Via ferratas in Québec: safety is everything
The Province of Quebec is three times the size of France, with a population of just 8 million people. Most of the vertical terrain there is located on the eastern side of the province, with mountains that rise up to 1300 meters elevation. The incredible natural landscape, with lakes and rivers scattered in every direction, appeal to the sense of adventure of outdoor sports enthusiasts from all over. This a vast and remote wilderness makes the area truly unique for those who work in a vertical environment. During the summer of 2016, to better understand this specificity, we traveled to Quebec to meet with guide-rescue professionals who specialize in via ferratas.
January 25 2017
Via ferrata management
Via ferratas in Quebec are owned by private entities or national parks. Their development, oversight, and use are subject to specific regulations.
Each via ferrata we visited requires "Quality Safety" accreditation, a system established by "Aventure Ecotourisme Québec" in 2005. This accreditation process leaves nothing to chance. All details are carefully reviewed, from writing the emergency and rescue plan to training guide-rescuers and team leaders, as well as a full risk analysis. If any component appears even slightly out of order, the company can lose its accreditation and have any via ferrata projects immediately put on hold.
To ensure maximum safety, all personal safety equipment is provided to participants. They are then required to climb with a certified guide, who is also in charge of inspecting the gear.
Quebec's tourism professionals, members of "Aventure Ecotourisme Québec," accept the rules established by "Quality Safety" certification. Whether company owners, national park personnel, or other activity leaders in the field in direct contact with guests, they all take risk management seriously. It is a top priority. For this reason, nothing is left to chance.
The first via ferrata specific guide certificate was developed in 2009 and is administered by the FQME (Quebec Federation for Mountaineering and Climbing). As a prerequisite:
- all applicants must have at least one full season of experience climbing outdoors on real rock,
- all applicants must demonstrate proficiency in techniques essential to working in a vertical environment, such as rappelling and setting up an anchor.
This training program focuses on acquiring the necessary technical and mental skills to guide clients. Instruction covers equipment use, which falls somewhere between sport climbing and rope access work (I’D, PROTRAXION capture pulley, JAG SYSTEM, ROLL MODULE), including raising techniques. The program also ensures that guides know how to verify and manage daily inspection of Personal Protective Equipment using a dedicated information system.
Additional instruction is provided by the company "Parcours Aventures." Skills learned include rescue at height for via ferratas and zip lines. The prerequisite is to have already worked one full season as a guide. Training modules cover techniques for rescues from below, from above, for zip lines, and for moving the victim horizontally. The objective when adding these skills is to build a two-person team consisting of a lead and assistant guide.
In addition, the same company organizes training for its own guides and requires them to conduct exercises once per month to maintain their skills, as well as keeping a log of rope maneuvers they practice on their own.
Since there are no specialized military or police search and rescue groups like in Europe, rescues are handled by guides on site trained in rescue procedures.
Every via ferrata with "Aventure Ecotourisme Québec" certification has an emergency and rescue plan. This document details each via ferrata, the intervention areas, and identifies emergency gear cahand contents. It provides diagrams for evacuations to the ground, emergency access and evacuation trails, and meeting points with emergency services, which transport the victim by ambulance or helicopter. This plan also defines the type of equipment to use and how to use it depending on the site, the gear in place, and the seriousness of the situation. The goal is to use equipment that saves time and helps to avoid mistakes. The requisite gear must be compatible with gear already in place. All guides know exactly where each cache is located and its contents, from rope to NEST rescue litter, as well as each pulley.
Jacques Hébert, the experience of a pioneer
Jacques Hébert was born in 1964 in Chicoutimi, near the family cabin, in the middle of the wilderness, not too far from Saguenay Fjord and Lake Saint-Jean. He spent his youth fishing, hunting, and camping in the great outdoors. Without surprise, he earned his bachelor's degree in outdoor recreation at the Univeristy of Quebec in Chicoutimi and became an expert in kayaking, rock climbing, ice climbing, sailing, and many other sports. He also holds a master's degree in Project Management. One day, this visionary manager saw and understood the enormous potential for via ferratas.
"While Canada possesses a genuine culture of outdoors people and campers, we do not have an alpine and mountain culture like in Europe. Via ferratas prove to be the Quebecker solution to safely bringing a large number of people into the vertical world. Robert Berger, the co-founder of Prisme (Savoie, France), and I think that learning to climb a via ferrata takes less effort but allows, as you gain height, to explore the forest, lakes, and rivers in a different manner, and has the potential to serve as the gateway to rock climbing for avid hikers."
Founded in 1994, "Parcours Aventures" was purchased in 2006 by Jacques Hébert. To develop his business, he embarked on a long process upstream, working with the FQME, SEPAQ (Quebec's National Park Service), other private partners, and local townships to review the project and conduct a feasibility analysis.
Operating a company in vertical recreation requires stringent safety standards and a certified program.
"At the start, we had created a succinct plan to address the safety issue: what do we do if there is a problem? Saguenay Fjord is located right beneath one via ferrata. We had to find a viable evacuation solution to be able to open this via ferrata to the public. We did this by establishing a training and prevention protocol: placing rescue equipment caches in the field, via ferrata guides on site who are trained to work as a team, etc. In addition, before heading to one of the via ferratas, all guests go through a brief training session that includes all safety guidelines. We have an obligation to be exemplary for our guests since they place their complete trust in us!"
Photos of rescue training on Montmorency Falls via ferrata, just a short distance from Quebec City
Montmorency Falls with the via ferrata on the right
An important document, the emergency plan
From left to right: rescue preparations/departure
Arriving on site
Descending to the injured victim
Lowering victim to the ground
Rescue equipment cache near the via ferrata
A successful training exercise