Ascent of Man – Journey to the Iron Road

Trying to trace climbing back to its roots is somewhat subjective, and this first route certainly fits into that description, however it is also heralded as the birthplace of modern alpinism and arguably therefore rock climbing, as can you have one without the other?

The route in question is on a mountain in the Pre-Alp just outside Grenoble called Mont Aguille and was staggeringly first ascended in 1492, even more amazing when you see it in the flesh. This is no walk in the park or some minor sub peak like Napes Needle, this is a 300m or more high fortress of vertical rock thats leads to a slender summit plateaux. Many people now climb up and spend the night up there. Someone to get round the need to climb it once landed a light aircraft up there, which to be frank is even more unbelievable than it being climbed 500 years ago.

Its first ascent did not come about because the person doing the climbing wanted to climb it though. Instead that poor man Antoine De Ville was tasked with getting up it by King Charles VII. France had just bought the region and having seen the peak the King as part of a regal whim decided that someone should climb it forthwith. His servant Antoine was volunteered and no doubt assisted by other folk set about getting up this futuristic peak by hook or by crook.


Mont Auguille, one of the first technical mountains ascended in moderns times. It was the first to utilise fixed metal work and ladders out of necessity.

The metal work or at least the wrought iron staple bolts that are held in place by lead are still there and give helpful clues to what way the route goes. These did have cable leading between them although I suspect, much has been replaced, although clipping into some of it you wonder whether it has. On trickier sections he erected wooden scaffolding, this of course is long gone as are any obvious clues as to how it was attached. This allowed him to make a successful ascent in 1492.

If I am honest I see this as more a feat of engineering and arguably did little to spark alpine climbing into shape. The peak was not ascended again until the 1800s. I can’t see what the 300 year hiatus did for ascending mountains. Today it is climbable at about VDiff, it is long and complicated, yet you can appreciate what Antoine had to endure for the pleasure of the king or was it the fear of the guillotine? The real birth of alpinism arguably came much later and was still in France by the French, however that’s another story.

To me this ascent was the birth of the Via Ferrata, although if you look at the the mesa people of the four corners region of America and the some tribes in Mali you’d probably say that they too, ‘invented’ altering the rock to allow easier passage. Which is essentially what a via ferrata is, a manufactured way through the mountains that today utilises much ironmongery. So set out to find out about the history of the iron ways that are so popular in the continent yet I fear you’d get hung, drawn and quarter if you attempt to install one in the UK.

That journey lead me to Cinqo Torre, to an open air museum in the dolomites. The museum is there to show you what it was like to defend the border with Austria in the First World War. Each country had installed batteries of cannons along the ridge lines. This way they could pound the enemy into submission and defend the ground in between.

To get the men and equipment inlace the Italians built a network of cables, footways, tunnels, ladders and bridges in the mountains. Despite this and the Austrians, one office joked that the mountains were still more deadly than the Austrians! As a result of the exposure to the elements, avalanches and no don’t falling from height both sides lost many soldiers.

The front line where the Italian Via Feratta started from.

Whilst Cinqo Torre is more a fixed artillery barrage that was used to pound the enemy lines with ordinance and it does show how they started to modify the mountain to achieve this across the valley was the front line and here you can find sections of via ferrata that were part of the front line. So A few days later I head to Giovanni Lipella Via Ferrata. Here you explore the front line as you travel through the mountain.

The first section has a section of wooden stairs leading up into the mountain on the ‘lee’ side of the hill, away from enemy artillery. You climb the newer metal staircase to its side and disappear up into the mountain and through a network of tunnels that head upwards until you appear again at various places overlooking the ground they are defending. Essentially they used the via ferrata and tunnels to turn a mountain into a armoured fortress. Evidence can be seen all along ridge line look across to Austria.

These military installation then allowed a war machine to thrive in a hazardous and extreme environment have since been repurposed. As after the war ended these same ‘Iron Roads’ through the mountains became popular with mountaineers. Although it took until the 1950 and 60s until the popularity took off. The modern Via Ferrata in reality is miles away from the original military ones, with all sorts of wild and vertiginous features. However they did highlight how we can modify the mountains and in doing so make them slightly more accessible to none climbers. Whether that is good or bad, is of course open to you own interpretation of just what the mountains should be, but really don’t knock it to you try it.

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