What is it?
The first Via Ferrata routes were set up in the Dolomites during the First World War so that troops could be moved across steep mountainous terrain. To make this possible, metal pegs and cables were set up along the side of each route, hence the name Via Ferrata. For those who aren’t up on their Latinate languages, that means Iron Way.
Where do I go?
The Dolomites still play host to the widest network of Via Ferrata routes, with stunning scenery – the good grace of the weather gods depending – and plenty of mountain huts as part of the package. A clear day out in the Dolomites is the Via Ferrata equivalent of Lindt dark chocolate – assuming you like dark chocolate, of course.
Italy isn’t the only possible destination though. Spain, France and many other European countries also have Via Ferrata offerings, with a few more across the big water. And if you don’t want to go that far, we even have our own home-grown Via Ferrata in the Lake District, at the truly Alpine location of Honister Mines. What more could one want?
The grading system
If you haven’t graduated to the status of a stone monkey yet, or indeed you don’t have any desire to do so, you’ll be pleased to know that Via Ferrata routes have plenty of appeal across the spectrum, from weekend walkers to hardened rock addicts.
Grading systems vary between countries but the one most commonly used over here works on a scale of one to five. Grade one is closest to a normal mountain trek but with cables along sections of the route, which you might be able to do without if you have a good head for heights. Climbing experience isn’t necessary.
At the other end of the spectrum – grades 4 and 5 – you find yourself on steep, technical and exposed rock which is perfect for those with a bit of experience under their belts, but not what you want if you’re a Via Ferrata virgin.
As well as the difficulty, it’s worth considering how easy it is to back out of a route half way up if you decide you’re drowning rather than waving, before you embark on the venture.
Some Via Ferrata gear is specific to the sport. Other bits of kit can come out of the cupboard where you keep your walking and climbing gear…
Starting with the non-specialist gear, helmets are a must on Via Ferrata routes so if you’re contemplating jumping on a flight to Venice without one, think again. The rock can be loose in places and although you’re unlikely to get caught in a significant rock fall, it’s well worth protecting yourself even from small shrapnel.
Footwear can range from normal walking shoes or hiking boots through to specialist Via Ferrata boots, although most people are comfortable enough in the former. So long as you have a pair of boots with reasonably stiff soles, to support your feet on smallish holds, there’s no need to fork out for anything new.
If you have a pair of grippy finger-less gloves, these could come in handy. Cycling gloves will do the job, or you can buy special Via Ferrata versions. They aren’t so much a matter of keeping your hands warm, although that can be a factor if you’re on a north-facing route where the sun hasn’t got its teeth into the cold metal cables yet. The rest of the time, it’s more that they protect your skin from sharp rock and any frayed bits of wire.
Now it’s time to look at protection in the case of a fall…
There are no prizes for guessing that a harness, karabiners and a rope – albeit a very short one – form part of the safety packet. An ordinary climbing harness will do the job fine, but if you’re worried that the weight of your rucksack might turn you upside down then you can also back this up with a chest harness. To get hold of the full works from scratch, there are full body harnesses on the market.
To connect this to the cables you need a Kinetic impact Shock Absorber (KISA) which is the only piece of really specialist gear you’re likely to have to fork out for. There are different styles but the basic principle is that when you fall, there’s some spare rope ready to pass into the system so that it can extend – and absorb the shock – before abruptly halting your descent under the laws of gravity.
Most KISAs come complete with karabiners but if yours doesn’t, you’ll need a screwgate karabiner to clip it to your waist belt and two self-locking karabiners to clip onto the cables. Large, D-shaped ones are your best bet as they are big enough to pass over joins in the cables.
Learning to climb Via Ferrata is much easier than learning trad, or even sport, climbing.
The mid-point of your KISA needs to be attached to your harness with a locking karabiner. The other two ends can be clipped alternately to the cables in the rock.
Once you’re ready to go, here are a few tips:
- As you move upwards, every five or so metres you’ll need to move from one cable to the next. Make sure you always attach yourself to the new cable before releasing from the old, so there’s always at least one point of attachment. Easy as pie – apple-flavoured, preferably.
- If you’re climbing as a group, try not to have more than one person on each section of cable at once. If you do, and the person higher up the route falls, they could knock the climber below them off their feet as well.
- Your safety gear is only as good as the cables it’s attached to. While most routes we’ve visited in the Dolomites so far have been well-maintained with film and trustworthy cables, there are a few exceptions. Rusty pegs don’t point the way to a long and happy mountain climbing career.
Gear manufacturers and guide books
- Cicerone publish two excellent guides to Via Ferrata routes in the Dolomites
- Lowe Alpine make Via Ferrata gear including specialist gloves and boots.
- Petzl make KISAs as well as the usual helmets, harnesses etc.
That’s far from an exhaustive list though, so keep your eye on the net, your local climbing shop, and of course the OM forum for tips and advice.
Why, why, why?
Answers to this question range from the aesthetic – because it’s beautiful – to the pragmatic – because it’s there – but we reckon the photos of Via Ferrata routes in the OM gallery are answer enough.
Take a peep at the Via Ferrata album or Via Ferrata Tridentina by Matt C or even Via Ferrata de la Croix des Verdons by Cath Sullivan – or browse the OM gallery for more.