If you enjoy hill-walking, scrambling or climbing you may not yet be familiar with the mountain experience known as a Via Ferrata (or Iron Path) although they can be found in most areas of the world. They originated in Italy at the start of the 20th century to facilitate troop movements across the mountains. There are now many ‘iron rope routes’ throughout the Alps, Austria has over 550 of them, Italy has 400, France 200, Switzerland 150, Germany 180. They are also found outside of the Alps for example, there are 50 in Spain, China has 20, the USA 20 and Canada 10. Many are free and maintained by the local community, others are privately owned. If you have a proficient climbing ability, these allow you access to the most amazing mountains that are normally only visited by experienced mountaineers.
You use fixed cables to secure yourself during your climb and you can also use the cable to assist your climbing. There are also other climbing aids such as iron rungs, pegs and sometimes ladders. Generally, the older more classic Dolomite routes, follow a similar ethic of keeping climbing aids to a minimum and do not usually peak out at a summit. More modern routes do not always follow this ethic and tend to be more ‘sportif’, at lower altitudes often following valleys in scenic areas. They also often include zip wires, wire bridges and other challenges. Routes vary greatly in difficulty and length. They can range from just 1 to 2 hours to complete both the ascent and descent to some which are multi-day commitments involving the need stays in mountain refuges en-route.
Ten years ago, on a trip to Italy with my daughter in 2007, we decided to join a group of climbers to try our first Via Ferrata. We arrived early in the morning at the bureau of guides in Selva-Wolkenstein and were provided with our Via Ferrata equipment and given a safety demonstration. We drove up over the Gardina Pass and parked a short drive on the other side of the pass. Climbing the Pisciadu or Via Ferrata Brigata Tridentina would be the start of a love of these mountain routes. The route is a classic alpine route with a rating of D on the Hofler/Werner scale (A to G). It ascends 720 metres and takes a few hours of serious climbing requiring good fitness. Needless to say we were immediately hooked. That summer we took the whole family to the French Alps and started exploring ferratas on our own and I have gone on to climb many more across Europe.
Grading Systems For Via Ferratas
There are a number of different grading conventions that have been used in different guidebooks. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the grading system for each guidebook that you use and know your own level of competence. Here is a summary of the grading systems I have come across:
- Smith and Fletcher (Via Ferratas of the Italian Dolomites); two
–part scale, the first number indicates technical difficulty on a scale of 1-5. The second letter indicates the seriousness or alpine commitment A-C. 1A would be a walk in comparison, whilst 5C would include hard rock climbing and be exposed, remote and sometimes unprotected.
- Kurt Schall (Klettersteig Atlas); A-F scales From A -path with climbing aids to E -extremely difficult and likely vertical or overhanging with no climbing aids other than the cable. F grade has recently been introduced.
- Hofler /Werner (Via Ferrata Scrambles in the Dolomites); A-G scales ranging from A -footsore mountain walkers, C -sure rootedness and freedom from vertigo necessary, E -additional mountain experience and climbing ability necessary, G -perfect climbing technique on vertical rock required.
Where to start?
You may want to hire a guide or join a guided climb for your first route. This will be your easiest introduction to Via Ferratas as you will have safety equipment provided and you will receive safety and technique training. This is especially advisable if you are unsure of your climbing ability and or your comfort with vertical exposure.
Alternatively you can look for a low graded Via Ferrata to test your abilities and safety technique. You will find plenty of opportunities to hire equipment nearby and some Via Ferratas (e.g. in France) have equipment hire at the base of the climb.
Either way, don’t overstretch yourself. You need to consider a). Your climbing ability and experience b). Your general fitness for the climb and the descent c). Your head for heights and comfort to exposure d). Your general mountain awareness, navigation and experience. It is always best to start small and then move on to greater adventures within your competence.
Once you have started and tried your first Via Ferrata, you will quickly become addicted to the challenge and experience these routes offer.
What will you need?
It is important that you use the correct safety equipment for via ferratas.
- Harness: A standard climbing sit-harness.
- Lanyard: Using standard slings and carabiners is not advisable and can cause serious injury. Via Ferrata sets have built-in shock absorbers that will absorb the energy from a fall caught by the end of the iron rope section. These sets consist of a Y shape harness that attaches to your harness and you should ensure that you use UIAA approved gear. Note that since 2012 the older ‘threaded rope energy absorber’ type are largely withdrawn. The ‘progressive tear’ systems are now the safety standard. Carabiners are normally those with a larger than usual opening with a sprung locking mechanism for easy opening/closing as you are going to be doing lots of clipping and unclipping. These are marked with a K in a circle.
- Helmet: A climbing helmet is recommended and remember you may be on routes with loose rocks.
- Tough gloves are needed as you are constantly gripping to steel cables and equipment which can often have sharp edges.
- Extras: Slings and a short length of rope can be advisable in helping the less experienced. Also plan to take other mountain equipment for the weather conditions you may encounter, particularly on your descent route that may involve ice, snow and darkness.
- Boots: I have found that ankle supporting hiking boots are better for support on longer routes and particularly important for the descent route.
BE CAREFUL – Prepare and plan with the right knowledge and equipment and you will have a great experience.
Let me know what you end up getting up to and share your adventures and your advice, most of all ENJOY the Via Ferratas as I do!