 camera back from 6400 ISO to 200 ISO and set it for “sunny 16” exposure again. There’s now a bit of a down climb on some ageing via ferrata cable to meet the alternate approach route from the Mount Lagazuoi direction, which avoids the tunnels. There’s been an extensive modernisation effort over the last few years on all the via ferratas in the High Dolomites and there are precious few sections of older style protection left. This pleases me, because the newer stuff is of a much better design. The old stuff survives in tiny patches like here. The rest of this route is in the new (safer) style.

The end of the tunnels. Who turned on the lights? This presumably afforded a good view of the Austrian guns.

The end of the tunnels. Who turned on the lights? This presumably afforded a good view of the Austrian guns.

The short down climb leads you to a broad ledge. It leads north along the western face of Roses for about 500 metres, getting slowly narrower as it does. There is nothing, yet, to trouble anyone with even the slightest tolerance of heights, but that will come. A few hundred metres in front of us, we spotted two more groups, one large and one small.

Eventually you come to the cable. If you’ve opted for the approach that bypasses the tunnel, this is the first time you’ll need your VF kit, and so it was that the smaller group was stopped here, in the latter stages of gearing up. It seemed to be a married couple, and the man was giving us death stares as we made for the cable in front of him, while he rushed to do up his harness.

I guess he resented the idea that we would “queue jump” and slow him down. I got on cable first and started to climb. Sylvia followed, and the man, his irritation leaking from him, tried to make a point by catching Sylvia up.

Well he tried to. The thing is, we’re both bloody good at this, and other things being equal, we beat guidebook time on cable sections. This is a Cicerone Grade 4C ferrata, so you get people on it who would be scared off a 5 or 6. We do 5s and 6s, so this is our bread and butter. We left them both in the dust while he presumably seethed at being “chicked”. Chalk one up for the women.

Sylvia on one of the protected ledge sections. She's stepping over a crevice that's ... well, who cares how deep it is after the 1st 100 metres? It's deep.

Sylvia on one of the protected ledge sections. She’s stepping over a rock crevice that’s … well, who cares how deep it is after the 1st 100 metres? It’s deep.

The character of this route soon became apparent. It heads north, along the west face. It follows a ledge for some time, then climbs up to the next ledge, and repeats. The climbs are always cabled. The ledges sometimes are and sometimes aren’t. The guidebooks all describe this as seemingly never ending, and it’s certainly true that you get a lot of cable for your money (er, entry to these is free – ed). This suits me fine: gaining height on a via ferrata cable is far faster and more energy efficient than doing it by walking.

One of the unprotected ledges. There are a lot of these, and some are narrower than this. Caveat emptor.

One of the unprotected ledges. There are a lot of these, and some are narrower than this. Caveat emptor.

This is, however, not a route for those scared of heights. It’s already done claustrophobia with the tunnels. Now it’s going to throw acrophobia at you.

It’s actually nowhere near as exposed as the Punta Anna route that we did 2 days prior, but paradoxically the vast scale of Tofana de Roses makes it easier to capture the vertigo in photographs. A few years ago I’d reached the point where I could handle exposure as long as I was on cable, but cried at short un-cabled sections. If I’d done this route a few years ago, I fear I would have had some sort of acute mental health crisis (not joking). Don’t do this route (or Punta Anna) if you can’t cope with unprotected exposure. Seriously, just don’t – it could literally frighten you to death.

After a few repetitions of the “walk along ledge, climb to next one, repeat” cycle, we caught up with the large group we’d seen earlier. Turns out there were 7 of them, and they followed the usual pattern of having the most able climber at the front, the slowest and most nervous member in the middle, and a spotter bringing up the rear to help.

It’s good etiquette to let faster groups pass you where possible, especially on long routes like this (and on Punta Anna, where you’re racing to get the cable car down, it’s downright rude not to). I’ve noticed a dynamic that seems to happen in these situations, and this was no exception.

You come up behind the spotter and stop, one cable length back. The spotter is helping the slow member with a difficult climbing section. They then move up. You follow, passing the difficult section at speed. The spotter then realises you’re faster than their group and offers to let you pass.

The group we'd just overtaken, on the next ledge section.

The group we’d just overtaken, on the next ledge section as we moved away from them.

This is what happened here. I thanked her and unclipped from the cable(!) I then went round the bulk of their group, at some speed, using the cable as a handrail but not clipped on to it (I’m perfectly happy to do this on easy climbing sections, but won’t unclip anywhere I feel there’s a danger of me falling)

Zoe has told me, on occasion, that I seem to have an ability to switch gravity off. I guess that’s what I did here as I raced past the group members. I wasn’t showing off, I just wanted to get out of their way, and get on with the climb. Sylvia started to follow me.

Now the second part of the dynamic takes hold: you reach the leader of the group, who is the best climber, and usually a man (this makes me sad – the most impressive ferratist I’ve ever seen was a young woman who overtook me on Magnifici Quatro’s headwall – massive respect due and a privilege to watch that level of skill).

The man will be annoyed, not knowing his spotter invited you to pass the group. He sees himself as the leader and should be the one to make these decisions, but he can’t because he’s at the front. However, since his group is now split in two by the presence of a pair of interlopers in the middle, he has no choice but to let you pass.

So we did, and got on with our day as we increased the distance between us and their group. This was made easier by us not bothering to clip on many of the protected ledge sections, instead using the cable as a handrail, or single clipping, both of which are faster (but obviously less safe: judgement needed) than the full double clip action.

Near the junction, where we had a snack. The drop here is about 700 metres: about 650 more than needed to turn you to a red smear.

Near the junction, where we had a snack. The drop here is about 700 metres: about 650 more than needed to turn you to a red smear.

Eventually, about 2 and 1/2 hours after we started, a climb section led to a junction as the west face started to turn to become the north face. This is a good point for an escape section, as north faces can be icy, even in summer. The left fork led round the north face to meet up with the main descent path from the summit. The right fork switched back above our previous route and continued the ferrata. We stopped here and had some chocolate and dried fruit before turning right and continuing on.

The unprotected ledge leading to the massive bowl. Note there are 2 other climbers in this photo (click to enlarge). Looks like they overtook the big group too.

The unprotected ledge leading to the massive bowl. Note there are 2 other climbers in this photo (click to enlarge). Looks like they overtook the big group too.

At this point we were at 2700 metres and had been gaining height much more rapidly than on this ferrata’s “sister route” of Punta Anna, two days prior. This was about to have consequences. The route continued on an entirely unprotected high ledge for some time, round into a massive scree bowl below the summit. Although we’d turned away from the north face proper at the junction, the curvature of the bowl created another north face here, and there were a lot of little meltwater waterfalls from the recent snow doing their best to drench us as we started to climb steeply upwards on the final, but very long cable section.

Climbing in the big bowl. At the bottom left you can just see the group we overtook earlier.

Climbing in the big bowl. At the bottom left you can just see the group we overtook earlier.

That’s when it hit us. Somewhere around 2800 metres I started to feel light headed, almost drunk. Sylvia was struggling on the more powerful moves too. We were both short of breath, and recognised what might be the initial signs of acute mountain sickness (AKA altitude sickness).

This confused us. We’d gone to over 3200 metres on Tofana di Mezzo 2 days prior and, while a little short of breath, were basically fine. Yet here we were both developing symptoms (albeit mild – if they were serious we’d have attempted to downclimb) 400 metres lower than that. Given our proximity to the end of the ferrata, which stops at 3000 metres, 200 below the summit, we decided to carry on climbing and reevaluate at the end of the cable.

As we approached, our symptoms started to ease and we developed a theory as to why this had happened. On VF Punta Anna, most of the strenuous hard work is lower down, between 2500 and 2700 metres. The climbing on Punta Anna is technical, slow and difficult and you have a decently long walk along the flat top of Punta Anna around 2700 metres before starting to climb, gradually, again.

This gives time to acclimatise. Lipella, despite seeming to go on forever, is actually a shorter ferrata and gains height quickly and relentlessly. The climbing out of the bowl, while technically easier, is still strenuous. It throws the altitude at you more quickly, and makes you work hard while doing it.

End of the ferrata and, 200 metres above us, the summit.

End of the ferrata and, 200 metres above us, the summit.

As a result, our metabolisms took a little time to catch up. Once they did, we were fine.

Suddenly we rounded a corner and the summit appeared in front of us. A couple of minutes later and the ferrata ended at a plaque commemorating the life of Giovanni Lipella, the mountain guide after whom the route is named.

The way to the summit was now clear, but the mountain here is shaped like an aerofoil and it was taking the prevailing wind and accelerating it hard over the ridgeline, where at least part of the path went. The clouds were being squeezed over the summit itself and sped up so they looked like one of those time lapses, only in real time. The wind was howling, yet if we moved 5 paces onto the other side of the ridge, it stopped completely. Aerodynamics is weird.

There were a couple of groups up there, having conversations, apparently about the wisdom of going to a point summit where the wind could literally pick them up and suck them into oblivion. Time was getting on, we still had a long walk down back to the car, and frankly the wind was bothersome. Given we’d already summited Tofana’s main peak 2 days earlier, had completed the ferrata, and had made it to the psychologically important 3000 metre mark (and climbed more than a thousand metres from the car), we decided to head down the descent path.

More importantly, unusually for a Dolomite summit, there was nowhere to buy beer up here.

Amazing view of Tofana di Dentro (left) and Tofana di Mezzo (right) from the descent path.

Amazing view of Tofana di Dentro (left) and Tofana di Mezzo (right) from the descent path.

“Path” is a bit optimistic for what this is. The sloping north face is dotted with cairns. How you get between them is up to you. There were quite a few people around, many seemingly having tried to summit by walking up the ferrata’s descent path. Rather them than me; as I said previously, gaining height on cable is much more energy efficient. Walking up, especially on this shifting and annoying north face scree slope, must have been soul destroying and exhausting.

The ruins of Rifugio Cantore

The ruins of Rifugio Cantore

Quite a few of them, while attempting to descend, were literally falling on their arses.

We walked, scree surfed and boulder hopped our way down, passing the walkers who had no inkling of the howling gale they were about to encounter as they turned onto the summit ridge. The view is amazing though. You can see Tofana di Mezzo, the summit of which we’d stood on 2 days prior, Tofana di Dentro, and its terrifyingly named subsidiary peak, Nemesis. The best bit was looking north and east though, where we could literally see for hundreds of kilometres, into Austria and probably into Switzerland. Far, far off in the distance were the 4000+ metre monster alps with their permanently glaciated pyramidal summits. Here we were among the clouds on the roof of Europe, and it was amazing!

Cheers! We normally do this at the summit, but needs must. Also it's Heineken which is rough compared to the local stuff

Cheers! We normally do this at the summit, but needs must. Also it’s Heineken which is rough compared to the local stuff

The descent proceeded quickly until we came to the pass at the Vallon di Tofana. There we found the ruins of Rifugio Cantore, along with some very well preserved World War 1 ruins which were presumably some kind of forward command post for the Italian troops. Nearby we heard the generator of Rifugio Guissani, situated right in the saddle of the pass, and made our way there for a beer. We were now half way down our kilometre descent.

Beer finished, we continued down a path that quickly turned into a very easy 4 wheel drive accessible track that allowed us to lose altitude rapidly without too much stress on our poor middle aged knees.

Pretty soon we passed the junction with Sentiero Astaldi, which we’d used to access this part of the mountain several days ago, and not long after the descent path met the ascent path we’d used over 7 hours earlier.

We’d done it! 8 hours round trip (including beer time), a long desired ferrata ticked off the list, and a second vertical kilometre in 3 days. Thoroughly enjoyable, and the scale of the whole thing is amazing.

It’s a very different feel to its sister route on Punta Anna/Tofana di Mezzo. The whole ledges thing is more typical of ferrata routes in the Brenta group, west of the Adige valley and over towards the colossal Mount Ortler (which I’m sure was one of the huge mountains we’d seen from near the summit), and the tunnels give it a lot of variety. I’ll definitely do this one again, but Punta Anna is one I will keep coming back to again and again until I’m physically incapable.

Dolomites 2017, Day 7 – VF Punta Anna/Tofana di Mezzo

This is the via ferrata we wanted to do a few days ago but were scared off by thunderclouds forming on the peaks. It ascends the south ridge of Tofana di Mezzo, the third highest peak in the Dolomites (3044m), initially via the south ride of its subsidiary peak, Punta Anna, and then via the south ridge and nearby east and west flanks of the mighty Tofana di Mezzo itself.

The route, with salient points marked.

The route, with salient points marked.

We got an early breakfast, jumped in the car and arrived at the car park at Ristorante Pie Tofana by about 9. Once again we bought singles on the two ski lifts up to Rifugio Pomedes, located where the grassy slopes of the Tofana massif give way to unyielding limestone cliffs, and jumped aboard. It was cold, only about 7º by the time we reached Rifugio Pomedes, and we had our coats on. Aware that snow had fallen over the last day, and that the summit was still above the freezing line, we had brought our ice axes in case we had to cross any big deposits of snow. Thankfully this turned out to be unnecessary.

So about the via ferrata. It’s graded 5C in the Cicerone system, which means it requires both expert climbing skills (the 5 bit) and expert mountaineer skills (the C bit).

The eastern flank of Punta Anna, one of Tofana's smaller peaks. The ascent route follows the ridge line.

The eastern flank of Punta Anna, one of Tofana’s smaller peaks. The ascent route follows the ridge line.

This is not like the other routes we’ve done so far this holiday. It’s not an excursion on cable up a part of a mountain. This is proper mountaineering. It’s climbing an alp, all the way to the summit, and not an insignificant one either. Tofana is a serious mountain and commands respect. Doing this lightly would be extremely dangerous.

Nobody can quite agree whether this is 2 via ferratas attached end to end, or one big one with escape routes in the middle. It is called three different things on the map: Punta Anna, then Olivieri, and finally Tofana di Mezzo, but increasingly people are just calling the whole thing, “Via Ferrata Punta Anna”. However, lots of people do the lower part of the route (up to Punta Anna) as a half day ferrata, and then either descend down the west flank to Rifugio Guissani, nestled between Tofana di Mezzo and Tofana de Roses, or via a steep path down the slopes of Torre de Pomedes to either the 2nd cable car station of the Tofana cable car (“Freccia Nel Ciello”, which translates to The Arrow In The Sky), or back to Rifugio Pomedes.

This can be a problem because there is a certain time pressure to this VF. The descent from the summit is, realistically, only practical by The Arrow In The Sky. The last cable car departs the summit at 4:50pm. Your options if you arrive after that are either descend on foot (not nice, at all), or sleep in the cable car station (cold, but they leave it unlocked and there is a bunk bed in there).

In fact, the young English couple we met on Sci Club 18 said they miscalculated and made it to the top of this ferrata after the cable car closed. Apparently sleeping in there was very, very cold.

So yeah, you get large groups on the lower part of the ferrata, and they move at the speed of the slowest member. Overtaking is difficult and requires the group to cooperate, which they usually won’t do. If you reach escape point 2 (you only go beyond this point if you intend to summit), after 2pm, you are at serious risk of getting stuck up there.

The view down valley from the approach path at Rif Pomedes. Unlike Sunday there are no thunderclouds forming.

The view down valley from the approach path at Rif Pomedes. Unlike Sunday there are no thunderclouds forming.

That’s why we arrived as early as possible. It turned out that we were the second group to arrive at the approach. The first, as we later found out, were 3 members of the Greek Mountaineering Society. They were quite high on Punta Anna when we got there and it seemed we wouldn’t catch them up (we did, but not until much later). We walked up the steep, but short approach path to the base of the climb and hit the cables at 9:50am.

Punta Anna starts with the exposure early. Get used to it, it gets a lot worse.

Punta Anna starts with the exposure early. Get used to it, it gets a lot worse.

The initial climb is fairly easy going, and soon leads to an exposed ascending ledge up towards the ridge line. Anyone wanting to do this route had better get used to the exposure because it features a lot. This route is “airy”, seriously so and if heights really bother you, do something else.

As we made our way up the ledge, we noticed another couple starting some way behind us. It turned out that our three groups were the summit club for today. They almost caught us, but not quite. In the event, all 3 groups moved at much the same speed: fast.

The route then has fairly easy climbing towards the ridge line. It’s recently been completely recabled (this was in progress when we last climbed it 4 years ago), and the protection is now excellent, apart from one spot where the peg has come out! It’s at the end of a cable section (the new cabling seems to have frequent breaks, presumably to make overtaking easier), and we couldn’t find the hole it came out of. It must have been taken out in a rockfall. We climbed that bit unprotected: no big deal.

 

Two huge groups approach the base of the ferrata. That's why we start early: summit blockers!

Two huge groups approach the base of the ferrata. That’s why we start early: summit blockers! You might need to click to see the big image to see them.

The route continues to climb towards the ridge line. At about half an hour in, we noticed two massive groups approaching the ferrata from the rifugio. We never saw them again, and presumably they did the first section and then bailed. If we’d got stuck behind them we’d have been screwed.

The route continues to ascend, getting harder as it goes. At about 45-60 minutes in, after it’s taken you onto the western flank, you suddenly reach the crux section. The cable takes you to the ridge line, which at this point is a knife edge, and then forces you to thrust yourself out into space, which hauling upwards on it. At this point there is void on three sides, and a near vertical climb worthy of the Ski Club right in front of you. If the previous bit of exposure made you nervous, this will probably cause a panic attack! It’s possibly the most exposure I’ve encountered on a via ferrata. There’s … nothing, just void, in most directions, and it’s a long way down. I tried to capture this in a photograph but I just can’t do it justice. It’s basically the distilled essence of vertigo.

Sylvia on the steep crux section. This photograph does not do it justice. The exposure is hundreds of metres.

Sylvia on the steep crux section. This photograph does not do it justice. The exposure is hundreds of metres.

The climbing is hard for the next hundred metres or so, and continues to be extremely exposed. As we made our way up, it started to snow (just a few flakes, or as the Cambridge News would call it, “a whiteout blizzard that paralyses the city”). I imagine it was falling in Cortina, fully a mile below us, as rain.

We topped out the crux section, and several more ridge line difficult airy vertical climbs in the gentle snow, which left us on the western flank, near the top. As we approached the summit of Punta Anna (traversing an exposed-as-all-buggery ledge), we noticed the pair behind us had gained a bit of ground and were just coming off the ridge line.

This starts to give you an idea of the exposure, but still doesn't do justice to the sheer "fuck me, that's a long way down" nature of it.

This starts to give you an idea of the exposure, but still doesn’t do justice to the sheer “fuck me, that’s a long way down” nature of it.

The ground soon became much easier as Punta Anna flattened out and approached the point where it joins Tofana di Mezzo’s south face. We were on the western flank at this point, and the strata slopes down, so you have to keep stepping up or you’ll get led down the side of the mountain, possibly onto very dangerous ground. Eventually you come to a fork. This is escape point 1. Left goes down into the pass between Tofana di Mezzo and Tofana de Roses, right continues the ascent.

DSCF1440

Sylvia on the airy slab. That’s Punta Anna below, in the background. Anyone falling from here would fall for a long time.

A couple of minutes after this sees you start to climb rapidly on an airy (I’m using that word a lot) slab, onto the south face of Tofana di Mezzo itself. It’s steep, but the rock is glorious. It’s also at the point where the prevailing wind gets funnelled up the aforementioned pass and speeds up as it escapes out over the top. This lead to a shouted discussion between us about how strong the wind had to be to blow a climber off their feet and to their doom.

It was also bloody cold. We were approaching the freezing line, being well above 2800 metres by this point.

The slab gets steeper and steeper until it leads to a narrow precarious ledge, with a 500 metre drop to the side. In front of, and slightly below us was the bulk of Torre de Pomedes, coming in to meet the eastern flank of Tofana di Mezzo. Suddenly the ledge spread out at the meeting point on the shoulder of the mountain. The route forked again, with a steep path coming up from the scree slope behind Torre de Pomedes. This is the second escape route and realistically your last chance to leave if you don’t intend to summit. If you treat this as two via ferratas, this is the join.

The ridge just above the second escape point.

The ridge just above the second escape point.

We stopped and I ate some chocolate. We’d made it here in 2 hours, which was really stunningly good going. For now the route was a walk, turning left and heading straight up the sloping, scree covered east face of Tofana di Mezzo to a path along the ridge. Occasionally there were climbs to be made, but there is nothing like the technical difficulty of the Punta Anna stuff here. Ladders and stemples are provided while you get used to the altitude: you’re close to 3000 metres at this point.

The wind gap

The wind gap

The ridge becomes rocky and the path leaves it, descending slightly down the western flank along a surprisingly wide ledge (Tofana, you spoil us) as we approached the “Wind Gap”. The ridge line turns sharply here and becomes an east facing buttress. There is a gap of about 10-15 metres between that and a cliff face that leads up to the southern summit ridge of Tofana di Mezzo. There’s a scree deposition crossing it, with a narrow path on top and drop-offs to either side.

Oh yeah, and it’s unprotected. As if that wasn’t enough, on the other side we were faced with a sheer cliff which had about 20 metres of strenuous and difficult climbing. Suddenly the technical difficulty of earlier is back, with a vengeance, only this time there’s really not a lot of oxygen. Sylvia mocked me for making loud gurning noises as I hauled myself up, and then promptly did the same.

The next few things happen fast. Suddenly the ferrata forks. The left fork is a short out-and-back to the top of Torrione Gianni, a rock pinnacle with a nice view all around. If there are a lot of people on the ferrata, it’s worth doing this as there will be a queue in front of you for what comes next.

There wasn’t anyone else around, so we proceeded to what is, if not the route’s crux, its crowd pleaser. This is a traverse round Torrione Gianni on cable. There is a 200 metre (at least) sheer drop below you and your feet are on, at best, a ledge that is 10cm wide. In places it vanishes to nothing and you have to step on steel pegs sticking out of the rock. Last time we did this I saw it make grown men deeply frightened. See for yourself, I took video:

Please excuse my heavy breathing. The air is very thin up there and I had to work to get enough oxygen.

Immediately after the traverse, we crossed the top of a limestone arch. This is “the window” and the third and final  escape route. It leads down, through the arch, and then down a steep and unpleasant looking scree slope to the pass between Tofana di Mezzo and Tofana de Roses, far, far below. I wouldn’t want to use it.

From here, you can see the summit cable car station, deceptively close.

Sylvia, on the new cable section high on the western flank of Tofana di Mezzo.

Sylvia, on the new cable section high on the western flank of Tofana di Mezzo.

What happened next confused us. In 2013, when we last did this, the route pretty much stopped being a ferrata and turned into a scramble up a large bowl on Tofana’s east face, climbing up scree through old battered avalanche fences. This time, a painted arrow directed us round and down, just next to the window, onto the western flank.

The moment I started to descend I was hit fully in the face by a wind that was driving frozen rain and pelting me with it. This was unpleasant, but didn’t last long. The path led to a completely new section of ferrata with some fun climbing on the west flank. This is far better than the previous route, and makes my favourite ferrata even more rounded.

The limestone arch, modelled by a member of the Greek climbing team.

The limestone arch, modelled by a member of the Greek climbing team.

The top of this climb took us to a big limestone arch, with icicles hanging from its roof. It was here we caught up with the Greek climbing team, who were impressively far ahead when we started 4 hours previously.

Once through the arch and up a shiny new ladder, we rejoined the old route (we could see a bit of the old ferrata coming in from the left) which still has the last of the previous cabling. It’s in a bad way and I hope they replace it soon. It’s also not very long and leads to an unprotected scramble for the summit. This would be very easy were we not at 3200 metres and, in the thin air, finding it very hard work.

20 minutes or so scrambling and then we come up to a fence. This is the limit of the little walkabout area around the summit from the cable car station. We’d done it! We scrambled the last little bit to the summit cross, where the Greeks were kind enough to take our photo.

We made it! The summit cross is dedicated to those who last their lives in the 1st world war.

We made it! The summit cross is dedicated to those who last their lives in the 1st world war.

From the summit cross, it was a short walk down to the upper cable car station where, after walking past the bunk bed by the entrance and sniggering, beer was waiting.

The upper cable car station, and bar. This is where James Bond met his contact in "For Your Eyes Only"!

The upper cable car station, and bar. This is where James Bond met his contact in “For Your Eyes Only”!

We had ascended a thousand metres to 3244m above sea level: the third highest mountain in the Dolomites. It had taken us 4 hours and 40 minutes, beating the guidebook time by 50 minutes. Given that the guide book was written by two disturbingly fit German mountain guide hero types, and we’re a couple of bumbly middle aged women from the flatlands, we felt justifiably proud of that. We drank our beer and looked out at Cortina, over 2 vertical kilometres below us.

Beer duly drank and ferrata kits duly packed into our bags (this is one rifugio one can feel perfectly justified wandering into still kitted up), we bought tickets to descend 2 of the 3 cable lengths to Col Drusié, stepped into the Arrow In The Sky and started to descend. This afforded us a great view of the last bit of our route:

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If you look carefully, you can see some of the avalanche fences below the limestone arch.

The air got thicker and warmer very quickly. My ears popped every few seconds. Then we were approaching the intermediate station at Rifugio Ra Vales. The attendants quickly ushered us into the car for the central section of the Arrow In The Sky, and we continued our descent. A couple of minutes later we were at Col Drusié. Any further and we’d end up in Cortina. Instead we exited the station, walked a short distance down the road (it’s a ski piste in winter), and found ourselves at the chairlift where we’d bought one way tickets 7 hours earlier. The car was right where we left it.

Back to the hotel and straight into the sauna. We climbed an alp, a big one, and it was awesome!